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What Is Mental Toughness and How Do You Get It?

We’ve all heard those stories about remarkable mental toughness, like the survival stories of victims of abuse or those fleeing war.  My personal favorite mental toughness story at the moment is that of the Syrian teenage girl and swimmer Yusra Mardini.  When the dinghy she was in with 20 other people threatened to collapse, Yursa jumped into the water and pulled the dinghy through the turbulent waters of the Aegean sea.

Yursa could have panicked and done nothing.

She could have swam off and left the others to drown.

Instead she displayed her mental toughness and saved everyone.

While we love stories of mental toughness like these, our culture has a pretty thwarted view of what mental toughness really is and how to develop it.  As a survivalist, prepper, and parent, I think this is something we should all be talking about.

What is Mental Toughness?

Mental toughness is defined as the ability to keep on going in face of adversity.  It is linked to many traits such as self-motivation, willpower, positive attitude, and emotional self-control.

People with mental toughness are the ones who stay calm under stress.

Instead of dwelling on problems, they look for solutions.

They don’t let emotions get the better of them.

And mentally tough people are ready for action.

What people often fail to mention is that mental toughness isn’t something we are born with.  Mental toughness is something which can be developed – and anyone can become mentally tough.

What Doesn’t Kill You Does NOT Make You Stronger

It was in an 1888 essay by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche that we got the phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

That quote has become like a mantra to people experiencing hardships in today’s world.

The idea that going through difficult experiences can build up strength for future difficult experiences is a comforting thought.

We like the idea that we will be rewarded for our pain and suffering.

But just because we want something to be true, it doesn’t mean it is.  Contrary to what all those motivational posters say, going through tough times actually make us WEAK.  Let me repeat this:

Going through tough experiences makes us weaker.

You don’t have to look very hard for examples of how tough experiences actually made people weaker.  Just ask a tetraplegic if they feel stronger after losing the use of their limbs.  Or if a rape victim feels better because of the experience.

Even the supposedly “toughest” groups of people – like NAVY Seals, Marines, and SWAT teams – regularly suffer from PTSD which debilitates their lives.

Despite how obvious it seems that tough experiences make us weaker, we still want to believe that all of those bad experiences are building mental toughness.  Psychologist Noam Shpancer talks about this, saying how most of the “evidence” about hardships building mental toughness come from self-reported events.  This is known as confirmation bias: when you find evidence to support what you already want to believe (because who wants to have gone through hard times for nothing?).

So What Does Build Mental Toughness?

If it isn’t hardships which make us strong, then what does build mental toughness?

It turns out (not too surprisingly) that having a strong support system is what makes us tough.

mental strength
It wasn’t tough conditions which made this plant strong. It was access to sunlight and nutrients needed for it to grow!

Let me give you an example…

My wife is one of the most mentally tough people I know.  We go on grueling hikes in the wilderness and, even though she is half the size of the other hikers, she carries just as much gear as everyone else.  When the big macho guys (you know the type) are complaining, my wife keeps on going.  She just never gives up!

My wife also happened to have a really tough childhood.  You know the story – from a low-income family, lived in a bad neighborhood, terrible school system, crime all around her… People from those backgrounds routinely fail and end up “in the system.”

Why didn’t my wife also fail?  It has to do with the fact that she had a loving family to support her.  When she was bullied, she was able to come home to them.  When her scholarship applications were denied, her family encouraged her to keep on applying until she got accepted.

It wasn’t all of the hardships which built up mental toughness in my wife.  Rather, my wife was able to find strength to get her through those hard times because she felt loved.  She knows that more bad times are certain to come, but has the confidence that she will be able to deal with them.

Those big “tough” guys that complain during our hiking trips?  They were never encouraged by loved ones to persevere through tough times.  Rather, most of us today are spoiled and told to find a way out whenever something starts to get tough.

If you want scientific evidence instead of my wife’s anecdotal evidence, the consider that the Israeli army does NOT use wild street dogs as part of their K9 units.  As  Dr. Shpancer notes, those dogs – despite having survived the tough world of the streets – are unpredictable and cowardly in the face of danger.  The best and most vicious attack dogs are the ones which have been trained in loving homes.

mental toughness
Soldiers use dogs from loving homes — not wild street dogs — because they are more reliable and perform better under stressful circumstances.


Why Should You Care about Mental Toughness?

I am a prepper and a survivalist, and my goal is to make sure that my family is ready for any sort of disaster which may occur.

We preppers (please forget everything you saw on Doomsday Preppers – we aren’t crazy!) spend a lot of time talking about stockpiling supplies for survival.  Yet, few people talk about how to build mental toughness needed to get through a disaster.

There is a big difference between being physically prepared for disasters (such as with stockpiles of supplies) and being mentally ready to take action and persevere during an emergency situation.

To truly be prepared for hard times (whether it is doomsday or a difficult day in the office), we need to start talking about our weaknesses.

When we are open and honest about our weaknesses and failings, we open ourselves up to support.

And it is that support which will nurture our mental strength and resilience.

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  1. This article is pointing in the right direction but several simplistic proclamations that are not true.
    From article: “Going through tough experiences makes us weaker.”
    Things may injure us mentally and physically but they do NOT in and of them self make us weaker.
    From me: “The difference between an ordeal and an adventure is one’s attitude.”
    Mental toughest is a multifaceted condition that has several common ‘traits’ but it is not ‘one size fits all’.
    Never quitting is a common trait but it does not exclude stopping and rethinking a problem and making a cost benefit analysis of any situation.
    ‘Sometimes one wins by surrendering, the important factor is knowing when’.

    • Hi Mike, you raise some interesting points, as you say one size does not fit all and this article is meant as a starting point for people when thinking about mental preparation, rather than as an in-depth guide.

      Thanks for your input, I will leave this up here for other readers to make up their own minds on the points discussed.

  2. This article reminded me that many of us grow up in homes where there isn’t a strong support system, which may be fundamental for building healthy self-love and esteem. I am one such person, and I often wonder why I react so strongly when faced with a highly stressful or emergency situation, regardless of the fact that I have a loving, supportive partner. I believe this may point out the fact that we need to re-parent ourselves if our foundational support was lacking, giving ourselves unconditional love,, doing inner child work, etc. Thanks for this article.


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