Mental Toughness First, Success Later

by Jackie C. Dotson


People often ask me, of all the personality traits a person has which one is most valuable? And my answer is always the same: mental toughness. This surprises many people. Mental toughness is often mistaken for negative characteristics, such as stubbornness, indifference or callousness (which actually aren’t signs of mental toughness at all). Mental toughness is really your best ally in life.

Your brain wants to take the path of least resistance, every time. That’s its way of keeping you “safe from danger” or so it thinks. When you continually take the path of least resistance, you become unconditioned to dealing with resistance. Just like a muscle, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Brains that don’t deal with difficulties, such as adversity and disappointment to name a few, are not as resourceful as brains that do. In other words, if you don’t put yourself out there and fall on your face once in a while, your ability to “deal” when you finally do is going to be diminished.

I think this is a huge mistake we are making with our children in today’s society. Well-meaning parents are going to great lengths to protect their children from disappointment and negative consequences. Hence, we live in a world where every kid gets a trophy on sports teams, and grades in school are ridiculously inflated. Then, when adulthood arrives, as it does, and the inevitable disappointments of daily living begin to rack up, these young adults cannot cope. This is my theory as to why the numbers of students being treated for depression and anxiety on college campuses are skyrocketing.

Mental toughness builds your so-called self-esteem. Personally, I find the notion of self-esteem to be a flimsy concept. People use it to absolve themselves of responsibility, dodge consequences and avoid taking action. Self-esteem isn’t something you are born with. It is not something that is given to you by other people (although many think it is). To get self-esteem, first you have to do actually do something, produce something, get a result. When you do stuff, sometimes you fail but frequently you succeed. When you succeed, you can say, “hey, I just did that”. If you fail, well, that will help you build your mental toughness and succeed next time.

Building your mental toughness makes life easier and reduces your susceptibility to depression and anxiety attacks. Naturally, the preferred way of building this toughness is by deliberately putting yourself under pressure: doing things that make you really uncomfortable. The more you do this, the more quickly your body will recover from the tension and stress hormones. This comes with the added benefit of being more “ready” when an unexpected and unwelcome stress, such as a death or a job loss, hits.

Stress hormones wear you out. They are intended to only be released and experienced in small doses. When you have more mental toughness, your body returns to a balanced state of mind more quickly. When those stress hormones linger it’s common to feel depressed and helpless because they wear you out and leave you feeling like you don’t have what it takes to handle things.

Building this mental toughness is very similar to building physical strength. First things first: you have to practice. The more you practice, the better you get, just ask Michael Jordan. Then you have to breathe. Today’s humans breathe very shallow. Our bodies are frequently oxygen deprived. Slowing and deepening your breathing lets more oxygen in, which not only calms your brain (which takes the slightest bit of oxygen deprivation as a major threat), but also slows your heart and overall circulation, making it easier to think and not go into automatic fight or flight mode. Visualizing also helps. Think of the outcome you want. Rehearsing things mentally helps build your ability to find solutions to problems.

The benefits of being mentally tough really are limitless because it makes you much more adaptable to changes in your world. Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change”.

Think of something you want to do that scares you. Maybe it’s an uncomfortable conversation you know you need to have with someone. Maybe you have an idea that seems unfathomable. Doing this will build your mental toughness. What would help you take this action?


About the Author: Jackie Dotson is a psychotherapist, blogger and the founder of Jackie Dotson, LCSW in Sacramento, CA, as well as the co-host of The Powder Keg of Awesome Podcast.

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