By Forbes Editors’ Picks │forbes.com │5 min
Most of us think of mentally tough folks as larger-than-life characters—like endurance athletes, war heroes or rags to riches billionaires. Yet, such extreme examples of superhuman self-control and mental discipline in the face of stress, challenge and even danger, often distort the true picture of what mental warriors are really like.
In truth, mental toughness on a day-to-day basis is much less visible and grandiose; yet, it’s no less real. Indeed, it’s the stuff of great parenting, great teaching and great leadership.
Moreover, becoming more mentally tough is a personal necessity if you hope to achieve your own goals or lead others in achieving theirs. And behavioral science can help.
By appealing to the research, you can discern what habits consistently lead to mental strength and resilience, even when own your mental “models” of perfect resilience are war heroes and Olympians. Here are 5 such habits, based on science:
- Deal with your own weaknesses and don’t judge others. Mentally strong people understand the overwhelming power of thoughts. They recognize, for example, how filling one’s head with criticisms of others wastes mental space better spent strengthening and improving one’s self. Yet, there’s also science to support this great habit of non-judgment. In particular, researchers have found judging and criticizing others establishes and increases (with the extent of judgment) what’s known as the “bias blind spot.” That’s psychological predisposition we all have leading us not to see our own mental hangups. By the same token, we believe we can magically see the hangups of others. We discount their disagreeing with us as stemming from their own biases. And although we might perceive such stubbornness as reflecting our own mental strength and conviction, it actually undermines it. Indeed, our biased way of thinking (in this case, our “subjective worldview”) makes us vulnerable to manipulation by those who tell us what we want to hear (i.e., they fan our tendency towards “confirmation bias), along with fake news and all the rest. In other words, we become blind sheep to our own illogic. Yet, in building mental strength, the habit we want to cultivate involves catching ourselves before passing judgment. We want to avoid even the slightest criticism of others in an effect to gain mental freedom and clarity of perception. Indeed, real mental warriors even go the extra step of turning their own criticisms on themselves. They ask, “Could I be seeing in this person’s problem (hangup, bias, etc.) my own problem (hangup, bias, etc.)?”
- Don’t trust your own thinking. One positive consequence of not judging and reducing the bias blind spot is what’s called intellectual humility. That’s a powerful trait one builds up over time by refusing to trust one’s own thinking. In other words, the intellectually humble person is aware she might be wrong. She knows that not only might there be other valid points of view, she accepts hers might be invalid. Moreover, the intellectually humble person is willing to be proven wrong without falling apart emotionally. She’s an emotional warrior. By combining humility and this sort of mental resilience, she then opens the doorway to learning, avoiding biases and taking advantage of new knowledge. Yet, to be clear, her refusal to trust her own judgment doesn’t mean she lacks confidence or conviction. It means she refrains from coming to conclusions on the basis of speculative assumptions and emotions. With that said, it’s easy to see why mentally strong people would want to behave this way. If your boss or colleagues are a bit abrupt with you, it’s possible you might incorrectly interpret their motivations. Acting on that incorrect assumption (say, by confronting them or even just engaging them) could be disastrous. Thus, by cultivating the habit of open-mindedness and learning from others—regardless of how much you respect them—you gain mental strength.
- Don’t pity yourself. Mentally strong people recognize that self-pity is a Siren that can lure you to a watery, psychological death. For every excuse you create, you clone a mental ‘roommate’ who constantly nags at you whenever you face the slightest difficulty. You’re hungry? Your roommate tells you you must eat or you’ll die. You’re tired? The excuse comes to mind that you can’t possibly work any harder. By contrast, mentally strong people rid themselves of this enemy early on. In a study of disabled and seriously ill people, for example, researchers found that few, if any such resilient warriors engaged in self-pity. Indeed, when compared to people in the study not suffering such afflictions, the disabled and physically ill exhibited markedly less self-pity and greater happiness and well being. Thus, the implication is obvious. By stopping the self-pity—beginning with the smallest inconveniences and challenges and extending to the largest—we gradually rid ourselves of unpleasant and goal-destroying ‘roommates’.
- Show pity towards others. At the same time, although mental strength requires showing little pity for ourselves, showing pity for others is incredibly powerful. Indeed, Darwinists and classical economists both have been dealt a major setback by recent science. Contrary to the oft-argued assumption that selfishness is genetic and an inherent part of our nature (i.e., the Darwinist dictum of survival of the fittest and the Kantian notion that individuals are self-interested) researchers from Berkeley have shown mankind’s development is more on the order of survival of the kindest. In other words, empathy and sympathy are more necessary for human survival than acrimonious pursuit of survival, self-interest and the pursuit of personal gain. They’ve also found that this tendency towards pitying others is genetic and heritable. Practically speaking, the scientists found parents who cultivate and demonstrate empathy and sympathy in their families end up with happier and more resilient children. Moreover, this doesn’t just apply to children. Adults too can gain greater resilience and mental strength simply by showing greater compassion towards others and by…you guessed it—making this a habit!
- Understand fear and how to control it. One of the most important characteristics of a mentally strong person is her ability to deal with uncertain surprises—particularly bad ones. Fear, as I’ve written elsewhere, can be addressed through a variety of coping mechanisms. For example, we naturally tend to greet the unknown with a fear of loss. This tendency biases our thinking and impairs our actions and abilities to intelligently take risks. Yet, mentally strong and resilient people actively resist this tendency. For example, they ‘self-distance’ by stepping away from a situation. They re-collect themselves. Wisdom, therefore, tells them that responding quickly but haphazardly to a crisis is typically more dangerous than a delayed, but more thoughtful response. That makes such people more successful professionally and better suited for positions of leadership. Hence, the term “fearless leader” might be a redundant phrase, at least insofar as mentally strong leaders go.
Instead of trying to make sense of anecdotes from people who run races from New York to California, use their bodies as human shields in Afghanistan, or become internet billionaires, science can help us discern what habits consistently lead to mental strength. The great importance of heroic deeds and icons notwithstanding, what’s more useful for us mortals is an outline of the habits research tells us work most of the time. Hopefully, practicing the above 5 offers a good start.Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.