Building mental toughness is hard.
Dostoevsky said it best. “Man or woman is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, just don’t ask them how.”
What I mean by that is this.
- You live in an age of abundance. There has never been a time where more resources and opportunities are at your disposal.
- You can create a job that you’re passionate about
- You can build a healthy lifestyle for yourself
- You can foster and grow positive relationships
Yet so many of us struggle to do so and it has nothing to do with physical strength, intelligence, genetics, willpower, or motivation.
For many of us, the real problem sits right between our ears.
We lack the mental toughness or grit that it takes to accomplish the things we want to achieve. From the body of our dreams to a career we truly love and enjoy, to the relationships that promote personal growth and positivity.
Chinese Military General and philosopher Sun Tzu said that; “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
Today’s article is all about building mental toughness, grit, and the ability to win the personal battles you face every day – before they even present themselves.
How I Built Mental Toughness & Overcame My Fear of Approaching Beautiful Women
Lack of mental toughness is usually rooted in fear.
- Fear of failing
- Fear of succeeding
- Fear of having to keep it up
- Fear of getting physically hurt
- Fear of getting emotionally hurt
- Fear this, fear that, fear this & that
It was originally thought that once fear is learned it can never be unlearned – and that it will be grounded in the emotional center of the brain know as the amygdala. (1)
However, through research conducted by Gregory Quinn, Kevin Corcoran, and others – it’s now understood that you have the ability to rewire these fears in the part of your brain known as the prefrontal cortex through what neuroscientists and psychologists call exposure therapy.
Gradually (or not so gradually) exposing yourself to the fear over and over.
For example, I used to have a terribly difficult time approaching women. The fear of rejection, the idea of stumbling over my words, embarrassing myself, and other various personal insecurities kept me from meeting amazing and beautiful women.
It’s crazy actually, I had all the physical courage in the world. Skydiving, bungee jumping, hurling myself from cars moving 30 mph was no issue for me but talking to a woman I found sexy was polarizing.
I had no moral courage. I could not make the conscious decision to let her know I was interested. The emotional harm and possible rejection were too much. I just couldn’t get past the rapid heartbeats, elevated breathing, and hampered ability to think clearly – I was a deer in headlights.
Eventually, the frustration of not being able to approach women became too much. I sought out some help and stumbled upon Mark Manson’s book Models: Attract Women Through Honesty. After that I decided to take part in one of his premium courses, Overcoming Anxiety.
Each week I was asked to take one small step toward breaking down my fear of approaching women. The challenges started out easy enough (although I still was sweating bullets) and helped me to build momentum and confidence for the bigger challenges that were to come.
Eventually, through this type of slow exposure therapy I was able to become immune to the disease of “approach anxiety.” I no longer feared to introduce myself to the beautiful woman ordering a green tea latte inside a crowded Starbucks.
Building Mental Toughness
A few weeks ago I wrote about the differences between a fixed and growth mindset. In that article, I referenced Carol Dweck and her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. One of my favorite quotes from her book is this one.
We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.
Those that we idolize, respect, and strive to be like as people are not always blessed with amazing genetics, physical ability, or intelligence we could only dream to have. We often forget that most of these people were not blessed with natural talent – instead, they made a conscious decision to work harder than everyone else.
It wasn’t natural talent or gifts that got them where they are – it was the time and effort they put into developing a stronger mindset. A mindset that allows them to stay more consistent than others, a mindset that believes they can overcome obstacles and a mindset that allows them to sustain a positive attitude when things get tough.
This couldn’t be more clear than in the research Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania conducted on West Point Cadets.
She tracked 2,441 cadets and recorded their High School Rank, SAT scores, Physical aptitude, Leadership potential, and Grit score to figure out how likely they were to finish “Beast Barracks.” “Beast Barracks” is designed to test a cadet’s emotional, physical, and mental strength, ability, and control.
From her research what she found was that the most important factor in determining whether a cadet would finish Beast Barracks was their Grit score – Yup, not their physical strength, intelligence levels, leadership skills, or natural talents – It was their Grit.
It was their commitment, resiliency, and want to meet long-term goals that decided whether they were able to push through the grueling challenge.
Your Most Important Weapon Is In Your Head
Now I know where you’re thinking.
I don’t have the willpower or motivation of a West Point cadet. Well, neither do I and neither do a lot of people.
In fact, if you’re relying on motivation and willpower to get healthier, fitter, or to achieve goals than you’re in for a heap of trouble.
As you know from this article, motivation and willpower are very fleeting emotions. We actually wear them out and can use them up.
However, some people do have more mental toughness than others. The good news here is that mental toughness can be trained.
One way to train mental toughness is through a process called habituation. Habituation is based around the premise that the more you’re exposed to something the less you will fear it. Habituation reminds me a lot of hormeses, something I learned about through Julien Smith and Todd Becker.
Hormesis is all about achieving a beneficial effect (such as fitness or stress tolerance) through low doses of some stressor (2). Sort of like the exposure therapy I used to get passed my approach anxiety.
Now you may be thinking, “why the heck would I want to deliberately stress myself out or put myself through uncomfortable experiences.”
Because getting comfortable with uncomfortable is an essential life skill.
Every day you’re faced with difficult, uncomfortable, and stressful situations.
- Personal interactions and conflicts
- Meeting tight deadlines
- Physical fitness and health
Your ability to handle these constant stressors will determine how successful you will be in not only those areas but other areas of your life as well.
For example, most of us consider our work and our personal life two separate entities. You’ve surely heard the expressions, “Don’t take your work home with you” and “Leave your personal life out of the office.”
That’s unrealistic. Work affects your personal life and your personal life affects your work.
Your health will affect your work life, your personal life, and other areas of your life as well. You see, these things are not independent of one another but rather intertwined.
This is why developing mental toughness in one area can benefit you in many other areas.
Ok, so now how can you and I do this?
Take It From The Seals
I remember reading something a little while back that had to do with a Seals training.
They would be thrown into a body of water with malfunctioning scuba gear and have to figure out a way to fix it. Oh, by the way – while they’re drowning and struggling to fix their equipment someone would come by and attack them.
Sure, physical strength might help you out and a certain level of intelligence may help with the equipment but it’s your mental toughness that’s really going to get you through an experience like this.
In his book Navy Seals Training Guide: Mental Toughness, author Lars Draeger outlines four things you can do to become more mentally fit.
1. Goal setting
“Giving structure to the chaos” by developing a plan. Whenever I set goals for myself I like to work backward. What I mean by this is that I’ll decide on my long-term goal and then breakdown that goal into smaller more manageable parts. Let’s say losing some body fat is a goal that you have.
- Long-term goal: 1-2 years (maybe longer depending on the goal) to lose 50 pounds
- Mid-term goal: Lose 25 pounds in 6 months
- Short term goals: Lose roughly 4 pounds a per month
- Very short term goal: Lose 1 pound per week
- Now goals/behavioral goals: This is the key. Your outcome-based goal has been established but what are the behaviors that you’ll need to establish that will actually produce those results? – Behavior goals are things that you can control like 30 to 45 minutes of high-intensity exercise 4 days per week. Eating veggies with each meal. Bringing lunch to work instead of going out every afternoon.
The Seals in that scuba diving example above would take time out of their day to visualization different scenarios that may occur while underwater. They would picture themselves performing the tasks they would need to do to fix the malfunctions in their equipment.
When thrown into that situation is was easier for them to stay calm, control their heart rate, and conserve energy because they had seen these situations before and were familiar with what to do.
3. Positive Self Talk
This may include affirmations but it also has to do with recognizing that others have come before you and done this. If fat loss is a goal that you have to use these folks as a source of inspiration. Want to start your own business? This guy and this guy have done it.
Also, use yourself as an example. Where in your past have you overcome tough obstacles? Use that as a little mojo to remind you that you are capable of this.
4. Arousal Control
Mind out of the gutter people… not that kind of arousal. Turn that 50 Shades Of Grey brain off for a minute.
Goals, visualization, and positive self talk when practiced will help with arousal control but other things like Yoga, Tai Chi, 4X4 breathing techniques, meditation, and other physical and mental restorative practices will help to get the weeds out.
What Else Can I Do To Build Mental Toughness?
I’m a firm believer in learning through experience. When I want to get better at something it’s important for me to actively participate – even if this means making a lot of mistakes.
I like to gradually push my limits by practicing one thing at a time to develop self-awareness and test my mental toughness. I like to call this the butterfly effect.
Doing this gradually allows me to create tiny wins that build my confidence, show me that I am progressing, and keep me excited and enjoying the process.
The key to success isn’t found in intensity but in consistency. Most people fail because they come out of the gate too hard, burn out, and quit too early – and the research is backing this up. It is now being shown that mental toughness is an ongoing process – built through repeated efforts and exposure to challenges over time.
- Super strict diets that are depriving and boring won’t get it done.
- 90-minute workouts that you can’t recover from won’t get it done.
It’s the one small thing you can do today that is going to help you with this.
So what are some small things you can do right now that can help you build some mental toughness?
- 5 minute cold shower? Feel like too much? Try for 1 minute.
- Peanut butter your vice? How about opening a bottle of it, sticking a spoon in it, and just staring at it for a minute. Take the spoon out, put it in the sink, and put the top back on the jar
- Hang with people you feel display great mental toughness – it’s contagious
- Usually, run for 30 minutes on the treadmill? How about 31 or increasing speed or incline?
- Increase the weights you use by a couple of pounds today
- Try intermittent fasting today
- Write with your opposite hand
- Memorize a favorite quote every day
- Start learning a new language. I just started French with this guy
- Use cool apps like this, this, or this.
- Take a different route to work today
What are some other things you can do daily to test your mental fortitude?
Closing Time, One Last Call For Mental Toughness
Man oh man, this article is clocking in at over 2,500 words, it might have taken some mental toughness just to get through it 🙂
I hope that you now understand that you can’t do anything about the genes your born with but because of neuroplasticity you do have the ability to change your brain and mental toughness.
I’d like to leave you with research conducted at the Cardiff School of Sport at the University of Wales institute on mental toughness.
They’ve found the following to be true when it comes to building and more importantly maintaining mental toughness.
1. Your motivational climate is important
You need to love the process, track your progress so that you are aware of you getting better, and do things that you’re good at while periodically attack your weaknesses.
2. Mentors matter
Hanging with people who have mental toughness, support you, and challenge you will help to build your mental toughness muscles.
3. Collect life experiences not things
We’ve talked about the importance of having experienced before. Doing this will give you more opportunities to look back on that can prove you have the ability to get through the tough stuff.
4. Become a strategizing ninja
What scares you? What gives you the most anxiety? What’s your biggest weakness? What are some behaviors you can start today that will get you one step closer to dominating that one single weakness?
5. Avoid catastrophic thinking
Many of us envision worst-case highly unlikely scenarios whenever we try to attack something. Take a step back and use that 4×4 breathing. How likely is this scenario likely to play out?
6. Just Fucking start
Pretty much speaks for itself. Most people never do this.
In Finland, the word “Sisu” means extraordinary determination, courage, and the ability to see beyond your present limitations – to what might be.
Find your Sisu.
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