The Mindset of Mental ToughessMar 27, 2023
Despite loving audio books and being a big fan of the work Dr. April (my counterpart here at Peak Mind) does through the Building Psychological Strength podcast, I don't really listen to a lot of podcasts. Unless someone sends me a specific episode, promising me that I'll find it interesting, or I'm looking for insights on a particular topic, they're just not my jam.
That is until now.
I discovered Huberman Lab, a long-form deep dive into the nitty gritty scientific details of topics related to health. I am a scientist at heart, and I appreciate the robust review of research and the implications for our daily actions. I was chatting with someone a couple days ago about one of those actions, intentional cold exposure, that more and more people seem to be getting on board with. We were debating whether the practice is as life changing as proponents claim.
I told her that I've heard some compelling arguments, but I can't really weigh in on the effect of this practice on our genes or body composition yet. What I can say with confidence, though, is that it helps with mental toughness.
There is something about being willing and able to do something deliberately, knowing that it's going to be unpleasant, that builds mental toughness. It got me thinking about mental toughness in a more granular way. What is it, deep down, that makes some people really mentally tough?
I think it has to do with mindset.
The Mindset of Mental Toughness
Mindset is a term that gets used all the time. What it really refers to is a set of beliefs and attitudes held by someone. Mindset - our beliefs and attitudes - is important because it dictates a lot of how we perceive the world, the decisions we make, and the actions we take. Our beliefs often drive our reactions in any given situation. So it makes sense that people with a high degree of mental toughness may hold some specific beliefs that set them up to be that way.
When it comes to understanding the mindset of mental toughness, I think we have to dig deep. By that, I mean we need to look at core beliefs, those way deep down, fundamental operating system beliefs that are often subconscious (out of direct awareness, at least until we've dug them up), and we need to look at identity, which is just a set of core beliefs about ourselves and what people like us we can and can't do.
As I started to really chew on this, I landed on 3 beliefs that contribute to mental toughness. How many resonate with you?
1. I can do hard things.
This goes beyond the cute, catchy instagram posts and the surface level nods to "I can do hard things." The mentally tough know in their guts that this a true statement for them.
I can do hard things means that I can trust myself to cope, to endure, to be resilient, to persist. I know that I am capable of handling challenges and difficulty.
2. Being uncomfortable is not bad. In fact, it can be good.
Most of our default programming is that discomfort is bad. Which leads to...and therefore avoid it. So what happens when the going gets tough? We get going...away. Recategorizing discomfort as simply discomfort, taking out the judgment of "I like this" or "I don't like this," "this is bad," opens the door for persistence and willingness to endure said discomfort. I believe the mentally tough have renegotiated their relationship with discomfort (hard, unpleasant, painful, substitute whatever word you want) and are much more willing to be uncomfortable, particularly if doing so is important or valuable in the long-run.
3. Change is possible...because of me.
Without some optimism, some hope that circumstances can be different, better, we give up. Believing that change is possible, especially that you have some power or influence over making that change happen - self-efficacy in the psychology world - contributes to mental toughness. That's in contrast to core beliefs along the lines of "This is just how things are and always will be," "It doesn't matter what I do. I am powerless to change this," and "People like me can't ____."
Becoming Mentally Tough
Maybe some people are lucky, and they are just born mentally tough by way of the genetic lottery. I'd venture a guess, though, that most most mentally tough people are shaped by their experiences in some way. Perhaps it arises as a survival mechanism. Perhaps it was modeled by rockstar parents or caregivers or mentors. Perhaps other life events or experiences fostered it. Regardless, it was honed over time.
That's actually good news. As with so much of psychological strength, mental toughness is something that can be developed intentionally.
Which brings us back to intentional cold exposure.
Now, please do not take this as a recommendation to take cold showers (I'll defer to Dr. Huberman and others on that one), but do consider taking on willingness challenges. Can you make yourself do things that are hard or uncomfortable just for the sake of it? Think of it like this. Every time you do, you are building the belief that you can do hard things. You are also reconfiguring your beliefs about discomfort. If you repeatedly do something uncomfortable (like facing fears or taking cold showers), you are teaching your brain that discomfort is not something to be avoided. Eventually, your brain will catch up and adjust those attitudes about discomfort.
You also need to tap into hope and self-efficacy. How might you prove to yourself that change is possible? That you have the ability to make things happen?
You can also try talking yourself into these mentally tough beliefs. If you say them to yourself enough, you just might start to believe them. Know, though, that talk can be cheap and actions speak louder than words. So, to really embrace this mindset, you're going to have to back it up.
We build belief through behavior. If you can change what you do, you can actually shift your beliefs. You can act your way into a mentally tough mindset, one step at a time.
Workshop This Saturday
If you happen to be in Kansas City, join me this Saturday, April 1 from 10 - 12 for an in person workshop called Psychological Flexibility: The Mental Superpower to Help You Navigate Life's Demands. Through a number of hands on exercises, we'll be focusing on psych flexibility (which contributes to mental toughness in it's own right). You can find more details and get your ticket here.
If you're not in Kansas City but wish you were because this topic piqued your interest, be sure to explore past blog posts (psych flexibility is a frequent theme) or check out the books A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters by Steven Hayes (past podcast guest, by the way) or The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.
"If you hear a voice within you that says 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced."
- Vincent van Gogh
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
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