The Argument for Mental Toughness

As a product of the 80’s and 90’s I got to watch some of the craziest changes in our history. The gap from limited resources to an absolute abundance (now seemingly heading back to a lack), the advent of the internet, email and all of the things that come along with it. It’s been incredible, some of the most exhilarating changes in history have happened in my lifetime. But along with some incredible highs there have also been some terrible lows. Even prior to our current pandemic we have watched depression and anxiety skyrocket across all age categories, while we may live longer than our parents many studies are showing that doesn’t mean it will be in good health. Roughly 2.1 billion people are considered overweight or obese, almost 1/3 of our world’s population! Stats show that on average roughly 10kg of extra body weight leads to 12% higher risk of coronary heart disease and 24% higher risk of stroke. So while I appreciate all of the recent body positivity focus I believe it is at a detriment to many peoples cardiovascular health and I know that when I was unhealthy my mental health suffered immensely.

Now does that mean you need to go to the lengths that I do to affect my mental and physical health? Fuck no, but could a large portion of our society gain some traction from focusing on their physical health and mental toughness rather than their mental health? If I didn’t already give it away, I believe that is a resounding yes.

Now I am not sure as a society where things like toughness, stoicism and confidence became villainous but it is getting harder to find acceptance of people that fall into these categories. It is interesting to watch the world try to view all things as though they are opposites when really they are dichotomous. They are all on a sliding scale and our goal should be to keep them centered as best as possible. Our society celebrated and needed major toughness for many years especially through world wars and the great depression. This led to some incredibly prosperous times, but these were built on the back of competition and zero sum games. There was not a lot of win/win situations and many were focused on doing anything they could to maintain power, on pushing down others to keep their status. It was inevitable that we would shift away from this and without being conscious about this shift it has not benefitted us all that well either. We have traded our problems of machoism and emotional repression for fragility and false vulnerability. Now neither are good, I actually believe that machoism is often a mask of insecurity but fragility serves no one. Emotional repression creates more issues than could ever be tracked and fake vulnerability just keeps us seeking attention through over sharing and making no effort to solve our own issues. We expect someone else to do it for us. I hate to burst the bubble but never mind the fact that no one cares about your issues enough to solve them for you, they have their own shit and are ill equipped to deal with them. Most people are barely staying afloat themselves so how can you expect someone to come along and save you?

Enter mental toughness.

Many people hear the term toughness and strength and shy away from them. Through the years they have often been confused with power and abuse. Our vernacular has become so convoluted so I will do my best to differentiate how I use the terms here. I look at toughness and strength as qualities of duality. You must strengthen your body as well as your mind if you truly want results, as David Goggins coined it “you must callous the mind”. Toughness is wrought through perseverance and striving to become better but only with the right intentions can real mental and physical toughness be achieved. You can become physically strong and still be weak of mind which leads to an individual with little mental control who leans to anger and aggression as coping mechanisms. Alternately you can strengthen your mind but if you do not work on your physical state then the vehicle to take you where you want to go will break down leaving you with no ability to accomplish what you have set out to do.

This brings me to my argument for mental toughness. If you think critically, over the last 20 years we have heard almost exclusively to “focus on your mental health”, “you have to come first” and “you should be happy”. I know they seem pretty innocuous but I think these 3 sentences are what has been screwing us all along. They tend to be too ambiguous which just leads to a lack of ability to take action. How do you actually take action on mental health? There is about a million ways to do this and none of them make inherent sense, but inevitably it boils down to strengthening your mind and fueling it appropriately. When I bring this up I typically get met with some blank stares but it truly isn’t complicated.

You have 2 avenues to strengthen your mind and a combination of the 2 has proven for me to be the best. You must find stillness. Think meditation, prayer, journaling, mindfulness and visualization. I am purposely not including affirmations in here as I think until they are true, for me at least I just feel like I am lying to myself. I prefer to be honest with myself about where I am at and tell myself that I am in the process of becoming great. The other key to mental toughness is literally doing hard shit. At some point we have to take action. There is no getting away from it and this is where many people get tripped up. Don’t get me wrong meditation for me is at times the hard shit. I still have no idea how to keep my mind quiet and accept my thoughts. This is why it is a practice, the point is to work at it. But in the beginning my hard was 5 push-ups and 5 sit-ups every single day. That then progressed to completing 75 hard, the 4x4x48 challenge and literally just today I have signed up for a 100km ultra marathon. It is always a journey, a progression and I think it all depends on how far you want to take it and how fucked up you are at the start of this journey.

The second part of mental toughness is how you fuel your mind. No one buys a Ferrari and puts regular gas in it, so if you are want to be a Ferrari you probably shouldn’t be putting low grade fuel into yourself either. The simplest way to figure out where your fuel situation is at is to audit what you consume. Most people jump straight to what they eat which is a great place to start but is only a portion of what I am talking about. Obviously the more processed, fast and unhealthy things you eat the more unhealthy and inflamed you become. But consumption doesn’t just stop at food and drink it is also what you watch, read and listen to. Think of the last few songs, shows, YouTube video’s or social media posts you consumed, were they uplifting or inspiring in any way? If so you might be on the right track. Now don’t worry you can still watch Sons of Anarchy, just maybe don’t binge 4 seasons in one night, instead fill in the gaps with something a little more uplifting. I tend to listen to podcasts that focus on mindset and learning when I am in the car, I cleanse my social media feeds of any negativity and use them as a space to be uplifting and invigorating rather than focused on gossip and fake news.

Now I know I haven’t touched on the other two points. So let’s look at them quickly.

It is not wrong to say that you have to come first, but most people misconstrue the term. They think that their feelings come first, that they should get what they want first. It is actually your growth and development that has to come first. You have to improve yourself in whatever facet you want those around you to improve. It is not that you get yours before they get theirs. It is improving yourself so that you can give more of yourself to help those around you.

Lastly I urge almost everyone I know to give up on happiness. Not because it isn’t great but because it can be a byproduct of the effort and work you put in. Rather than chasing it let it come to you. Emotions are neither good nor bad, that is just a judgement we have chosen to apply to them. No, emotions are meant to be gone through and the harder we try to hold on to any of them the tougher it becomes, the stronger our grasp needs to be. Thinking happiness is the default was the underlying issue to all of my mental health struggles in the past. I felt like there was something wrong with me every time I wasn’t happy, so in order to find happiness I would chase the things I thought made me happy like drinking, food, movies and going out. What I didn’t realize is that those things should be the rewards for work put in. I learned that happiness is not found it is made on the back of hard work and holding yourself accountable to what you say you will do. It took me a long time of chasing happiness to realize that I could just sit with my other emotions and it would come around, and if I leaned into those other emotions and actually tried to work through them instead of running from them it would come around sooner and more often. Just like the sun rising it becomes inevitable. Some nights may be longer than others but the sun always comes up.

This is my argument for our focus to shift to mental toughness. I don’t know how many people it will resonate with but it resonates with me and it has literally saved my life. I am grateful every day for what I have learned around this and would love to have more conversations around it. Don’t hesitate to reach out and if you think someone else would appreciate this I would greatly appreciate if you shared it with them!

4 Comments

    1. You are completely right. I am still finding my way in writing a blog and sometimes there are pieces I can’t quite fit in. It will definitely be in future blog posts but I don’t view “mental toughness” in the old school “shut-up and act tough” way we used to. It is building resilience and the tools to work through our mental health appropriately. Our thoughts are our own and we should find tools to manage them. Barring a medical diagnosis we can work with our biochemical makeup as well. I believe there is a lot around our mental health that can be affected by what we are consuming from the food we eat to the TV we watch it all plays a part. Thank you so much for your comment.

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  1. Great points. I especially appreciated your statement that pursuing happiness itself is not the way to be happy, but rather that happiness comes as a result of pursuing personal development.

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    1. Thank you! Your totally correct. Happiness is part of the reward of working towards something but it shouldn’t be the focal point. I think almost anything we want can’t just be pursued head on. Thanks for reading!

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