May is mental health awareness month – whichhich is why I am excited to blog about what I learned from one of my favorite books, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, by Amy Morin. Amy Morin is an acclaimed psychotherapist who lost her mother and husband in her twenties. Amy’s emotional challenges motivated her to engage in a deep study of mental resilience and culminated in four widely successful self-improvement books.
What I learned from this book is the importance of grit and perseverance. Of not running away and facing the hard things. It’s a case for mental toughness.
Mental toughness is our ability to perform consistently under stress and pressure and increasing our resilience to bounce back when things don’t go our way. That work is no different than work done in a physical gym – all of the practices in the book are like physical exercises that you can do to get stronger mentally.
Here is my summary of the 13 Things and how they can help you whenever you confront challenges and disappointments, on a smaller or grander scale. I would like to extend a warm thanks to my very good friend Ryan Trombley for his assistance in writing this article.
First, meet Amy Morin, or come back to this video later while you are doing a task or working out. It’s a truly inspiring story and her high level summary of the key to mental strength.
#1 They don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves.
The Dalai Lama once said, “Sometimes not getting what we want is an incredible stroke of luck.” The things that seem like huge disappointments often open the door to other opportunities that you could not even imagine. Without taking action, you will never be able to walk into those new doors. The easiest way out of self-pity is to redirect that self-pity energy into a new direction, like a new dream, living in gratitude, and helping others. It also helps to think of the toxic effect on our self-pity. When we dwell in self-pity, we become emotional vampires to the people in our lives, who have quite enough on their plates already.There is difference between venting (which can be good) and dumping, as this article by Dr. Robert Klitz does an excellent job of explaining.
#2 They don’t give away their power
What does that mean, exactly? Like all of the other 12 Things, keeping your power or giving it away is a choice; like the choice to persevere despite people doubting you, like Madonna and Oprah did (these are examples in the book). Or to not let your boss or family member control your emotions. Worrying about what other people are going to do or think is giving away your power by letting them occupy real estate in your head without paying any rent.
The biggest way I have learned not to give away my power is the restraint of pen and tongue. Sometimes it’s tempting to want to “clap back” or have the last word, winning argument, or to tell someone else how they should act. The evolution of this process for me has been having a knee-jerk reply to an email and regretting it, then writing the email and not sending it, then just not responding. You will never regret taking the high road.
Another way you can stop feeling like the world is against you is focus on the group of people that are for you. You definitely have a good number of family, friends, and colleagues in your corner. Nurture those “ride or die” relationships (like mine and Ryan’s), and when you feel trapped, afraid or frustrated, close your eyes and picture them all on the sidelines cheering you along as if you were running a race to the finish line.
#3 They don’t shy away from change.
I have a friend that is considering a new job opportunity. She’s stuck, though, because it would be a move to a much bigger company, with a lot more expectations and responsibilities, despite the almost twofold pay increase. According to Morin, your success depends on your ability to adapt. Moving, changing jobs, ending a relationship, starting a family or just trying something new all involve risks. You have to walk by faith, and not by sight. By learning to lean into, and not just tolerate, uncertainty, you leave the comfort zone of the “safe” choice. You can’t play it safe and expect to reach your highest potential.
#4: They don’t waste energy on things they can’t control.
My father always says, “Worrying is like paying interest on a debt that does not yet exist.” Yet, I still struggle with worry and my lack of ability to tolerate uncertainty. I need a back up plan, and a back up plan to that back up plan. I am the kind of person that prints out a hard copy of a boarding pass just in case my phone dies. It’s good to prepare, but spinning out on every permutation of what can go wrong is a huge time vampire.
In her book, Morin describes how distraction can help in these situations. Focus on what you can control, even if it’s something super mundane like a household chore or doing your timesheet. This will restore your confidence and put the less desirable situation on the backburner. In time, it will resolve itself, with or without you.
You know what you can control? Your attention to your health and fitness. You are the CEO of your body. Focus your energy into getting phyiscally strong, and the mental strength will follow.
#5 They don’t worry about pleasing everyone
In Morin’s book, she advocates for living an authentic life. Which means making choices that are the best for you and what is important in your life, like your family, and your mental and physical health. Sometimes those choices involve you saying “no” or “not now” to someone. It is difficult to draw boundaries, especially in your workplace, but people who have mental strength maintain boundaries because they don’t live in fear of what may happen if they do say no. Usually, the answer is absolutely nothing. Even if it is something, like a negative performance review or comment from your boss, your mental strength will remind you that in the long run, these things blow over, but doing the right thing like putting family first could impact the rest of your life. Morin suggests you write down your top five values and focus your energy on staying true to them, even when your choices aren’t met with favor.
#6 They don’t fear taking risks
According to Morin, you can’t become extraordinary without taking chances, but a successful outcome depends on your ability to take the right risks. This is usually clouded by our fear – of the unknown, the future, and the consequences of our choices.
Leaving my destructive and abusive marriage in 2012 is the biggest gamble I have ever taken in my life. Even though it seemed obvious that this was the right choice, I could not face the unknown, and it held me back for years. When I finally made the move, I was terrified. I had no idea what the future would look like. But that’s the point of a risk and why we need to be willing to take them. The higher the risk, the higher the reward.
I talk more about my toxic relationship and how I escaped the abuse in this article:
#7 They don’t dwell on the past.
Our past is a series of millions of choices that we made. Some of these choices cost us years of pain. It is good to reflect, says Morin, but constantly ruminating on the past either positively or negatively can be harmful, So follow Morin’s advice and confront the past. Work through forgiving and letting go.
Professor Robot Sapolsky (author of the book, Behave) recently Tweeted, “Emotions filter the nature and accuracy of what is remembered.” That is a powerful thought, because it conveys the important truth that the past only exists through what we filter through our emotions. So there is no sense in dwelling on a diluted and distorted version of history. The most real and tangible thing you can focus on is what is happening in front of you right now.
#8 They don’t repeat the same mistakes.
All mistakes have two things in common: 1) they are seldom permanent; and 2) they all present an opportunity to grow. The mistake can be a toxic relationship, spending too much time at a dead-end job, or messing up a big opportunity. It can feel like the end of the world, but you can’t reverse your steps. Rather than trying to forget about it or replay the tape, evaluate what went wrong and how you can avoid the same traps the next time around. Another great book that explores this topic more deeply is the Power of Regret, by Daniel Pink.
#9 They don’t resent other people’s success
There is a phenomenon called the “compare and despair trap.” When you’re stuck in a compare and despair trap, you constantly assess your qualities and achievements based on those of other people. This bias created by comparison will make your mind automatically scan data for people who have something that you think you want. Social media is making it worse, just because of its ability to be completely fabricated. We see a carefully curated highlight reel, not someone’s real life. By not rejoicing in the success of others, and channeling this success positively, we merely interfere with our quest for achievement by feeling negative energy.
Sometimes you really have to dig in and act ‘as if’, when somene gets something you want but seems out of your reach. So an example of this would be as soon as you hear their good news, send them a congratulatory card or gift, or go out of your way to express how happy you are for them. Acting as if their happiness is your happiness will help you realize that there isn’t a limited supply of whatever “it” is in the universe, and that the possibilities for you are endless. I talk about this more in my post, the DAO of the Law of Attraction:
#10 They don’t give up after their first failure
“This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”Winston Churchill
The expression “fail fast” actually has some teeth to it. It’s because failure is usually an inevitable step to success. Some of the most successful people today failed hundreds of times before they finally made it. Those people include Steven Spielberg, James Dyson, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, J.K Rowling and Michael Jordan. In the context of fitness, it’s very important to be willing to fail and to have setbacks, because that is exactly why so many people are stranded on their path to progress. Moreover, true success often requires substantial investment of time and requires conceptualization that achieving a long term goal requires a broad time horizon which is marked by peaks and plateaus. Having patience and perspective regarding the long term and continuous nature of goals is necessary to solidify resilience.
I know it’s tempting to think we are just too overwhelmed and can’t handle it all, but the reality is that you can if you take a step back and look at the way you overcame things in the past. WheneverI feel overwhelmed, I remind myself that I totally turned my life around when it was a huge dumpster fire. Suddently, that roadblock in the project I am working on doesn’t seem that insurmountable. Put simply, mentally tough people don’t give up on solving a problem just because they fail. They are resilient, have grit, and persevere.
And it’s time for grit to make a comeback.
#11 They don’t fear “alone time.”
Mentally strong people aren’t afraid of being alone, Morin says in her book. She lost her husband and mother within a year of one another, so she had to deal with tremendous emotional trauma. Silence can be deafening, and it can be tempting to fill it with the news or radio for “background noise” or to keep ourselves so busy to the point of not having time to think. If you are often led down a path of morbid reflection, and for that reason don’t want to be alone, it’s important to realize that confidence comes from being comfortable with yourself, and that means being comfortable by yourself. Morin recommends taking 10 minutes a day to just do that and nothing else. I usually take this chance when I have my morning coffee – I don’t turn on the news, I don’t get in front of my computer, and I don’t have my phone. I just sip it with my dog curled up next to me – and it often is the best 10 minutes of my day. Give it a chance, and as a bonus this counts as meditation! (see DAOFitLife – Meditation for People who Don’t Have Time to Meditate)
#12 They don’t feel that the world owes them something
The universe, in ways you may not realize, has your back. But feeling shortchanged and perpetually entitled to more will only bring you dissatisfaction and feelings of unease. If you worked really hard this year but didn’t get that promotion, or if you put a lot of work into something that you don’t feel was appreciated by others, it’s tempting to feel a sense of injustice. “It isn’t fair!” No, it definitely isn’t. But saying that isn’t going to make it fair. Instead, Morin suggests , investing your energy towards helping others and finding ways to make things more fair for the underprivileged. Donate your money, or spend time helping the homeless. There are definitely many people who encounter more challenging or extenuating circumstances than your current frustrations While this should no way trivialize or belittle your own challenges, reflecting on the fact that other individuals also struggle, and acknowledging a broader sense of collective humanity, is a healthy way to continuously enhance your mental strength.
#13 They don’t expect immediate results.
This is one of the first things I point out in my upcoming book about why people don’t get what they want. We live in a society of “get rich quick” and “get thin quick” that creates an expectation of immediate results. When we don’t get those immediate results, we often are paralyzed by disappointment. Accepting that this is a journey and focusing on the process itself is a trait of the mentally strong. Failure is inevitable and necessary. Fear will show up but you have to stare it down and not let it win.
I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy. I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.Art Williams
Mental strength will give you the resilience to push through challenges and evolve. Life will never stop throwing us those curveballs, so getting all the mental toughness practice in now will give you the armor you need to fight back and rise above. No matter where you are, you can strengthen your mental muscles.
Here are some more resources that digest 13 things, including an article Amy Morin wrote herself: