We often reserve the term “mentally strong” to describe people who accomplished extraordinary feats in the face of great adversity. Rarely, however, do we use these words to describe ourselves; possibly because we are painfully aware of our own shortcomings, or because we don’t consider our achievements as noteworthy enough. But mental strength comes in many shapes and forms. And if we pay attention and know where to look, we can witness it every single day – in both ourselves and other people around us.
For instance, do you ever feel tired after waking up, but still get dressed, because you don’t want to be late for work? Or have you ever wanted to shout profanities after being cut off in traffic on your way to work, but decided not to, because your child was in the backseat? Both of these examples require mental strength. It’s not just unpleasant emotions either – have you ever allowed a compliment to penetrate your being without an automatic dismissal, or allowed your eyes to linger in your lover’s eyes just a moment longer even though you feel vulnerable in doing so? That too is mental strength.
Whenever you display a willingness to more fully enter your own experience in the service of a greater purpose, you exhibit mental strength. And the more frequently you act this way, the more you stretch your mental muscles, and the more you strengthen your ability to act purpose-driven in the future.
Naturally, becoming mentally strong isn’t always easy, nor is it straightforward. The process involves a lot of nuance, and it requires you to foster distinct qualities along the way. Specifically, four qualities stand out, and if you practice any of them you can improve not just your mental strength, but your overall well-being. You might already recognize some of these qualities in yourself, whereas others may feel entirely foreign to you. Either way, please view the following list not as a yardstick to rate yourself on, but rather as opportunities for your personal growth. With that being said, here are four qualities of mentally strong people.
Sign #1 They are open to new possibilities
Mentally strong people don’t stay on a single-loop track. They are rarely limited by preconceived notions about how they have to think, feel, or act, who they have to be, what they have to focus on, or what they have to care about. Rather than rigidly following self-imposed rules, mentally strong people are more open, can choose more freely, and are likelier to explore new possibilities. They can hold disparate thoughts at the same time; they can stay when an automatic mindset says to leave; they can let go when the mind says to cling. Because of these habits of mind and behavior, they can access a broader range of their experiences – both pleasant and unpleasant – without having to resist or cling to them.
Now, please notice what your mind does with this information, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of “I always have to be open to new possibilities” (which, ironically, is just another self-imposed rule). Rather than obeying your mind, see if you can just notice that this thought is currently unfolding in your consciousness, and allow it to be without following its demand. You can practice trying out new possibilities, without turning it into a rule that you always “have” to do so. After all, you are free to choose, again and again.
Sign #2 They choose what works
Mentally strong people are not just more open to new strategies – they are also likelier to choose the ones that work. This may sound simple enough, but this quality actually contains several subskills. For starters, it requires knowing your objectives – whether this is about your goals or more deeper-seated values. In either case, you need to have a somewhat-clearer direction, so you know what even constitutes “working” in the first place. Additionally, it requires a certain level of self-awareness, so you can assess whether you are actually moving closer to your objectives – or whether you are just deluding yourself.
I highly recommend going through this process with a trained mental health professional, because it’s easy to lose sight of your deeper goals and values, or to mistakenly believe that you are making progress, when in reality you are not. If this is currently not an option for you, I advise monitoring your goals with the help of a trusted person, and/or getting objective feedback with a tracking device (e.g., by using an app on your smartphone). Having a reliable feedback system is essential when it comes to making effective improvements.
Sign #3 They build successful habits
If you read self-help articles before, you probably know what comes next. Yes, it is a clichée, but for good reasons, because becoming mentally strong doesn’t happen by chance. Instead, it happens by consistently acting in ways that move you towards your chosen objectives. The emphasis here lies in the word “consistently,” because one-off actions are rarely enough to have a lasting impact. Only by building successful actions into habits can you gain the momentum needed to make a difference in your mental fortitude and your life in general.
I advise you to start slowly. Choose a new action – like going for a daily jog – and then make it smaller. Probably even smaller still. So small, in fact, that it becomes almost ridiculous for you not to do it. This might mean going for a one-minute jog and then returning home. The key here is to not yet focus on the desired end result, but rather to focus on building consistency. Give yourself a “10-day challenge” in which every day you do something that carries you forward. You can aim bigger once you have shown some consistency in your efforts.
Sign #4 They adjust to their circumstances
Finally, mentally strong people adapt to their circumstances. They don’t wait for the perfect conditions before they can start taking action, nor do they stubbornly persist in their efforts, disregarding any feedback. Instead, they are more resourceful. They can accurately estimate the demands of their current context, their own capabilities, and then adjust their actions and expectations accordingly, so that they still pursue their objectives, but at a level that is workable, given their current inner and outer circumstances.
A choice that is right in one context, may be disastrous in another – and vice versa. For instance, if you’re driving over the speed limit, you risk injuring yourself and others. However, if a loved one sits in the backseat and is in serious need of medical attention, rushing to the nearest hospital may be the right course of action. There are rarely any easy answers, and what you consider being “right” almost always depends on your context. Mentally strong people are aware of this dilemma, and adjust themselves – again, and again.