Written by: Natasha P. Trujillo, Ph.D., Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
What comes to mind when you think about what it means to have mental strength? Historically, the concept of mental toughness has been consumed by expectations around the ability to shake any negativity off (e.g., fear, mistakes, doubt, pressure), exude brevity and courage (e.g., speak to your fearlessness, show no sign of weakness), and push through pain at all costs (e.g., physical, emotional, or otherwise). This perspective is rampant in the majority of the environments in which I work, elite-level athletics and performance-focused domains. In these spaces, people often get rewarded for ignoring their mind and body’s signals, pushing themselves to the brink and earning street credibility for striving to achieve the impossible.
Not too long ago, I both admired and embodied this mindset. I put copious amounts of time and energy into pursuing this standard for mental toughness. To be fearless and unwavering was everything. To express any ounce of uncertainty or reconsideration meant I wasn’t focused enough and wasn’t truly dedicated to my craft, whatever it was. Excuses were not allowed. Sound familiar? Now, in certain situations I fully support and see the benefit of these cognitive tools, but is it really in your best interest to only define mental strength by how fast you can run yourself into the ground (regardless of the costs) and then get up only to repeat the same cycle over again?
Increasingly, research has found that this unbreakable “do more, do better, it’s never enough” mindset may hinder physical and mental performance outcomes long-term. What the human body and brain can push itself to do is incredible and deserves much praise and attention. But there is a caveat in some situations: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. I’d like to offer a few ways to stretch your understanding of what it means to be mentally tough to allow for your humanity to have a seat at the table as well. Mental toughness shouldn’t be a black-and-white issue. Depending on the circumstance, flexibility and an ability to live in the gray area will optimize performance. The longer I have embarked on my journey as a counseling and sports psychologist, the more opportunities I have taken to be open to changing my own mind. Consider this: achieving true mental toughness requires a redefined and more adaptive approach that utilizes the following three processes: challenging goals, self-efficacy, and self-control.
Setting Challenging Goals
A brief summary of goal orientation theory is presented to help orient you to different mindsets used to create and achieve goals.
Focus on mastering the learning process
Focus on optimizing performance and beating others
Mistakes are learning opportunities
Performances judged on standards of self-improvement and progress
Mistakes = failure
Performances judged on binary win vs. lose, best vs. worst
Focus on avoiding worst possible outcome (surpass minimum threshold for mastery)
Focus on avoiding worst possible outcome (failure is not an option)
Mistakes = failure
Performances judged on binary of right vs. wrong
Mistakes = failure
Performance judged on not being the worst performer
To help elevate your potential, focusing on mastery-approach goals is a great place to start. This process can begin with improving your self-awareness. What is your why? WHY are you interested in pursuing a certain goal? What’s in it for you and how does it align with your identities and your values? From there, you want to create specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely goals (you can use the acronym SMART to help you remember). You want to focus on absorbing as much of the process as you can while you pursue a goal. It is often not in your best interest to avoid the worst potential outcome by either doing the bare minimum or playing it safe to prevent wrongdoing. You want to stretch yourself into a zone of discomfort, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming or stunts your actual ability to perform. It may take some time to figure out what your sweet spot looks like, but the trial and error involved only furthers the intentions behind the mastery-approach orientation. Mistakes are opportunities to refine and become better. Performance can be analyzed through the lens of what progress is made. The goal is to have a more balanced approach to recognizing what is going well, what is not going well, and what needs to change (a series of questions I like to call the three magic questions).
A barrier that often prevents sustainable mental toughness is too much focus on the results. Sure, we all want to see positive outcomes and feel like the work we put in is what made a certain result happen. The problem is that in reality, it is not a cause-and-effect relationship. When self-worth or success is dependent on a desired outcome, and that outcome doesn’t happen, it can break down the persistence needed to be resilient. Self-esteem and aptitude for hardship may also diminish. There are internal and external factors that affect outcomes, many of which are simply out of our control, regardless of how hard we work. It is helpful to consider the steps toward domination in order to build a mastery-approach orientation. A key to unlocking this area of mental toughness is focusing on the process, not just the outcome. Sure – setting a goal means selecting a destination you would like to reach. The result is a desired conclusion. But how do you get there? Attention to the journey between points A and B can put you in a better position to control the controllables, create adaptive routines, and inch you toward victory. This also enables you to demonstrate the ability to refine self-trust and belief, as self-efficacy teaches us that we must believe in our ability to achieve a task. It is empowering to prove to yourself that you can handle distress and in fact, grow from it. Avoiding stress altogether proves nothing. Being engaged with the process also encourages you to focus on the present moment, reminding you of what you have right now.
Unfortunately, part of acknowledging the process is also accepting that sometimes you will do everything in your power, do it well, and still not achieve the intended result. Identifying what is and is not within your control is a vital part of this process. Further, being able to adapt in the face of defeat and utilize strategies to regulate and control your emotions and behaviors can be what set you apart. Uncertainty and elements that you cannot influence will always be part of the puzzle. A new approach to mental toughness should include accepting these frustrating yet honest parts of life in a way that help you improve your perceived ability to cope with the unknown and unwanted rather than trying to predict the unpredictable and control the uncontrollable. I often use the phrase “persist or pivot” in these instances. As a former basketball player and point guard, when two defenders were about to trap me in the corner of the court, I had two options. I could persist through the double-team and try to pass the ball, or I could pivot to give myself a new perspective on the court and try something else. Feeling in control of myself set the foundation for these
4 Ways To Expand Your Ability To Be Mentally Tough
Putting the above points into practice, here are four effective ways to expand your understanding and pursuit of mental toughness:
Listen to your body - Acknowledge and respond to your inner dialogue both mentally and physically. Amid a tough situation, make sure the adaptive parts of you are in charge. Do you need to skip a workout, take a break you hadn’t anticipated, or say no to something you wouldn’t otherwise? This encompasses knowing when you haven’t taken care of other basic needs that may impact your desired result. Not getting enough sleep or prolonged inadequate nutrition may be reminders that you need to care for your body in a more restorative than challenging way in the moment. That IS mental toughness. Just ask any elite athlete… it is much more mentally tough to take a step back from a workout than persist through it.
Set authentic goals – Assess your situation and work to build self-awareness through introspection and using external resources to get to know yourself better (e.g., therapy, mindfulness practices, vulnerability with loved ones). Understand and accept your capabilities. Do what you can to make life easier as you work toward goals. For example, if you are starting a business but you KNOW that you want nothing to do with the marketing side of things, hire out and build a team to manage the pieces you dislike or aren’t strong in. Once again, just because you can, doesn't mean you should. It is ok to stay in your lane. Knowing resources to pull from and being willing to ask for assistance when needed is a huge part of redefining true strength.
Respond, don't react – You can’t always control what is going to happen to you, nor what your immediate response is to certain incidents. But, you can work on how you respond to events. Practice mindfulness techniques to hone in your self-control. Allow space to make the appropriate choices without forcing knee-jerk reactions that may lead you further away from your desired destination. Work to include both the logical and emotional parts of your brain for a more balanced appraisal of what you are facing.
Learn resilience by seeking discomfort – We do not become mentally tough by avoiding things that challenge us. Being tough requires knowing when something will be hard and choosing to do it anyway. Pursue and find meaning in discomfort. Embrace fear, pressure, and even failure. When you are using these skills in combination, you will be able to assess which challenges are worth your time and which won’t ultimately serve you. When errors, setbacks, or failures do exist, having a more balanced approach to explore the gains and the losses of your lived experience will help you bounce back better, breaking through to your potential for resiliency.
Natasha P. Trujillo, Ph.D., Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Dr. Trujillo is a counseling and sport psychologist dedicated to helping individuals, teams, and organizations build awareness of self, others, and the world to reach their full potential in and out of their craft. She owns a private practice where she seeks to educate, consult, and provide mental health and sport psychology services that are evidenced-based and collaborative. She works primarily with athletes, performers, and high-achievers to help them find balance in their pursuit of success and acceptance of their own humanity. She strives to help people learn how to simply “be”, and get better at what they do. She has specializations in grief/loss, eating disorders, trauma, anxiety, & identity development.