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Flexing Your Mental Muscles: A Guide to Building Mental Strength

Updated: 2 days ago

A key to becoming our best selves is in the power of our minds. Just as we exercise to strengthen our skeletal muscles, there are practices we can adopt to boost our mental resilience. But we will never significantly strengthen our brain’s "biceps" without learning how to work them out. And unfortunately, most of us never do this critical work.

Drawing insights from authors Amy Morin, LCSW, Stephen Covey, and Craig Manning, this blog explores how to cultivate a mindset that embraces challenges, overcomes fear, and leads to a fulfilling life. By integrating their teachings into our daily lives, we can begin to develop our mental strength, enhancing our confidence and performance, especially during tough times.

The Wisdom of Amy Morin: What Mentally Strong People Don't Do

Amy Morin, a renowned psychotherapist, outlines common bad habits that mentally strong individuals avoid.

These include:

  • Wasting Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves: Mentally strong people take responsibility for their actions and outcomes, rather than dwelling on their misfortunes.  They understand that life isn’t always easy or fair.

  • Giving Away Their Power: They maintain control over their emotions and decisions, refusing to let others dictate their feelings and actions. They understand that they are in control of their emotions in that they always have a choice in how they respond to any given situation.

  • Shying Away from Change: Embracing change is a hallmark of mental strength. Adaptable individuals understand that change is inevitable and they see change as an opportunity for growth.

  • Focusing on Things They Can't Control: By concentrating on what they can influence, mentally strong people maximize their efficacy and peace of mind. They accept that they can’t control everything the world presents to them, but they maximize their response by maintaining control over their focus, their behavior, and their attitude.

  • Worrying About Pleasing Everyone: They understand it's impossible to please everyone and they prioritize their well-being and values.  Although they strive to be helpful, kind, and fair, they understand that at times, others will be displeased with some of their decisions.  They are not afraid to say no or to share a contrary opinion.

  • Additionally:  They don’t fear taking calculated risks.  They don’t make the same mistakes over and over.  They don’t dwell on  past negative events, but rather focus on the present and plan for the future. They don’t resent other people’s success, but rather continue to work hard for their own definition of success.  They don’t feel the world owes them anything other than a fair opportunity, rather they look for progressions based on their own merits. They don’t expect immediate results, instead they apply their skills and time to the best of their ability and they understand that real change takes time.  They don’t fear alone time, but rather they enjoy their own company and the opportunity to examine their own minds.

Stephen Covey's Habits of Highly Effective People

Stephen Covey's seminal work, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," provides a framework for personal and professional effectiveness.  These habits include:

1. Be Proactive

The foundation of Covey's habits, being proactive, is about taking responsibility for our own lives. It emphasizes focusing on our circle of influence—things we can control—rather than our circle of concern—things beyond our control. Proactive individuals recognize their responsibility for their actions and base their behavior on goal/values-based decisions rather than conditions or circumstances.

2. Begin With the End in Mind

This habit involves envisioning what you want in the future so you can work and plan towards it. It's based on the principle that all things are created twice: first mentally, and then physically. Developing a Personal Mission Statement is a key strategy for implementing this habit, helping to focus on what you want to be and do.

3. Put First Things First

Building on the first two habits, this principle is about prioritizing and executing tasks based on their importance rather than urgency. It encourages spending more time on activities that are not urgent but important, which leads to a more balanced and effective life.

4. Think Win-Win

Covey advocates for a cooperative approach rather than a competitive one. A win-win mindset seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions, asserting that agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial and satisfying to all parties involved as much as possible.

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

This habit emphasizes the importance of empathetic listening to genuinely understand another person, which significantly enhances interpersonal relations. It's about listening with the intent to understand, not to reply, which builds deep, open communication.

6. Synergize

Synergy is about valuing differences and bringing together diverse people to create something greater than the sum of their parts. It's the culmination of effective teamwork, open-mindedness, and the adventure of finding new solutions to old problems through collaboration.

7. Sharpen the Saw

The final habit focuses on self-renewal and continuous improvement in the four areas of life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. Covey suggests activities like exercise for physical renewal, reading and education for mental renewal, service and empathy for social/emotional renewal, and meditation or spiritual reading for spiritual renewal. This habit ensures that we maintain and increase our effectiveness by renewing ourselves regularly.

Covey's principles are timeless and apply across personal and professional spheres, emphasizing character over personality. The character ethic is about building a foundation of integrity, humility, fidelity, and courage, which leads to lasting success and effectiveness. In contrast, the personality ethic (focusing on surface-level attitudes and behaviors) is less effective in the long run. Covey's work has influenced millions by providing a framework for personal integrity and effectiveness through these seven habits.

Craig Manning's Fearless Mind

Author and tennis coach Craig Manning's "The Fearless Mind" emphasizes the importance of overcoming fear in order to achieve peak performance. "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy!" indicates an ego-based orientation that prioritizes outcomes (the need to win) over process (performing at my current best). My self-worth is on the line. My value as a person depends on the outcome of this match. On the other hand, "I want to stay focused on my game plan while under pressure in this match. I want to master the specific skills I have been practicing and apply them throughout this match to the best of my ability. Let me focus all my attention and energy on what needs to be done in this moment." The process orientation of mastering specific skills and performing them in pressure situations uncouples both wins and losses from self-worth. Give the best effort you can at the time, and be content with that! Winning takes care of itself if we keep improving.

Key takeaways include:

  • Cognitive Control: Mastery over one's thoughts is crucial for high performance: minimizing mental interference and staying focused on what is in our control to do.  Adjust to the demands of the current moment. Learn and channel our energy into what we have control over.

  • Embracing a Growth Mindset: Viewing challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. Perfectionism is a trap. Step by step steady achievement of sequential goals is the path to one’s best self.  Become good at working hard.

  • Focusing on Strengths: Leveraging personal strengths leads to enhanced performance.  In sports and in life, you don’t have control over someone else’s performance, only your own.  Generate confidence in an “I can do this” attitude.  True strength comes from an indomitable will. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the decision that something else is more important than fear.

Integrating These Practices into Daily Life

To truly benefit from the insights of these three authors, it's essential to incorporate their ideas into our daily routines. Here are some practical steps to get started:

First, review the characteristics of mental strength from the authors above until they become intimately familiar to you.

  • Reflect Daily: Spend time each day integrating the insights and concepts from our authors that are not yet a part of your habit base. Then reflect on your actions, thoughts, and feelings from the previous day. Identify areas for improvement and acknowledge your successes.

  • Set Clear Goals: Define what you want to achieve in various aspects of your life. Break these down into actionable steps.

  • Embrace Challenges: View obstacles as opportunities to strengthen your mental muscles. Remember, much growth can come from struggle.

  • Practice Gratitude: Regularly acknowledge and appreciate the good in your life. This can shift your focus from what's lacking to what's abundant.

  • Seek Feedback: Be open to constructive criticism and use it as a tool for personal and professional development.

By adopting these habits and mindsets as a new tool in your toolbox, you'll find yourself better equipped to handle life's challenges with grace and resilience. Remember, mental strength is like a muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. 

Become mindful of moments in your life when you are feeling distressed and hit the pause button with some deep breathing. This simple act can pull you out of the spiral of emotions and move you into your more calm, self-observing function. Then ask yourself, how would I handle this issue from a position of mental strength?  You will be amazed at how often you can call upon this new tool to come to your assistance in any given day; a difficult discussion with your boss or spouse, that arrogant uncle on Holidays, or holding your serve to stay in the match. And calling upon these skills will soon make them your habits. Start flexing your mental muscles today and watch as your confidence and life performance grow during even the most challenging episodes.

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