I love the quote that goes: “Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.”
The quote is often attributed to a navy seal although the origin of the quote is unknown.
Performance and resilience expert Michael Sherman, founder of digital platform Mentally Tougher lives life based on this philosophy—and he’s made it his life mission to help others to do the same.
The sports psychologist and resilience trainer emphasizes that just like physical toughness is the result of proper physical training, mental toughness is the result of intentional training the brain.
Sherman believes that mental toughness is not a singular trait.
“It is a collection of performance and resilience skills that help you reach and maintain optimal performance, face and cope with adversity, adapt to change, recover and learn from a setback, and grow from the experience,” he says.
Sherman feels the problem is that the majority of people are unfamiliar with how to become mentally tougher.
So how do you become mentally tougher? It starts with saying goodbye to these seven habits.
1) Giving your power to other people
We all know people who ask for an inch but take a mile when it comes to our time.
It could be the faraway friend who expects you to drop everything every time they’re in town. It could be your boss who burdens you with projects before a current one is even completed.
Even if you’re good about maintaining physical boundaries, you may still be nurturing negative influences in your head.
“Any time you allow someone to have a negative influence over the way you think, feel, or behave, you give them power over you,” says Amy Morin from Business Insider.
Morin points out that it could be very subtle: for example changing the way you act around certain people because you want to please them, but it doesn’t impact your life too much.
It could also be bigger things. Maybe you let a loved one’s harsh criticism take a serious toll on your well-being.
“Either way, giving away your personal power drains you of the mental strength you need to be your best,” says Morin.
2) Always living inside your head
Ironically, being mentally tougher means giving your brain a break from overthinking and ruminating over things.
Mindfulness specialist Christine Bates says that although it may seem like things just pop into our heads and that we have no control over them—like when we overthink things, for example— we do have a choice.
It’s one thing to think through a problem and come up with ideas and solutions, but Bates says that if you’re going over the same issues again and again such as problems from the past that cannot be changed, that can be a problem.
“If clarity or some final answer doesn’t come, you’re getting yourself stuck,” she says. “No amount of thinking can guarantee good decisions or positive results, and tough situations happen regardless of whether you’ve anticipated and thought through them or not.”
Like Bates, I’m a big believer in taking action in these kinds of situations. “Ask yourself: Is this within my power to change? If not, let it go and move on to the next challenge.”
3) Burying your head in the sand
This one is the opposite of the above. Rather than being an over-thinker, you might be someone who avoids thinking about things altogether because you don’t like to feel the emotions associated with it.
Maybe you distract yourself with TV and video games. Or maybe you drink so that you don’t have to think. You could also be a workaholic.
I remember reading Indian and Hollywood actor Priyanka Chopra’s memoir a couple of years ago. She conveyed that as the daughter of army doctors in India, she would move frequently.
She was afraid to develop an attachment to her home, school, and friends as she began a new life at a new base. Issues could easily be ignored because it wasn’t like she was staying long term in her (always) new city anyway. This became a cycle she took into her film career.
Any attachment she developed to her home, school, and friends would be avoided as she began a new life at a new base. This became a cycle she took into her film career.
Any attachments or issues she had during a year or two of filming would be ignored as she packed up and moved to the next project.
“There was never any time for self-reflection,” she said. “I was like an ostrich. I always just buried my head in the sand.”
Taking stock and owning up to certain things from time to time is time that’s well spent. Self-reflection can help you to understand what you need to move forward and what you are better off leaving behind.
4) Believing everything that pops into your head
We’ve touched on this a little bit, but the truth is that we often don’t see situations for what they are. We bring our own biases, judgements, and agendas to the table.
We also give our thoughts too much power, says psychologist Brad Klontz of Psychology Today. “We rarely notice, evaluate, or challenge them, yet we let them create our experience of the world.”
Klontz says that often our thoughts are actually inaccurate: they are only part of the story, unhelpful, or just one of many possible interpretations.
Similar to this is also a thing in psychology called actor-observer bias.
Bestselling self help author Mark Manson gives the example of being at an intersection. Say you’re at an intersection and you see someone run a red light. The first thought that will come to mind is how this selfish, inconsiderate “scumbag” is putting other drivers in danger.
On the other hand, if you are the one who runs the red light, and you feel judged—whether from fellow drivers or from getting caught by police—you’ll come to all sorts of conclusions about how it was an innocent mistake. It was a tree, or sunlight that blocked your view.
You might even argue how running a red light didn’t cause an accident so it’s not like it hurt anybody.
“Same action,” points out Manson, “but when someone else does it they’re a horrible person—when you do it, it’s an honest mistake.”
Being mentally tougher means not being quick to judge someone else’s actions as senseless and reprehensible, while citing our own actions as reasonable and justified.
Bridge what Steven Pinker calls this the “Moralization Gap.” This psychological theory refers to how we unconsciously overestimate our own good intentions while underestimating the intentions of others.
Manson says that the Moralization Gap creates a downward spiral where we believe that other people deserve more punishment and we deserve less punishment because our own “perceived faults” are almost always the result of “extenuating circumstances.”
5) Using your comfort zone as a crutch
No doubt we all find our comfort zones, well, comforting. But many of us deliberately stay stuck on the same spin cycle so that we don’t have to have difficult but necessary conversations with say a boss about how some things need to change in our job.
Or we deliberately put off talking to our spouses about something that we know needs to change in the relationship.
To be mentally tougher means feeling the fear and having those conversations. It also means being prepared for an outcome that we may not like.
Life is full of uncertainty and change. As scary as these may sound, they are much better than going through the motions of the “same old, same old.”
Try to be in the frame of mind that doesn’t prevent you from moving forward in life.
6) Wearing your busyness like a badge
This one is kind of similar to the above. There is always something to do with the day to day. But if you are purposely distracting yourself with “busyness” so as to avoid purposeful or difficult conversations, then you are avoiding life.
“A busy schedule can make you feel important. But a full calendar also leaves little room for reflection, personal development, and mental strength training,” says Business Insider’s Amy Morin. “Building mental muscle often requires more ‘being’ and less ‘doing.’”
Morin says that practicing mindfulness, for example, requires a conscious effort.
Part of developing mental toughness can mean allowing the brain to drift freely so that new inspiration has a chance to come in.
7) Not implementing self control when it comes to social media
If you find it difficult to take a break from social media at regular intervals or especially when it takes up many hours of your day, then you need to develop skills to make you mentally stronger.
It’s wise to be more intentional about your media consumption, says Morin.
This includes everything from the news you watch to the people you follow on Instagram and the like.
She says that most of us tend to be pretty passive about what we consume on a regular basis. “Endless scrolling and mindless channel flipping can drain you of mental strength for a few reasons.”
This could mean an increase in anxiety, and allowing yourself to be bombarded with catastrophic mental events. Research shows that our moods and emotional well-being tend to dip down after spending even just a few minutes on social media.
One reason? We often compare ourselves to other people who seemingly live more interesting lives than we do.
One suggestion is to only follow accounts that you know will uplift and inspire you.
Remember these three things to develop more mental resilience
Michelle Ribiero from Positive Psychology believes it’s important to remember three things when it comes to increasing your mental toughness:
Replace negative thoughts with positive, more realistic thoughts; control your emotions so that your emotions don’t control you; and if you can, take positive action.
This last one will get you outside your head while at the same time instilling more trust in your capability to find the right solution for you.