5 Hard-Learned Lessons for Mental Toughness in a Tough World

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

Nope. Not today. Not this time.

This time I’m not giving in. I’ve made up my mind and I’m sticking to it. This time, I’m asking for that raise/I’m saying no/I’m starting my new routine.

I absolutely refuse to cave in again today.

Today, right now, I will be strong, ask for what I want, and stand up for myself.

I’ll be brilliant and tough as a diamond! I’m going for it!

Oh, shit. Was that a disapproving look? Are they already mad at me?

Great, now I’m getting all jittery. I think I’m going to cry. How can I ask for anything when I’m crying?

What if they laugh at me? I’ll be crushed. And humiliated. I’ll never survive the shame.

And really, who am I kidding?

This is too hard. It’s too much work, and let’s face it, I don’t have what it takes. So I’m bailing out right now and salvaging the scraps…

Ever had a similar argument with yourself?

Back and forth it goes.

And somehow, even though there’s no one else involved, you end up feeling like the loser. A total pushover. Weak, indecisive, and undeserving.

At the first hint of conflict, you back off and settle for mediocrity.

Well, you’re certainly not alone.

The easy story

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” — Marcus Aurelius

Most of us like to play it safe, because it’s easy. Easy is the path of least resistance, with little or no risks and no danger.

Unfortunately, the safe path has its own hidden dangers.

Like getting stuck in comfort and complacency. With no challenges or risks to stretch us, there’s no growth or expansion.

We become diminished. Then we play the game of life from a small, defensive perspective. Opportunities dry up and prosperity does as well.

And when our low-risk behavior yields low-reward results, we rationalize our behavior and justify why we’re stuck.

We tell ourselves the easy story — and blame everyone and everything else for our problems.

But your problems aren’t “out there.” There are no enemies or external obstacles thwarting your dreams. It’s just your own personal story and the daily choices you make from it.

How I learned mental toughness during the toughest time of my life

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” — Napoleon Hill

Back in the early days of sobriety I had some pretty nasty story loops running through my head.

My thoughts, and resulting emotions and actions, were flat-out toxic, self-defeating, and the cause of much suffering.

Not surprisingly, once my head emerged from my derriere, there were some hard lessons for me to face up to.

Like accepting that the only source of my grief was me. At first, this can a very bitter pill to swallow. But it turns out to be wonderfully liberating.

Because accepting responsibility gives you your choices back. If you don’t like who or what you’ve become, you can change it. And when you choose to actively exercise your power of choice, there is nothing to stop you. Literally.

After that, it’s a simple matter of implementing a series of pragmatic steps to change your programming. And your results.

Here are the lessons that helped me develop the mental toughness I needed to survive, then thrive and flourish in recovery. And they continue to facilitate my biggest wins in the decades since then.

1. The examined life

The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates

Before you can develop the grit to stand up to the outside world, you need to stand up to yourself first.

And that involves introspection, an unbiased look at your life as it stands today.

Mental toughness requires an honest appraisal of what causes your behaviors. One that reveals the emotional triggers that feed dissatisfying cycles and patterns. And reveals the growing cost of related consequences.

This appraisal isn’t something to hide from. Or another excuse to be harsh on yourself.

It’s a useful exercise to better understand your own desires, habits, strengths, and weaknesses. An internal audit of your personal assets and liabilities.

Because without knowledge of your own deepest beliefs, rules, and values, you’re living someone else’s version of your life. A shadow existence blindly obedient to past influences.

And any unique soul expression that’s yearning to grow inside you gets squashed and buried to preserve the familiar.

Honest self-appraisal develops the abilities needed to identify and monitor your emotions and moods. It lets you in on your powerful inner motives, so you can build on the positive ones and diminish the negatives.

And the better you know you, the easier it is to accept life’s opportunities and handle her challenges.

The bottom line of the examined life is this: freedom to create your life as you want it to be.

Here’s what to do

Schedule some down time with pen and paper to get to know yourself better.

Challenge your assumptions. Scrutinize your beliefs. Dissect your choices. Shine a light on your fears. Pinpoint your habits. Expose what you’re protecting. Decide on your values.

Armed with this knowledge, you’ll always know how to steer yourself to your best outcome.

2. Plug the power leaks

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

As Mr. Einstein pointed out, to solve our problems we need a different kind of thinking.

This is because most of us are under the spell of our inner self-talk. We identify with its voice. We believe this is who we are, and we’re comfortable with its emotions, fears, history, and judgements.

But this is the same character that wants to keep us safe.

It doesn’t like change and tries to influence or manipulate circumstances to prevent new experiences. It’s biased, close-minded, fearful, and sly.

And, believing it’s you, it is highly defensive of your personality.

Upholding this small identity is where our power leaks out. Maintaining its mental positions is what saps our resolve and strength.

This is not the part of mind we want in charge of our self-examination. But it is the part we want to observe.

Our practice then is to loosen the resistance of the small, egoic mind by observing it in action.

Here’s what to do

Begin by watching your thoughts — the constant, internal running commentary.

Our heads are full of noise and nonsense, but watch for the thoughts that trigger negativity. Such as anger, comparisons, doubt, hurt, judgements, resentments, and so on.

Keep following the trail. From negative thoughts to painful emotions. Keep a distance because you don’t engage or identify with them. Just observe. Be a curious, but neutral observer.

With only a little practice, you’ll soon recognize the true source of your unhappiness.

It isn’t any situation, event, or other people — it’s your own persistent attachment to negative thoughts and emotions. It’s your story.

Expect some initial resistance and discomfort as you begin this practice. But with persistence, the small self softens and fades, creating an inner stillness.

In that space, you’re free to choose alternative thoughts. Ones that lead to authenticity, confidence, and strength.

3. Get skillful at self-regulation

“He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.” — Lao Tzu

Grit and decisiveness also require the skill of self-regulation.

Self-regulation may sound horribly boring and restrictive, but it serves two important functions.

1. You develop the ability to change behavior

Self-regulation is the the skill needed to curb impulses and delay gratification.

It’s used to act according to our core values and long-term interests — not compulsions or short term cravings.

2. You develop the ability to manage and change moods

It also develops the ability to sooth and calm yourself when agitated. Or to pick yourself up when feeling down.

Effective self-regulation starts with understanding that every situation gives us three options. We can approach it, avoid it, or attack it.

Avoidance and attack are common responses, but deliver dodgy results.

Approaching a situation lets you plan for success, it’s proactive.

Approach requires self-assessment so that you know your strengths, weaknesses, and what triggers impulsive behavior.

Only then can you plot the most optimal path to your goals and avoid the pitfalls that cause your grief.

Here’s what to do

  1. Exercise mindfulness. Mindfulness practices help to manage emotions, interrupts automatic ruminations, and delays the urge for gratification.
  2. Identify your triggers and stressors. Red-flag your problem areas so you can make plans to respond to stressors differently.
  3. Grow up. Pinpoint the harmful emotions and feelings that keep you stuck in the past then reframe them to be useful in the present.

4. Rescript your story

“A storyteller finds order in the apparent chaos of life, and order is a light in the darkness.” — Dean Koontz

We’re all highly accomplished story tellers.

Unfortunately, most of our small-self stories bring darkness to the light. They’re limiting and rife with illusions of inadequacy and lack. They’re low-value tales that don’t deserve the attention or energy we invest in them.

But we can reset our narrative. Our personality isn’t fixed, it’s pliable. We can tell a much better story.

And when we change our story (our beliefs), we change how we feel and act. Our identity changes and so do our experiences.

Here’s what to do

To rewrite your narrative, start with the big themes. The ones that repeat and restrict. You already know which ones they are.

Choose a single pattern to focus on and work on that alone.

Identify the negative belief at its core, then become mindful and note each time it wants to repeat in your head.

Once you’re familiar with the pattern, rephrase your self-talk for better results.

Use words that are encouraging, friendly, and strong. Make them actionable in the present moment, and productive.

For a narrative reset to be effective, frequent repetition is needed.

So along with your self-talk, journal about it morning and night. Set up audible or visible reminders to prompt your new train of thought throughout the day.

And — this is important, don’t skip this — generate the elevated emotions and feelings of your new script.

You want those loving, “good, good vibrations.” Not the dense, low-energy vibes of anger, doubt, or fear.

Because the sooner you raise your emotional energy to match your story, the sooner your story becomes reality.

5. Share your wins

“Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste.” — Charlotte Bronte

Celebrating victories and sharing your wins is another important component of internal grit and perseverance.

Many of us shy away from tooting our own horn. Others go the other way, crowing on social media for adulation.

But when good news is authentically shared with family, friends, peers, or support groups it helps in three significant areas.

1. You solidify your new identity

Perception becomes reality, and sharing ideas is how we strengthen them.

Sharing unifies an idea by increase and integrates it through extension to others.

This means that sharing your wins reinforces your new identity as successful, as well as abundant and generous.

Because when you want for others the same bounty you enjoy, you’re coming from a place of fullness and joy. And the knowledge that you are always enough is a definite trait of mental toughness.

2. Success begets success

Celebrating and sharing our wins also highlights what’s working.

It focuses your attention on the steps that led to your success. This makes them attractive and easier to repeat.

Repeating the steps reinforces the positives, builds momentum, and increases motivation.

And as you celebrate, others are encouraged to find ways to create their own success.

3. You develop gratitude

Discussing breakthroughs and positive experiences leads to a heightened sense of well-being. It also develops greater energy and increased life satisfaction.

In short, we feel good about ourselves. About the effort we’ve made to bring our vision to fruition — the commitment, dedication, discipline, and sacrifice.

When we share these qualities, we reflect on them and value the good fortune they bring.

We become grateful. And gratitude is an elevated emotion, one of appreciation and joy.

Gratitude feels good. It’s one of those “Hell, yeah!” emotions that we definitely want more of!

The joyous feelings found in higher emotions such as gratitude can be cultivated with a change of focus. The simple act of looking for more things to feel grateful for delivers more evidence to justify your gratitude.

Here’s what to do

At night, journal about three things you’re currently grateful for. Make it short and sweet, bullet points are fine. But don’t leave it there.

For each item, give three reasons why you’re grateful for it. What value does it align with? How does it improve your life? Why would you want this for those you love?

Every day, this gives you nine new insights into what you value. Insights into what you already have, building your sense of personal wealth.

All of which contributes to decisiveness and a steely mindset.

Work gratitude into your new story and look at life with fresh eyes. You’ll be amazed at how many benevolent blessings and lucky stars may have slipped your notice.

Tough, but smart

It takes a lot of courage to let go of old, familiar stories and habits.

But it’s the smart thing to do.

Because no one deserves to feel inadequate or second rate. And no one comes into this world to be shamed or weak or victimized.

Even if our past is filled with pain and trauma, the future does not have to be the same.

Start now and create a daily practice to develop the skills needed for mental toughness. Then create the life of your choice. Because once your limiting story is gone, anything you can imagine is possible.

Remember that consistency is a key element — so put your heart into your practice.

You’ll love the sweet sense of accomplishment when grit and perseverance are part of your makeup!

And don’t sweat it when your efforts aren’t perfect. Just pick yourself up, get back on track, and keeping moving forward — it’s all part of the process.

A life and sobriety coach I assist clients to eliminate negative patterns, crystalize priorities, and attain goals. https://www.smarthabitsremarkableresults.com

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