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Five Things That Grow Your Mental Toughness

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It’s a coveted trait. It’s what coaching gurus promise, athletes embody, and secretly we all want. It’s what separates though who can take a hit and those who will quit. It’s often what divides those who will fight until success is theirs and those who will only hope for it.


It’s mental toughness. And here are five things that grow it.


Adversity. If physical stress builds physical strength, it’s adversity – which is a form of emotional stress – that builds mental toughness. And if we define mental toughness as the ability to take life’s setbacks and turn them into springboards, then setbacks are the fuel that mental toughness feeds on. For evidence, we can look to the research of Tedeschi and Calhoun, the foremost researchers of post-traumatic growth, who studied groups of trauma survivors, to determine that undergoing trauma ignited a growth response where growth levels exceeded those reported before the experience. (Tedeschi, 2004) In a nutshell, trauma catalyzed growth. But we really don’t have to look to the studies to uncover what we already know is true: If mental toughness is about being able to take in life’s failures, hardships, and setbacks and use them as fuel for growth, then we better start looking at adversity differently. And we better start welcoming it.


Autonomy. If adversity is the fuel of mental toughness, then autonomy is the platform upon which mental toughness is built. Autonomy allows us to test skills, make mistakes, and ultimately refine our approach. Conversely, if we are not given the reins to steer our own ship, and the decisions are made for us, we might be what many educational professionals call, “over-prepared and under-constructed”. Because the construction that they refer to comes from having to solve our own problems, not having the answers handed to us, and bearing the burdens of our own choices.


Uncertainty. Uncertainty is the tender underbelly of mental toughness. Remove uncertainty from life and what you have left is stagnancy. Because uncertainty precedes mastery. And being able to tolerate uncertainty, and persevering when the answers are not obvious, is what builds mental toughness. The truth is, at some point, we will all want to quit – especially when we can’t see a way forward. But we also have to want to quit before we can truly commit to going forward. Because facing our doubts, fears, and uncertainty, and finding a way through, strengthens our resolve in the most powerful way – we have faced our own demons and beat them back.


Internal Locus of Control. Where we believe the center – locus — of control resides might be the one strongest predictor of mental toughness. If you believe that what you do and how you feel is in your control, then you also believe that if things are not going the way you’d like, YOU can change how you respond – and ultimately, change how you feel. On the other hand, if you believe that how you feel, and how you respond, is not in your control, when things don’t go your way, it’s not to yourself that you will look. Instead, getting the results you want – emotionally or otherwise – will be regulated by luck, circumstance, or social position, and not by your own actions. And without feeling as if your are fighting for, and winning, your own victories, motivation and mental toughness take a backslide.


Boundaries. Boundaries are anger’s barometer. When our boundaries are crossed, it’s anger that alerts us, and when they are dramatically crossed, we become very angry. The reason is, boundaries define what’s important to us, what we stand for, and what we will not tolerate. Without strong boundaries, we have a hard time identifying what defines us, and consequently, what violates us. And we have a hard time becoming angry enough to do something about it. But when our boundaries are strong, we know ourselves, and we also have something to defend, and something to fight for. And without having a reason, it’s pretty hard to be mentally tough.


Growing mental toughness is like anything else that grows – it takes stress, recovery, and repetition.


For more information on growing mental toughness, leveraging adversity, and turning life’s setbacks into springboards, visit




Tedeschi, R., Calhoun, L., (2004). Post-traumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1.

Five Things That Grow Your Mental Toughness

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2015). Five Things That Grow Your Mental Toughness. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2018, from


Last updated: 23 Mar 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 23 Mar 2015
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