The British have a nice idiom: “the stiff upper lip.” Some take this to mean “resoluteness,” while others “persistence.” A third group prefers words such as “tenacity,” “resilience” and even “grit.” Parents might be more inclined to talk about “discipline,” professors about “Victorian fortitude,” and philosophers about “stoicism.” Noted productivity expert Damon Zahariades says that most of these traits can be grouped under one seemingly banal umbrella term – “mental toughness” – and summed up in one short definition: “our durability in the face of adversity.”
The goal of Zahariades’ 2020 bestseller “The Mental Toughness Handbook” is to show you how you can build resilience of a kind that might help you “overcome any obstacle, setback, or misfortune life throws at you.” Mental toughness, he says, is about much more than optimistic platitudes and positive self-talk – it’s also about a lot of effort and hard work. So, get ready for a few programs and step-by-step guides for toughening your mind!
The benefits of mental toughness
Mental toughness isn’t an inclination such as, say, grit, but a state of mind such as, for example, stoicism. In other words, it is not something you do, but something you have. Moreover, it’s also something you have to earn through passion and perseverance. That’s why, though not synonymous with mental toughness, grit is an important part of it, and a crucial ingredient in developing resiliency. The only way to achieve this is through hard work and patience; the only reason to put yourself through such an experience is the expectation that it will inevitably and noticeably improve your life. To that end, before we move on to explaining the “how” of becoming mentally tough, let’s go over the “why” and quickly examine a few ways that toughening your mind against adversity will benefit you for years to come:
- Resistance to negative emotions. Emotions, says Zahariades, are a double-edged sword: when positive, they propel us forward, but when negative, they prompt us to make terrible decisions. The only way to stay in touch with all of your emotions without allowing them to have a negative impact on you is through regulation. That’s what mental toughness is all about.
- Improved performance. Success depends a lot on how you react when things go awry. Mental toughness prepares you precisely for moments such as these, allowing you to approach all obstacles “with grace and self-confidence.”
- Confidence that circumstances will improve. “When you’re going through hell,” Winston Churchill said once, “keep going.” The point: circumstances always change, but usually they do as a result of our actions, and not by themselves. Only when you’re mentally tough, you’re actually able to do things – even when life stops you in your tracks.
- Less susceptibility to self-doubt. Self-doubt affects us all. However, it doesn’t affect everyone’s performance in the same way. Some people, simply put, are more confident than others. Think clutch shooters in basketball: someone has to take that last shot, and it’s better if that someone trusts his skills at that crucial moment. Now, don’t be fooled: mental toughness doesn’t eliminate self-doubt; however, it prevents it from sabotaging your skills when it matters the most.
- Ability to learn from failure. Most people go to great lengths to avoid failure. Mentally strong people, however, accept that failure is “a potential outcome of any endeavor.” Consequently, they are better prepared when it inevitably occurs. This attitude allows them to learn from their mistakes: when you see failure as a part of the process (rather than its unbecoming end), you can also see it as “a chance to take corrective action for improved performance in the future.”
- Ability to delay gratification. To delay gratification means to resist enjoying something you crave in the present in order to get something you crave even more in the future. And only mentally tough people can do this – rise above their instincts and impulses.
The seven traits of mentally tough people
But what is it exactly that separates mentally tough people from the rest of us? Put otherwise, what are the crucial components of mental toughness? In the opinion of Zahariades, there are seven such attributes. Here they are:
- Ability to disentangle themselves from things they can’t influence. The Stoics believed that there are two things we must do to avoid frustration and disappointment in life. First, we must take full control of those things that are within our power and second, we must learn how to be indifferent to the things we cannot control. Most people are unable to make this distinction, so they spend countless hours reading articles on other people’s opinions on subjects such as politics, global warming, or human trafficking. It’s not that these major issues shouldn’t concern you. It’s just that you need to differentiate between what you can do, with your limited time and resources. Mentally tough people do just that.
- Flexibility in handling unanticipated events. If you are like most people, life happens to you while you’re busy making plans, coming in the form of curve balls and other unexpected developments. Mentally tough people are aware that adapting is just as important as making plans. So, rather than training themselves to be perfect organizers, they train themselves to be mentally flexible.
- Strong self-awareness. Self-awareness, in Zahariades’ definition, is “the recognition of your emotional state, the motives driving your decisions and actions, and the influence of your personality and temperament.” So, “be self-aware” is just another way of saying “know thyself.” Mentally tough people know themselves better than others: they purposefully investigate their psyches and develop compensatory strategies for their weaknesses. In fact, that’s precisely how they deal with adversity!
- Willingness to face uncertain circumstances. “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” said Helmuth von Moltke, the Elder, Chief of Staff of the Prussian army two centuries ago. That’s pretty much how mentally tough people think. They are not only able to adapt to unexpected events, they also invite them into their lives. For that’s the best way to learn and progress.
- Ability to bounce back from disappointments. Disappointments can steer people away from risks. Not the mentally tough, though: they believe that disappointments are the end product of tactics that don’t work. This perspective allows them to bounce back as soon as they fail.
- Emotional mastery. The emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) of mentally tough people is higher than that of most of their peers. Meaning, they are able to experience any kind of an emotion without being severely affected by it. The Ancient Greeks called this “the middle road.” We call it “balance.”
- Practical optimism. Unfortunately, our world wasn’t designed by Disney, but by randomness and coincidence. Yet, it’s still a nice enough world, one that we’ve improved a lot over time. And we can even more. This type of “cautious optimism” is the trademark of mentally tough people. It’s what allows them to see opportunities where others see only hopelessness.
A 10-step training program for toughening your mind: the first five steps
“It’s one thing to talk (or read) about developing mental toughness,” writes Zahariades near the end of his book. “It’s another thing to actually do it.” And that’s why most of us are here, aren’t we? By Zahariades’ admission, the following “simple, quick-start action plan” is not “a complete, encyclopedic initiative on toughening your mind,” but it is a great place to start. Let’s go over each of its 10 steps, starting with the first five!
- Contemplate how you can apply mental toughness in your life. The less abstract something sounds, the more achievable it becomes. Consequently, your first order of business is to start thinking about mental toughness as something with practical value. So, translate the concept into real-life terms, such as the “thing” that will help you resist junk food, exercise daily or write 1000 words every single day.
- Segment your goals. When you’re running a marathon, it’s a bad idea to focus on the finish line from the start, because it’s very far away. Instead, you should focus on the next milestone. So, start breaking your goals into easily manageable, single-day micro steps. Focus on the small wins – while visualizing the desired outcome.
- Reframe difficult situations as opportunities for improvement. Whatever you do in your life, you’ll face obstacles and challenging situations along the road. If you think of them as hardships, you’ll end up being their powerless victim. However, if you perceive them as learning opportunities, you’ll learn to cherish them. A simple shift in mindset makes the difference between despair and inspiration.
- Practice controlling negative emotions. The best way to manage your emotions is by subjecting them to rational analysis as often as possible. So, whenever you’re feeling angry, sad, or worried, try asking yourself whether your feelings are aligned with logic and reason. In time, you’ll learn to control their impact. Remember: controlling emotions is not the same as suppressing them.
- Visualize your performance. Because of the way it’s built, as sports psychologist Jim Afremow explains, “The brain does not always differentiate between real and vividly imagined experiences.” In other words, visualization can actually improve your chances of success.
A 10-step training program for toughening your mind: the other five steps
The first five steps of Zahariades’ 10-step mental toughness program should prepare you for the long, hard work that the other five steps involve. All of them might sound deceptively simple at first, but be warned that none of them will ever work unless you turn them into habits. In fact, that’s one of the steps. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s pick up where we left off, at number six.
- Manage your inner critic. Too often in life, we are our own worst enemies. We’re designed to be: our inner critic was trained by evolution to assume the worst in every situation so as to prepare us better for risks. However, that usually affects our confidence and willingness to take risks. Practice positive self-talk to first calm your inner critic and, in time, leave him without an audience.
- Get rid of “emotional icebergs.” Emotional icebergs are “personal beliefs regarding how we see ourselves, how we think others should act around us, and our place in the world.” Some of the most common emotional icebergs are: “Life should be fair,” “Everything I do should be perfect,” and, “If I fail, it’s because I'm a failure.” All of these are unhealthy because they do not reflect reality. So, challenge them – and challenge them consistently. That’s the only way to gradually melt them.
- Practice recovering after setbacks and failures. “The key to quickly recovering from failure is twofold,” says Zahariades. “First, we need to immediately confront and dispute our negative thoughts regarding it. Second, we need to reengage the part of our mind that recognizes our abilities, creativity, and self-worth.” The more you practice doing this, the easier the process will become. One day, you’ll be dusting yourself off and getting back in the saddle almost as if by instinct.
- Build habits that encourage discipline and grit. Willpower and motivation are unreliable resources if you’re in something for the long haul. Discipline is a much healthier strategy, even better when combined with grit. Because, as James Clear writes in “Atomic Habits,” we do not rise to the level of our goals, but we fall to the level of our systems. When you have the right habits, it’s much easier to persevere in the face of complications.
- Celebrate the small victories. There’s a built-in reward system inside your brain. Meaning, your brain is absolutely uninterested in doing something unless it gets something in return. When you delay the gratification too long, you’re risking losing your brain – both metaphorically and even literally. So, give yourself permission to breathe from time to time. Compliment yourself. Reward yourself. “Celebrating the small victories,” concludes Zahariades, “makes us feel good about whatever we’re trying to achieve. It makes us happy. And this repeated feeling of happiness can motivate us to stick to our guns when we’re uncomfortable - physically and emotionally - down the road.”
Damon Zahariades has become quite famous for writing easy-to-read and simple-to-follow, step-by-step guides to self-betterment. “The Mental Toughness Handbook” is just another addition to his long list of similarly styled objective-sharing books.
If you like any of them, you’ll find “The Mental Toughness Handbook” enjoyable and applicable. Otherwise, you might find it a bit repetitive and even dull. Especially if you don’t like discussing near-synonyms or seemingly endless numbered and bulleted lists.
Since “the road to enduring success is paved with obstacles,” triumphs are premised on mental toughness. Learning how to endure in the face of life’s challenges means learning how to succeed in life as well.