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What does mental toughness really mean?

Updated: Jun 23, 2021

When I think of the word 'tough', I think of things that are super durable and can take a few knocks but keep performing regardless. I guess that's why we use it to describe someone who seems to be mentally strong. But what does it actually mean to be mentally tough?

Nobody wants to appear weak—we all want to look like we're coping with whatever life throws at us. So even though we are collapsing inside, we sometimes feel that we need to present a tough exterior to the outside world. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had two young children and I didn't want them to worry about me so I put on my armour and presented a "no worries" attitude as I tried to keep everything as normal as possible. We want to protect the ones we love, but this can create some unexpected problems.

By trying to appear tough, we can ignore our own emotions instead of facing what we really feel. This can build up into a whole lifetime of stored emotions that if left unprocessed, can explode like a volcano and put us in a place of mental crisis. True mental strength means fully experiencing all the emotions you feel and understanding the impact that they are having on your thoughts and actions.

Being tough and appearing as if we have everything handled may win you a superwoman of the year award, but it gives people the impression that you don't need help. This behaviour proclaims to the world that you are completely self-reliant and have all the answers. Well I'm yet to meet anyone on earth who knows everything. Humans are hardwired to connect and grow from interacting with each other. Even if you think you've got everything under control, why would you miss the opportunity to learn how to do something better? To be enriched by someone else's wisdom?

Yes, I know you don't want to bother anyone with your problems, but guess what? People want to help. According to research published in Psychological Science, if we do things that make us happy, each time we do it we are less happy. The one exception to the rule is giving—it's the one thing that the more we do, the happier we are. There is a great joy to giving and it is the flow of giving and receiving that enriches our lives and relationships.

So what does real mental toughness mean? From all the people I've met over the years, I believe that people who are truly mentally tough have a few traits in common. One of those is making the choice to fully immerse in the emotions that come from any traumatic experience. They don't ignore, deny or compartmentalise the feelings. They sit with them, and let them flow right through them like a wave. They survive the tsunami and once the emotions settle, they take small steps to revive themselves. They welcome support and connection with others who have walked a similar path. They gather their strength, they get up and work out how to come back to life. And often they don't just thrive themselves, they use their experiences to help others to do just the same.

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