We have all heard people refer to “mental toughness” when describing how an individual persevered through a difficult struggle. What exactly is mental toughness and what does it mean? Can someone learn, or train to be mentally tough? Is mental toughness reserved only for Special Forces types or elite athletes? I’m going to do my best to answer these questions and give you my perspective of what mental toughness is and how I try to exercise it. Hopefully, I can provide some insight that might help someone to gain more confidence and ability to deal with difficult situations.
First, what is mental toughness? Basically it is the ability to persevere through difficult situations and come out the other side stronger and with more confidence. Its not letting a tough situation beat you. Instead you reach deep down inside, do a “gut check” and get through it. Afterwards, you gain confidence knowing that you faced your fears head on and moved through the difficulty that was facing you. The confidence that is gained after pushing yourself through a difficult struggle is invaluable as it makes other difficult situations you face seem more manageable and less stressful.
Who has the ability to be mentally tough? It’s not something that anyone is born with, it is something you learn. While a lot of Special Forces guys and elite athletes are very mentally tough, they don’t have the market cornered on it. I believe everyone develops mental toughness everyday from the day they are born. It’s learned from the people around you. The degree to which you learn to tap into this particular strength is dependent upon how the people near you respond to adversity and upon the difficult situations you yourself face. Some folks face very little adversity in their lives (life’s not fair, get over it), therefore they may not develop a great deal of mental toughness and may have a hard time tapping into that strength if they are faced with a difficult or stressful scenario. Other folks have faced adversity from a very young age and it takes a lot to get them off of their game. They seem to thrive in situations that appear to be impossible to others. Both types have the same ability to be mentally tough, the first group just hasn’t been taught or had to learn to apply this ability yet. Then there are those that, no matter what, will just surrender. Maybe it’s the way they were raised or some traumatic event in their life that has convinced them that they are weak, but they are the types that give up easily and make excuses for why they can’t prevail.
Well maybe you’re just an average Joe. While you’ve been through some rough patches here and there, you’ve never experienced a traumatic or extremely difficult situation. How do you draw upon that mental toughness or inner strength when you really need it? Like any other skill or strength, you exercise it. Before you dismiss me as being crazy, just read on a bit more. I’m not going to recommend that you go out and put yourself in a survival situation or get involved in some kind of violent event in order to experience the stress of such situations. Just in your day to day life, exercise sheer will power whenever an opportunity presents itself (control the impulse to grab some fast food and instead make a healthy meal or pass on dessert, simple things like that). Will power and impulse control are big components of mental toughness. Being able to control your impulses and consciously altering your habits can help you when facing other stressful situations. Another way to exercise mental toughness is through physical exercise. Setting goals and enduring the discomfort to attain them takes mental toughness. The intestinal fortitude to force yourself to workout when you don’t feel like it, to push yourself further than you have previously and to work through the physical pain to get to that goal is one of the best ways I can think of to prepare yourself to deal with difficult or uncomfortable circumstances.
I learned the concept of being mentally tough from my Grandfather, my Parents and the Marine Corps. They all handled things differently, but each displayed a “no quit, no surrender” attitude when faced with tough situations. My Grandfather never let things get to him. He was incapable of worrying about things that were beyond his control (I try everyday to get there, but it’s a struggle). An example: My Father and I had my Grandparents on a boat fishing. On the shore we see my Great Aunt waving her arms and can hear that she’s yelling, but we can’t make out what she’s saying. So we slowly start the boat towards the shore, my Dad pulls back on the throttle when we get close so we can hear. My Great Aunt yells to my Grandparents, “Dan, Rita… your house burned down!” My Grandmother screams, “What?” as she faints. My Father and I are trying to situate my Grandmother, and my Grandfather says, “There’s nothing I can do about that from here.” Then casts his line back into the water! My Mother persevered through difficult times with determination and dignity. She wasn’t going to ever give up, but she always kept it classy and didn’t show that she was going through a tough time. My Father was more of the “man up and deal with it” type. Never quit, just push through. Nothing lasts forever and you can get through anything. In the Marines I learned one more way to deal with tough times. “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome” was some of the best life advice I ever received and I still apply it to this day. Another favorite of mine from those days (I hear it in my head when I start to feel sorry for myself) in my Senior Drill Instructor’s voice, “Suck it the Fuck Up and Keep Moving!”
Here are some of my tips for handling a very difficult and/ or uncomfortable situation:
1. Break time down into small, manageable chunks. Whether it’s meal to meal, hour by hour or every few minutes. When enduring any extremely stressful, physically demanding or physically uncomfortable situation I find this tactic makes it more manageable and easier to deal with.
2. Concentrate on what you CAN do and not what you can’t. It can be difficult to do this, but when you do, you are not wasting time and energy worrying about things that are beyond your control.
3. Embrace the suck. When things get bad, I always make it a personal challenge to accept what’s thrown at me. It helps to think of ways that my situation could be worse and think through how I would deal with that. It keeps my mind active and makes my current problem seem like less of an issue. Sometimes things are just gonna suck, get your mind in a place where it accepts it and make a game out of enduring it.
4. Keep your sense of humor. Being able to laugh at yourself, the situation or an event can help to relieve some of the pressure you feel during a bad situation.
5. NEVER SURRENDER. Don’t let whatever you’re facing beat you. Nothing lasts forever and all you have to do is endure to win, In order to beat me, it has to kill me. PERIOD.
I hope this helps someone to discover their mental toughness or helps them to tap into it. I don’t claim to be an expert, just a guy that’s been through some rough shit and I’m sharing my thoughts on how to deal with it. If any of you have other ways to handle what life throws at you, please share in the comments below!