Most of us think of mentally tough folks as larger-than-life characters—like endurance athletes, war heroes and rags to riches billionaires. Yet, such extreme examples of superhuman self-control and mental discipline often distort the true picture.
In truth, mental toughness on a day-to-day basis is much less visible and grandiose, but, nonetheless, real. For example, it’s the stuff of great parenting, great teaching and great leadership.
Moreover, to some great extent, becoming more mentally tough is a personal necessity if you hope to achieve your own goals or lead others in achieving theirs. And behavioral science can help.
By appealing to the research, you can discern what habits consistently lead to mental strength and resilience, even when the models are war heroes and Olympians. Here are 5 such habits, based on science:
- Deal with your own weaknesses and don’t judge others. Mentally strong people understand the overwhelming power of thoughts. They recognize, for example, how filling one’s head with criticism of others wastes mental space better spent strengthening and improving one’s self. Yet, there’s also science to support this great habit. In particular, researchers have found judging and criticizing others establishes and increases (with the extent of judgment) what’s known as the “bias blind spot.” That’s psychological predisposition we all have that prevents us from seeing our own mental hangups. Under BBS, we become self-professed experts at pointing out the flaws of other’s thinking. In a typical, motivating example, we believe others should think as we do and discount their disagreeing with us to stemming from their own biases. While we might perceive such stubbornness as reflecting our own mental strength and conviction, it undermines it. Our biased way of thinking (in this case, our “subjective worldview”) makes us vulnerable to manipulation by those who tell us what we want to hear (i.e., “confirmation bias), fake news and all the rest. In other words, we become blind to our own illogic. Yet, in building mental strength, the habit to cultivate here involves catching ourselves before we pass judgment—or even the slightest criticism. Indeed, real mental warriors go the extra step and turn their own criticisms on themselves. They ask, “Could I be seeing in this person a problem (a hangup, a bias, etc.) that I’m actually guilty of myself?”
- Don’t trust your own thinking. One positive consequence of not judging and reducing the bias blind spot is what’s called intellectual humility. That’s a powerful trait one builds up over time by refusing to trust one’s own thinking. In other words, the intellectually humble person is aware she might be wrong. She knows that not only might there be other valid points of view, hers might be invalid. Moreover, the intellectually humble person is willing to be proven wrong without falling apart emotionally. Such behavior then opens the doorway to learning, avoiding biases and taking advantage of new knowledge. Yet, to be clear, refusing to trust one’s own judgment does not mean to lack confidence. It means to refrain from coming to conclusions on the basis of speculative assumptions. With that said, it’s easy to see why mentally strong people would want to avoid trusting their own thoughts. If your boss or colleagues are a bit abrupt with you one day, it’s easy to assume it’s for the wrong reasons. Acting on those reasons (say, by confronting them or even just engaging them) could be disastrous. Thus, by cultivating the habit of open-mindedness and learning—even that learning is from someone you don’t respect for their knowledge—you might gain mental strength.
- Don’t pity yourself. Mentally strong people recognize that self-pity is a Siren that can lure you to a watery, psychological death. For every excuse you create, you clone a mental ‘roommate’ who constantly nags at you whenever you face the slightest difficulty. You’re hungry? Your roommate tells you you must eat or you’ll die. You tired? The excuse comes to mind that you can’t possibly work any harder. By contrast, mentally strong people rid themselves of this enemy roommate early on. In a study of disabled and seriously ill people, for example, researchers found that few, if any such resilient warriors engaged in self-pity. Indeed, when compared to people in the study not suffering such afflictions, the disabled and physically ill exhibited markedly less self-pity and greater happiness and well being. The implication is obvious. By stopping the self-pity for the smallest inconveniences and challenges, we gradually get rid of our unpleasant and goal-destroying roommates.
- Show pity towards others. At the same time, showing pity for others is incredibly powerful Indeed, Darwinists and classical economists both have been dealt a major setback. Contrary to the oft-argued notion that selfishness is genetic and part of our nature—and the Darwinist dictum of survival of the fittest—researchers from Berkeley have shown mankind’s development is more on the order of survival of the kindest. In other words, empathy and sympathy are actually more necessary for human survival than self-interest and the pursuit of personal gain. They’ve also found that this tendency towards pitying others is a genetic survival trait. In relation to mental toughness and resilience, the scientists found parents who cultivate and demonstrate empathy and sympathy in their families end up with happier and more resilient children. And this doesn’t just apply to children. Adults too can gain greater resilience and mental strength by simply showing greater compassion towards others.
- Understand fear and how to control it. One of the most important characteristics of a mentally strong person is her ability to deal with uncertain surprises—particularly bad ones. Fear, as I’ve written elsewhere, can be addressed through a variety of coping mechanisms. For example, we naturally tend to greet the unknown with a fear of loss that biases our thinking, actions and abilities to intelligently take risks. Yet, mentally strong and resilient people practice resist this tendency. They self-distance by stepping away from a situation in order to re-collect themselves. Wisdom tells them that responding quickly but haphazardly to a crisis is typically more dangerous than responding thoughtfully, but with a slight delay. That makes such people more successful professionally and better suited for positions of leadership. Hence, the term “fearless leader” might be a redundant phrase, at least insofar as mentally strong leaders go.
Instead of trying to make sense of anecdotes from people who run races from New York to California, or used their bodies as human shields in Afghanistan, science can help us discern what habits consistently lead to mental strength. The great importance of those heroic deeds notwithstanding, what’s more useful for us mortals is an outline of the habits research tells us work most of the time. Hopefully, practicing the above 5 gives you a good start.