Toughing It Out

For as short as everybody likes to remind us that life is, in truth, if we’re blessed with good health and good luck, it goes on for a good long while. And all the way along, it’s filled with twists and turns, steep hills, long plateaus, and surprises of all kinds.

Bahram Akradi, founder, chairman, and CEO of Life Time — Healthy Way of Life

Not all of those surprises are easy or convenient ones. And yet, rather than assuming that difficulties will arise, for some reason, we generally like to pretend that life will run more or less in line with our wishes and expectations. We don’t really prepare ourselves to deal with unexpected challenges, and so we’re often left feeling totally at a loss when these things occur – as they inevitably do in all but the very most charmed (or most boring) lives.

In recent years, there’s been a fair bit of attention focused on the area of “mental toughness” – essentially, the ability to keep on going in the face of difficulty, and to handle a variety of stresses and setbacks without breaking down or giving up.

Mental-toughness training is used in sports, business, academia, the military and a variety of other settings, but it’s of real value to anyone intent on living a good life. It’s certainly not just for “tough guys.” Creative and sensitive types, shy people, entrepreneurs, children, parents, older folks, individuals living with physical and mental challenges – just about anybody can benefit from the skills, disciplines and wisdom around which mental toughness is built.

Key Attributes Associated With Mental Toughness

Some key characteristics of mental toughness include strongly believing that you can and will achieve your goals (even if it requires plans A, B, C, and so on); demonstrating powerful focus and internal motivation to succeed; cultivating the ability to bounce back from frustrations and “failures”; and quickly regaining psychological control and emotional composure following unexpected events or distractions.

One central element of mental toughness, interestingly, involves developing a mindset that allows you to face adversity – and to persist through it – without giving in to negative self-talk or self-criticism. It’s about developing the capacity to stay focused on what you’ve learned and what your best choices are now, rather than dissolving into hopelessness, disillusionment or panic.

I think a big part of developing these valuable capacities is allowing yourself to consider the possibility that things may simply not go the way you’ve planned. I’m an advocate for taking some risks and entertaining some big “what ifs?” – not as a way of burdening yourself with worry and fear, but rather as a way of thinking through and practicing how you’d like to respond in the event that one or more aspects of your carefully laid life plans (or assumptions) go awry.

Because, let’s face it, unexpected difficulties will arise in a great many situations, from weight loss and fitness plans to career goals, financial projections and personal relationships. And it’s much easier to face them with equanimity when you have some fallback plans for doing so.

I see this as just another sensible part of a positive-thinking plan. It’s really about asking yourself on a regular basis: If things don’t go my way here, or at least the way I plan, how will I respond to that? Decide in advance what kind of approach will allow you to look back after the fact and feel good that you had the strength to get through adversity with your confidence and sense of self intact.

And by all means, if there are skills and strengths you feel you’re missing, strive to develop them. From earliest childhood to death, our brains are developing and becoming more adaptive. Recent research demonstrates that our brain’s circuitry is constantly being rewired to reflect our thinking patterns. The more we rely on certain synaptic patterns, the better established and more densely knit they become.

Developing the strengths of mental toughness is essentially about practicing them over and over again. So start now and never quit. After all, life’s too short – and too long – to resist embracing both its joys and its challenges wholeheartedly.

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