When it comes to mental toughness, there’s no shortage of tag lines. We are told to fight harder, never give up, never admit defeat, and to have the mind of a champion. Yet for all the inspirational quotes mental toughness inspires, many continue to wonder, what does it actually mean to be mentally tough?
Let’s start with five myths about mental toughness:
Being Mentally Tough Means Being Invulnerable. The truth is, there is no such thing as invulnerability. Like perfection, utopia, and the predictability of life — it doesn’t exist. Because to be invulnerable would mean to be in denial, to artificially create a world where failures, losses, setbacks and emotions don’t exist. As Diana Nyad, now well known for being the only person to swim from Cuba to Florida reminds us in her powerful TED talk, “No one escapes this life without pain.” And being mentally tough is about being able to take in pain, without running from it, or quickly trying to “beat it back” as Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, reminds us in her TED talk. It’s about transforming the pain into fuel — the lifeblood of drive, inspiration, and yes, courage.
Being Mentally Tough Means Always Seeing The Glass As Half Full. Like invulnerability, rose colored glasses cannot automatically be applied to life. And those who study post-traumatic growth, which is a term used to describe a response to trauma characterized by profound and dramatic growth, call the proverbial rose -colored glasses “illusive growth”. What they mean is that it doesn’t exist. We can’t always claim growth, rose colored glasses, or victory. Sometimes things don’t look good, and sometimes we don’t see our way through. But what being mentally tough — like post-traumatic growth — is about is the ability to see things from multiple perspectives. That is, to find the good that is tucked in between the clouds of darkness. And it may not be a silver lining. It may be just one single ray of sunshine. It’s the ability to say, “This went really poorly, but on the other hand, I did find that I got better at asking for help, overcoming my fears, or persevering.” Being mentally tough is about being able to see that it doesn’t have to all good to be called growth — instead growth can exist through both positive and negative outcomes.
Mentally Tough People Never Admit Failure. Going through life never admitting failing is like going through life winning every contest you enter — regardless if you actually win or not. Because failure is inevitable. But failure is also the fuel of change. It’s when things don’t work that we are forced to find another way. Being mentally tough is about being willing to accept the bitter pill that failure brings because what it also inspires is the drive to succeed. Because those who are driven to succeed are so because they know what it feels like to fail.
Being Mentally Tough Means Being Inflexible. While there is a hardheadedness to mentally strong people, it’s not an inflexibility. Because the reality is that circumstances are not predictable and things do change — often without warning. But that’s a good thing — the ability to adapt to the changing circumstances is the lifeblood of growth. And wisdom comes from experience — when we are able to fully consider it. And being mentally tough is about the willingness to adapt, adopting a “whatever it takes” approach to life, and learning what needs to be learned from every situation that comes your way.
Mentally Tough People Have All The Answers. While we don’t usually associate mental strength with “not knowing what to do”, the truth is the only thing that precedes certainty is uncertainty. Yet uncertainty also gives us perspective. It’s the ability to step back and look at the problem from all angles — instead of blindly charging toward the finish line powered by assuredness. Because sometimes the solutions for the challenges we face are not right in front of us, and what mentally strong people know is that sometimes solutions comes from the most unexpected places.
Being mentally strong may not be as “tough” as you think. Especially when you are clear on what it means to be mentally strong.
Nyad, D. (2014). Never, Ever Give Up. TED.com
Brown, B (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, Gotham Books.