Mental toughness is not cold, ruthless, cynical, mean-spirited, or self-centered. It is a positive, unselfish perspective that empowers you to make the most out of the opportunities with which you have been blessed. It helps you to get more out of life by embracing its ups and downs more productively.
Mental toughness is a mindset, a way of thinking. It is not something we are born with. It is something we develop willfully. Anyone can develop mental toughness, just as surely as they can develop physical strength, but they have to be intentional about it. This chapter will explain how to develop a mentally tough mindset.
Choosing a Mindset of Mental Toughness
“Take every thought captive.” Those 4 words come out of a Bible verse (2 Corinthians 10:5), and although I have taken them out of a larger context here, I believe they provide a great way to express the idea of taking control of our thoughts before our thoughts take control of us. Sometimes we treat our thoughts as though they are something that just happens, and there is nothing we can do to stop them or control them.
A mindset of mental toughness includes a decision to take control of our thoughts before they turn on us. Mental toughness includes a conscious decision to turn our thoughts into allies instead of enemies. Do I take charge of my thoughts, or do my thoughts take charge of me? They are my thoughts, after all – my thoughts to manage as I choose. Sometimes a thought sneaks into my mind before I can stop it. But once it is there, it’s still mine to control – to manage – to own – to take responsibility for. I must choose to take it captive before it takes me captive. I must choose to use the thought to my advantage before it does me harm.
An example of this would be my decision of how to think about things I cannot control. When I choose to fixate on things I cannot control, it can stir up all kinds of anxieties: fear, resentment, helplessness, self-doubt, anger, and self-pity are a few possibilities.
One of the defining qualities of mental toughness is the ability to take your focus off of things you cannot control – to disengage from them – in order to focus more productively on things you can control. It is more than just letting go of what you cannot control. It is gathering up all of the time, thought, and energy (physical, mental and emotional) that you would otherwise squander on things you cannot control, and willfully rechanneling these resources toward the things you can control.
This is not just a philosophy. It is a life-changing reallocation of precious resources. Many people are unable to fulfill their potential because their energy is drained on things beyond their control. The willful decision to harness and redirect their thoughts to things they can control increases their energy, clarity, and intensity for the task at hand.
Perseverance in Adversity
We develop mental toughness one step at a time, often in defining moments. We need to be alert to their arrival, and make the most of them when we have them.
Embracing adversity and persevering through it builds your mental toughness. See it as a defining moment, and cherish the growth in your mental toughness as it happens. Never lose sight of the positive value of adversity. As miserable as it may be while you are enduring it, if you embrace it as a gift, an opportunity, a step along the path to future success, you will increase your mental toughness. In your mind, step outside of your difficult situation in order to see that it is temporary, and that it is an opportunity to develop your mental and emotional stamina so that future challenges will be easier. Adversity is the time when new strengths develop. Since everyone experiences it, adversity is often one of the ways we gain our edge.
When you are faced with adversity, begin by envisioning the end of it, with you triumphant. Envision the payoff in whatever form it may take, even if it is only building your mental toughness for the next challenge that pushes you out of your comfort zone. But often the payoff is far greater, especially for your reputation, and perhaps in material ways as well. Every struggle we overcome increases the value of what we can offer.
When we suffer a setback, disappointment or humiliation, we are faced with a choice of two ways to interpret it. We can interpret the poor outcome as the end of the story, or we can interpret it as a work in progress. Very few setbacks are truly the end of the story. Even if they are the end of one story, they are the beginning of another. Most setbacks are just one part – and often a valuable part – of a larger work in progress.
People who are mentally tough understand that when you’ve been knocked down, the faster you get back up, the more confident you will be. The more you persevere, the stronger you will become.
Don’t become consumed by the unfairness of the adversity. That is one way you can lose your edge. While some of us are being dragged down by our jealousy of others’ good fortune, others claim the victory by creating good fortune of their own.
Perseverance requires a “What will it take?” mentality – a single-minded focus on achieving an objective – an unshakable, unstoppable sense of purpose – a fierce determination not to give up when others would – a willingness to sacrifice when others won’t, even for the well-being of others. A “What will it take?” mentality is a “no excuses” mentality, which makes perseverance one of the highest forms of mental toughness. We grow in the mental toughness that empowers us to go from asking, “Will this work?” to asking, “What will it take for this to work?”
Mental Toughness and Self-Interest
Mental toughness has been mistakenly associated with putting ourselves first. The opposite is true. Selfishness is innately fear-driven. The desire to put our needs above the needs of others is sometimes called common sense, or practical, or necessary. But it is a desire driven by fear. True common sense is looking for win-win solutions.
We are stronger when we put the well-being of others above our own, and weaker when put our own well-being above others. We may not fully appreciate that truth until we reflect back on both and compare their impact on us. Putting the well-being of others above our own takes courage, but it also increases our courage. Putting ourselves first reduces our courage.
Taking self-interest out of play in order to encourage others enables us to give and gain courage at the same time. It increases our own confidence and self-image. Others respect us more and have more confidence in us than they have for those who are motivated by self-interest. We feel stronger, and we are perceived as stronger. When our need to focus on self-interest shrinks, our mental toughness grows.
People who put self-interest first feel weaker in the face of criticism. They are more likely to be derailed by offenses or grievances. They take things more personally than they need to. And no good comes from it.
Mental toughness includes the ability to step outside of ourselves to look at the bigger picture. Why did that person criticize me? Maybe there is something I can do better, which would make me feel better about myself and also reduce criticism in the future. Or maybe the criticism is not about me at all. Maybe it is actually about them – their baggage or misplaced resentment – so I don’t need to take the criticism personally. I don’t need to dwell on it. I can let it go. The only way I can discern is to step outside myself and consider all parties objectively – thinking in terms of the well-being of everyone impartially.
Suppose I’ve taken offense at being given a tougher situation or less credit than I feel I deserve. I feel unappreciated and disrespected. Stepping outside of myself and focusing on the bigger picture, including the well-being of others, will help me see the situation more clearly. Maybe I was favored last time. Maybe someone else has made more sacrifices. Or maybe it’s my turn to step up to the plate.
If I take self-interest out play and see the bigger picture beyond myself, it may give me a better perspective that takes replaces discouragement with courage. Or, if it simply makes me more determined to take action to make things right, I have more courage to do it. It makes me more confident in asking myself the question, “If my self-interest were not a factor, then what would I believe is the right thing to do?” And it makes me more courageous in my answer. Understanding the interests of other people as well as my own, and the bigger picture of how it all needs to fit together in order to work, makes me more courageous in living out my beliefs of what is right. That’s mental toughness.
Now let’s look at a few other dimensions of mental toughness.
Mental toughness does not mean that you cannot enjoy life, or that you can’t stop and smell the roses along the way. Mental toughness is not the same as constant intensity. Joy and relaxation are essential ingredients in mental toughness. People who are mentally tough have the confidence to balance relaxation and intensity. They are able to hold on when they need to, and also to let go when they need to.
But relaxation is about much more than simply rest and recreation. And intensity is not the same as tension. In fact, they can be opposites. A relaxed mind performs more effectively than a tense mind. Relaxation can increase intensity while it decreases tension. We can focus more intently and more clearly when we are relaxed. All other things being equal, a relaxed mind will score higher on a test than a tense mind.
Just as a relaxed mind performs more effectively than a tense mind, a relaxed muscle also performs more effectively than a tense muscle.
Our body works in tandem with our mind when we are in this sublime state of relaxed focus. We see this in sports when we say an athlete is in the zone. The zone is an example of a state of relaxed focus. If you are an athlete who is in the zone, you have disengaged your mind from the stress of focusing on results in order to immerse yourself more fully into the joy of the process. You will get a better result than when you focus on the result itself.
This is the kind of mental discipline that builds mental toughness. You can give yourself courage by being more intentional about staying in a state of relaxed focus, and you can give courage to others by helping them to do the same. Relaxed focus is a very high state of performance, and also a very high state of enjoyment.
Another mental discipline that contributes to mental toughness is compartmentalization. When we have a lot on our mind, or a lot going on for which we must take responsibility, our mind can get cluttered and we can feel weakened or discouraged. Then we get caught up in how much it is, how hard it is, and then we feel even worse, especially when all of this is happening in the midst of a difficult adversity. If only we could separate it all out in our mind so we only have to think about one thing at a time. If only we could create a compartment in our mind for the adversity that keeps it from spoiling everything else. In fact, wouldn’t it be great to have a separate compartment for everything?
Managing distractions and maintaining focus when our circumstances seem overwhelming is an important part of mental toughness. Here is an example of compartmentalization.
Imagine that your mind is made up of a series of cylinders that you can slide in and out of your mind at will. Each cylinder contains a different issue, and you have control over opening and closing those cylinders. All of the cylinders remain shut except the one you choose to open. Each time you open a cylinder, you deal with that issue the best way you can in the time available. Then you put that issue back into its cylinder and open another one. You never open more than one cylinder at a time, so no situation can ever spill over into the other cylinders. The key to this process is realizing that you control the cylinders.
Integrity can be an energizing and strengthening force behind mental toughness. Mental toughness in its highest form includes maintaining your integrity and defending your principles, no matter how hard it may seem or how much it may cost. You are serving a purpose greater than yourself. Integrity often requires sacrifice. Sometimes you must even take self-interest entirely out of the equation in order to do what you believe is right.
Mental toughness is believing that if you defend a valuable principle, even at your own risk, you will grow stronger, and so will your reputation. Mental toughness also includes the belief that if you follow this path, the right payoff will come in its time. It is the belief that the price you pay for not making a sacrifice and losing your integrity is greater than the price of making the sacrifice. Mental toughness is not about instant gratification. It is the belief that a long-term commitment to integrity will work out better in the long run, for yourself and for the people who depend on you.
Mental toughness involves a commitment to defend your standards and maintain dignity in all situations. You will stand taller and be more fearless when you trust that high standards will prevail. This attitude inspires you with confidence and energy that transmits to others.
You need to embrace integrity in your own heart before you can inspire it in others. You can’t just preach it. You have to model it. With mental toughness you are giving courage to others by teaching them a new, intentional, disciplined way of thinking that will make them stronger. They can only embrace this new way of thinking if they see and understand how it works for you. They need to see how you gain courage of your own by:
- Taking your focus off of things you cannot control in order to redirect that focus more productively toward things you can control.
- Getting back up quickly after you’ve been knocked down.
- Relaxing yourself under pressure in order to focus more productively.
- Managing your thoughts and emotions more effectively by compartmentalizing.
- Embracing adversity and persevering through it with a “What will it take?” mentality by believing that you will be better off when it’s over than you were before it began.
- Maintaining your integrity each step of the way.
Developing, modeling and teaching mental toughness is a magnificent way to receive the courage that is already in you by intentionally and willfully living out this way of thinking that is available to everyone, and then to give that courage to others through the unique inspiration of mental toughness.
Mental toughness is a vital source of courage. It is a quality that anyone can develop, and it is important that we encourage that quality in ourselves and others – not just the people we lead, but also the people we report to.
The purpose of this chapter has been to identify some starting points for increasing mental toughness, and then to encourage ourselves and others to build our courage, and then to use that courage to further build our mental toughness.
Courage and mental toughness are qualities that strengthen each other. The paths we explored for empowering courage and mental toughness to strengthen each other included:
- Being intentional about developing a mindset of mental toughness.
- Building a mindset of mental toughness during times of adversity, and using mental toughness to maximize the opportunities that adversity provides.
- Developing mental toughness by releasing ourselves from the prison of self-interest, and using mental toughness to think beyond ourselves in order to encourage others.
- Using relaxed focus to develop our mental toughness and courage together.
- Using compartmentalization to develop our mental toughness and courage together.
- Using integrity to develop our mental toughness and courage together.
- Using the qualities listed here to encourage others once we have established the credibility of being known for living out those qualities ourselves.