Many people think that mentally strong people are simply born that way. That from the moment their feet hit the ground, they are simply endowed with some almost supernatural skill that allows them to face challenges bravely. Others think that mental strength is like a light bulb – it is either turned on or turned off. And if yours happens to be off, you are out of luck.
What most people don’t know is that mental strength it is neither a genetic gift, nor a character trait. It is a skill that is perfected through the constant interface with adversity. And like any other skill, it is developed through a series of stages. Stages where we face the disconnect between what we don’t know and what we want to know. Stages where we feel incompetent. Stages where we don’t know what to do. Stages where we try new things with no idea if they will work or not. And finally, stages where we begin to define ourselves differently – as people who can and do face challenges, and are made stronger for them.
Here are the six stages of mental strength:
Disruption. We don’t get stronger when things go our way, and the cards ceremoniously line up in our favor. We get stronger when we face events that scare us, challenge us, and ultimately, force us to rise. But the first stage of facing any challenge is feeling unraveled by it. It is when the world you know, and all of the beliefs that maintain it, are shattered. It is when you acknowledge that what you knew is no longer true, and your life can no longer be put back together as it was. And as much as this state of disruption is uncomfortable, it is also unavoidable. Because in order to learn to be stronger, we first have to let go of what we thought was true – about ourselves, about the world, and about other people.
Uncertainty. Uncertainty is what happens when we don’t have the answers, when nothing seems clear, and there is no approach that guarantees success. But uncertainty is also how we learn. Without uncertainty, there is no space for new information, because we already have the answers. It is in not having the answers that we ask the questions that lead to a better understanding. It is also in not having the answers that we learn to trust ourselves. We learn to face our doubts, our fears, and our insecurities, and we learn that we are not defined by them.
Reconsideration. Reconsideration means stepping back, using a wide angle lens, and taking a second look. It means thinking over everything you thought to be true, the decisions you made, the priorities you lived by, and the life you want going forward. It means not having to be perfect, accepting that some choices and some beliefs are not serving you. It is in reconsideration that we become willing to consider new approaches – without the promise of success. Because what we learn is that we can always step back, learn from the past, learn from the decisions we made, and make new decisions with the hope that they will be improved by the process.
Search for Meaning. If you ask mentally strong people about their lives before and after feeling strong they will tell you two things: their strength is in direct proportion to the challenges they faced, and their lives now have much more meaning. What they are telling you is that it is in the search for meaning that results from facing challenging – and even devastating – events that they were made strong. It is in having to find a reason to go on, when it doesn’t seem possible that they develop a new perspective about what is most important in life. Because what is not working may not be what is supposed to work. It may not be what is most important. And it may not be what really matters.
Recrafting the Narrative. A life narrative is what we say to ourselves about our life. It is what we tell ourselves about our self-worth, our ability, and our mental strength. And for people who are mentally strong, it is dramatically different from what it once was, because life narratives are not handed to us, and they are not static either. Instead, they are carved out through the lives we lead, the choices we make, and the attributions we assign to events that happen in our lives. And what mentally strong people will tell you is that there was a time when they didn’t feel strong, when they didn’t see themselves in the way they now do. But they will also tell you that in order to get to where they are now, there was a recrafting process. They had to challenge their life narrative. They had to redefine and recraft who they were, how they saw themselves, and what they said to themselves. Ultimately, it was they who defined themselves as strong.
Building Agency. Mental strength doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and even the strongest people need others to recognize and validate their strength, because mental strength needs a place to attach. It needs something larger than itself to give it purpose. A superhero, after all, needs a village to save. And the reason is that people feel best when they are using their strengths to help others. And people feel even better when they are using their unique strengths – the ones most closely tied to the challenges they faced – to help others through similar challenges.
Becoming mentally strong isn’t about having all the answers, never feeling weak, or never admitting defeat. It is about being willing to face challenges – owning all of the uncertainty they bring – and being willing to be made better for them.
Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of LEVERAGE: the Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire, or her work, just visit www.leverageadversity.net