How to build mental strength
Amy Morin was in the early stages of her career as a psychotherapist when her mum died.
In the midst of her grief, she decided to study her own patients and figure out why some people had greater mental strength than others.
“I realised sometimes it wasn’t about what people did, it was more about what they didn’t do, that helped them to be mentally strong,” she told me.
Three years later Amy’s husband died.
“To be a 26-year-old widow was just a bizarre, strange place to be,” she said.
In the years to come, she found love again.
Then, her father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“I sat down and I wrote a list of all the things mentally strong people don't do; some things that I had learnt in my therapy office but never really written them down in one place and I would read over that list to stay strong and deal with what I was going through.”
She published the list online thinking that it might be helpful to others too.
“I never imagined it would go viral but 50 million people read that article and before I knew it a literary agent called and said ‘you have to write a book’ and I had a publishing deal within a month and it's sort of changed the course of my entire career, basically changed my life.”
She went on to release the bestselling book ’13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do,’ plus two follow-up titles; ’13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do,’ and later ’13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do.’
Her Tedx talk has been viewed more than 9.6 million times on YouTube.
Key things mentally strong people don’t do
When I asked Amy for some of the most significant things mentally strong people don’t do - at the top of her list, “because I was in this place myself,” she told me, was:
'Mentally strong people don't waste time feeling sorry for themselves.'
This is about quitting self-pity - which is different from being upset or grieving, she explained.
“The process of getting stronger is acknowledging and allowing yourself to be disappointed, angry or upset or embarrassed.
“But self-pity is when you start to think ‘my life is worse than everybody else’s.’
“That's when you get stuck in this pattern of thinking ‘there's no sense in changing my life.’”
To get out of that headspace, Amy suggests recognising what you do have, being grateful and asking yourself ‘what's one thing I could do to make my life or somebody else's life better?’
Then go out and do that thing.
“Out of all of the 13 things, I think the one that resonates most with people is number two: 'Mentally strong people don't give away their power,'” she told me.
“…it’s so tempting sometimes to say ‘my mother-in-law makes me feel bad about myself’.
“Maybe she's critical of you, but she doesn't force you to feel bad.”
“Or you say ‘I have to go to work today.’ You don't have to go to work, it's your choice.”
“Of course, if you don't show up at the office there's probably going to be consequences, but just recognising and changing your language… ‘I'm going to go to work and that's a choice’… can make a huge difference in your life,” Amy told me.
Another significant factor on the list: 'Mentally strong people don't fear taking calculated risks.'
This does not, however, mean always taking huge risks.
“Most of us don't know how to calculate risk.
“When you get in the car and you drive down the road, you're taking a risk and yet it doesn't feel scary to us because we do it all the time.
“But then we think other things are risky; public speaking or flying in an aeroplane, but… when you really think about it, you're not putting your life in nearly as much danger as when you get behind the wheel and you drive down the road.”
The key to getting this right, according to Amy, is thinking about how risky something really is and not allowing excitement (as is sometimes seen with get-rich-quick schemes) or anxiety to cloud our judgement.
“Sometimes the easiest thing - when it comes to taking a risk - is to just say, ‘what advice would I give to my friend who had this problem?’ That takes the emotion out of it. And then take your own advice.”
Lessons for parents
In Amy's book for parents, she explains that mentally strong parents “don't take responsibility for their kid's emotions.”
Amy told me she’d seen a lot of mums and dads in her therapy office who “feel 100-percent responsible" for their children's happiness "at all times.”
If they see their child bored, they try and entertain them, if they see their child sad, they try and cheer them up, or if they’re angry they try to fix that too.
“As a college professor, I see what happens to these kids when they finally move out of the house and their parents aren't right there to help them.
“It’s really important that we’re giving kids those skills to deal with their emotions.”
Amy suggests: “Let them be uncomfortable sometimes… kids need to know that being sad or anxious or embarrassed isn't the end of the world and that they are strong enough to handle that.”
Yet, it’s still important to acknowledge their feelings. In fact, Amy believes that simply saying “don’t worry about it” essentially teaches children their feelings are wrong.
Instead, “A healthier message is saying: ‘I know you're really anxious but I think you can handle being anxious and still do a good job.’
Or talk to them about their options and get them thinking about how they could respond to the situation or cope with being sad.
If your child simply isn’t good at something; perhaps a sport or hobby, and they’re feeling sad about it - Amy suggests taking an honest approach.
“You might say, ‘how could you get better, what are your choices?’
She also recommends researching someone who’s an expert in that field and finding out how many hours a week they had to practise before they become great.
Then present it to your child with the message that “…this is what it's going to take to get really good at it.”
Points for women
Last year, Amy released ’13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do.’
The book included points such as: they don't downplay their success and, they don't avoid tough challenges.
Think about the experience of receiving compliments, for example.
“Women are more likely to minimise their achievements or they give a quick compliment back.
“They say something like, ‘Oh no, you're amazing,’ or ‘no, it was nothing.’
“…we often feel guilty or we feel like we're bragging if we just say thank you,” Amy said.
You can hear more about this, plus the way women react differently to compliments that come from women compared to those that come from men, in healthHackers episode 34 with Amy.
When it comes to tough challenges, Amy argues that women often hesitate more.
“…they tend to be filled with self-doubt, they tend to struggle with confidence more than men.
“... the hesitation often means they lose out on opportunities.”
Amy’s advice: “Put yourself out there and know that you can handle it even if it doesn't work out.”
Training our brains to be mentally stronger
According to Amy, it is possible to train our brains to be mentally stronger using techniques, such as the ones she outlined in healthHackers® episode 34.
“You can physically change your brain - there's tons of studies on this,” she said.
While we all have negative thoughts, it seems the trick is to keep challenging those thoughts.
“…so when your brain says don't do this because you'll embarrass yourself and then you do it anyway - after a while it shows your brain to look at you a little bit differently, to train your brain so that it sees you as more competent, more capable, and more able to do things.”
Anxiety does a great job of keeping us safe.
But sometimes it can feel unhelpful. Amy recommends acknowledging it, then reminding yourself that you are capable of coping.
For example, you might think: “…giving this presentation at this meeting is going to make me anxious but I can handle anxiety, it's not the end of the world."
Asking yourself if this will matter in six month’s time is another tip.
“Most of the things that we think are going to be horrible and awful, six months from now - don't really affect us that much.”
Quick exercises for building mental toughness
“Write down three things you're grateful for before you go to bed.
“Studies all show that you sleep better, you'll sleep longer, you'll be happier, you're more optimistic, you might even live longer.”
“Pick one small thing to do everyday that's really tough for you, something that normally you would have said no to [making a phone call, speaking to someone].
“It just sort of stretches you to say: ‘Ok, I can do more than I think that I can.’”
“If you just did those two things - you would be well on your way to to building mental strength.”
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