April 12, 2021

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Are You Mentally Tough?

We have rounded out a year of life with a global pandemic that has tested, challenged, and jolted us as individuals and as a society in extraordinary ways. The mental health effects are astounding and will likely continue for many years.

For several months I have been reminded of Amy Morin’s book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, in which she describes her studies of people who have lived through a traumatic or difficult time in their lives. She observed two types of people: those who remained stuck and those who emerged stronger.

Her research was fueled by her own experience with significant loss, resulting in feeling broken and mentally drained. Throughout her tenure as a psychotherapist, she was often asked, “What does a strong woman look like?”

The past year’s events seem fitting to revisit the thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that promote mental toughness and help us rebound from the various challenges we’ve faced within the recent past (or in general).

Here are the 13 things she observed mentally strong people don’t do:

  1. Waste time feeling sorry for yourself — This is a tough one because we need to acknowledge and process our feelings and emotions when we experience something difficult or traumatic. But there’s a distinction between processing and dealing with emotions and feelings and having self-pity. Feeling sorry for yourself is self-destructive. Work on reframing how you look at situations from focusing mainly on negative aspects to a more realistic view that includes positive elements.
  2. Give away your power We all have, or had, people in our lives who frustrate, take advantage of, or even hurt us. When we don’t set healthy emotional and physical boundaries for ourselves, we risk giving away our power to others. Equip yourself with the knowledge that no one else can control how you feel.
  3. Shy away from change Many of us shy away from change because doing something different is too risky or uncomfortable. Change can certainly be difficult and painful, but the reality is it is inescapable and, in many cases, benefits us. Instead, accept it is inevitable and welcome it, and create plans to implement change as it occurs successfully.
  4. Focus on things you can’t controlIn the past year, there seems to be even more going on that we can’t control. Be aware of times when you’ve devoted too much energy to people and circumstances that couldn’t be changed. Identify any fears related to the situation, and identify what you can control. Sometimes all we can control is our behavior and attitude.
  5. Worry about pleasing everyone I admittedly can fall into this trap by convincing myself that I should do whatever I can to help others. Helping and serving others is a beautiful thing but becomes unproductive when we do so at the expense of living out our own values. Clarifying what you value, practicing assertiveness, and accepting that you can’t please everyone boosts your mental toughness.
  6. Fear taking calculated risks Of course, taking risks doesn’t always mean being reckless or foolish. There are ways to take risks by assessing rewards versus downsides. Examining a situation from multiple angles allows you to be fully informed and see the potential hazards before taking any action. Building and maintaining a support system of family, friends, peers, and others helps to move forward with taking risks.
  7. Dwell on the past Similar to ‘waste time feeling sorry for yourself, it’s natural for us as humans to remember and cherish memories from our past — it’s healthy. Dwelling on the past limits us from moving forward and enjoying the future. Reflecting and learning, actively working through grief, and finding ways to make peace with the past helps you focus on looking forward and taking charge of your life.
  8. Make the same mistakes over and over As Albert Einstein says, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Making mistakes is inevitable, but the key is to recognize what led to those mistakes and proactively mitigate those factors in the future.
  9. Resent other people’s success It’s hard to consistently appreciate and celebrate others’ success, especially when we aren’t experiencing success in our own lives. Understand that other people’s successes don’t have to do with your failures; there are different definitions of success, and we should create and focus on pursuing our own goals toward success.
  10. Give up after the first failure We wouldn’t have many of the great success stories like Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Michael Jordan, or Maya Angelou if they gave up after failing. Failing is part of the journey to success, and in most cases, we bounce back stronger afterward.
  11. Fear alone time For many introverts (like me), we cherish alone time to recharge and rejuvenate. However, for others, being alone is not an enjoyable experience, nor is it a priority. Our modern society lends itself to an overstimulated environment through access to social media, streaming movies and TV, 24-hour news feeds, myriads of extra-curricular activities for children, and more. However, keeping a complete schedule and experiencing constant stimulation can lead to stress, anxiety, and being unproductive. Making an active effort to spend time alone, even for 5–10 minutes a few times a week, allows us an opportunity to clear our minds, practice mindfulness or meditation, reflect on goals and progress, dream, be thankful, and make plans. Spending time alone helps us be better when we’re with others.
  12. Feel the world owes you anythingThe past year has many feeling like we’re victims of circumstances beyond our control. There have indeed been many events and circumstances that are out of our control. There is a difference between acknowledging what cannot be controlled and working around those things versus having the perspective of being a victim of your environment and expecting something in return. As I often tell my children, there is nothing wrong with being upset or frustrated with a situation we can’t control, but we can control how we react to it. To move away from this tendency, focus on giving (instead of taking); think about how others feel, practice humility, and behave like a team player.
  13. Expect immediate results As a small business owner and continuous improvement practitioner, this one hits home. Our modern, fast-paced society popularizes the desire for instant effects or gratification. However, most efforts we undertake, such as improving our health, completing a project, or obtaining new education and skills, don’t provide immediate results. Like the well-known adage “good things come to those who wait,” we can benefit from delaying gratification. Begin by setting attainable goals. Create realistic expectations about how long it will take to reach a goal and how difficult it will be. Celebrate milestones along the way and pace yourself for the long haul.


Mentally tough people can better manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviors to move through the good times and the bad. The great thing about being mentally tough is that anyone can do it. There needs to be a certain amount of self-reflection and commitment to making changes.

Use this list as a starting point to ask yourself if you exhibit any of these thoughts, behaviors, and feelings as a first step to building your mental toughness.