To be the best we can be, we all need to exercise–not just our physical muscles, but our mental ones, as well. “Mental strength,” however, doesn’t mean what you probably think it does.
Being mentally strong doesn’t mean excelling at brain games, or being able to write philosophical treatises or calculate complex mathematical formulas. Mental strength means thinking—and feeling—before you act. To be mentally strong is to be aware of your thoughts and emotions—the clues to your real motivations and intentions—and work with them to consciously choose your actions.
Mindfulness, paying attention to what is happening as it’s happening, is a core component. Mental strength is being aware in the moment, and responding rather than reacting. It’s taking responsibility for your attitudes and actions rather than saying, “I can’t help the way I feel,” or “This is just the way I am.”
What mental strength is not
The stereotypes regarding mentally strong people—cold, bossy, aggressive, and refusing to ask for help—are wrong. According to Amy Morin’s book, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do:
Being mentally strong isn’t about acting tough. It’s about acting in accordance with your values and goals.
It doesn’t mean that you ignore your emotions. Instead, it requires an awareness and understanding of your emotions, and an openness to letting them influence your thoughts and behaviors.
It isn’t about ignoring pain—physical or emotional. It’s about determining the source of your pain and deciding when to honor it, and when to forge through it.
Mental strength doesn’t require complete self-reliance. Mentally strong people admit that they don’t have all the answers or skills, know when to ask for help, and are willing to learn and grow.
Being mentally strong is not about positive thinking. Being too positive can be just as bad as being too negative. Mental strength requires thinking realistically and rationally, and being open to new ideas.
Developing mental strength isn’t about chasing happiness. While strengthening your mental muscle can help you achieve more satisfaction and success, mental strength doesn’t make us happy. Being the best you can be is the goal.
Mental strength isn’t mental health. Chronic physical conditions such as diabetes do not preclude good physical health. Likewise, having depression, anxiety or other mental challenges does not mean we can’t be mentally strong.
How to get mentally strong
Just as you can strengthen your muscles. you can boost your mental strength with exercise. If you practice, pay attention, and focus, your brain will “rewire” itself so that strong and healthy become the default.
Taking a single cardio class once in a while isn’t going to do much to help you get in shape. However, working out three times a week for six months will produce major results. If you practice every day over time to build mental muscle, you will see positive outcomes.
The benefits of mental strength
It’s easy to feel tough enough when life is humming along. But when problems arise, being mentally strong will help you to deal with them. Benefits, according to Morin, include:
Increased resilience to stress – You’ll handle everyday situations better, not just crises, and reduce overall stress.
Improved life satisfaction – As mental strength increases, confidence and peace of mind go up, too.
Enhanced performance – Whether you want to be a better athlete, parent, partner, or worker, increasing your mental strength will help you reach your potential.