In short, mental resilience is the ability to cope with adversity. It’s the capacity to detach from our instinctual emotions and act in accordance with a longer-term goal; it’s ignoring the voice in our head that tells us to stop when we know we can continue.
Fortunately, it’s a trait that can be greater developed in all of us. David Goggins, a retired Navy SEAL and best selling author, refers to the process as ‘callusing the mind’. The idea is that challenging circumstances will harden your psyche in a similar way that lifting weights will to your palms.
For Goggins, callusing the mind is training for life. By confronting our fears and seeking out discomfort, we build an empowering mindset that better equips us for the curveballs that life may throw. In this article, I’ll discuss several practical ways in which you can begin to build your mental resilience.
“The way we do anything, is the way we do everything.” – Martha Beck
In his interview on Impact Theory, esteemed entrepreneur, Ed Mylett discusses his approach of always doing one extra rep; describing it as a pattern of behaviour that has shifted his identity both in and outside of the gym.
The final reps are the most difficult. They test our limits but, perhaps more importantly, they test our character. For Mylett, the gym is the “quickest and easiest” place to practice going the extra inch. After watching the interview earlier last year, I began incorporating the practice into my own workouts and, like him, I observed the habit crossover into other areas of my life.
As cliché as it may sound, we don’t grow inside our comfort zones; we stay the same. To achieve new results we must try new things and this often means overruling the ‘governor’ on our minds, as Goggins coins it in his book.
A simple but effective way to train this habit is by regularly taking cold showers. Why? Because you slowly attune your brain to discomfort and when done, day in, day out, this mindset (like the one extra rep) begins to seep into your identity and spill over into other facets of your life.
If it sounds like a trivial suggestion to you, I’d advise you to consider the implications of compound interest, or as Einstein considered it, the 8th wonder of the world. Over time, the small and seemingly menial tasks we engage in add up.
I’d argue that someone who’s conditioned themselves to get into a cold shower each morning, despite their reluctance, is someone more likely to push themselves for one extra rep at the gym, or one last hour at the office, all else equal.
Besides, the rush and sense of accomplishment after a cold shower is priceless. There are numerous articles on the benefits.
“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford
Inspired by ‘Can’t Hurt Me’, I started running just over a year ago. Though I had been lifting for five years, I immediately became aware of the mental battle involved in even just a short jog. At the time, I couldn’t tell if I was genuinely unfit or just mentally weak. I’d start out on a run and immediately the dread of what was to come would sink in. However, I had Goggin’s story in the back of my mind and so I was consistently mindful of my inner dialogue.
Whether it’s running, swimming or any other form of prolonged exercise, in each, there lies an inherent opportunity for growth; an opportunity to push our boundaries. Cardio is as much a mental battle as it is a physical one and for me, as I’m sure countless others, the most constructive tool in this contest has been my self-talk.
A simple phrase that gets me through my runs is “it’s OK if you stop now, but you can keep going.” I think this wording is powerful for two reasons: it reinforces the idea that I don’t need to be perfect but simultaneously, it encourages me to push myself. At first, it felt a little awkward but at this stage, it’s the thought my brain naturally gravitates towards.
One way to better manage our internal dialogue is through a regular meditation practice. By taking just ten minutes out of our day, bringing awareness to our experience of consciousness, we gradually become more proficient at detaching from the inner commentary of our minds. In other words, we become less reactive.
Though I’ve meditated on and off for several years, I’ve only recently made it a consistent habit and since then, the effects have become much more pronounced. When running, I’ve become a lot better at simply observing the urge to stop rather than choosing to identify with it. This allows me to ‘hang in there’ for longer, which, in its essence, is mental resilience.
In my mind, the fundamental issue with instant gratification is the same as the principal benefit of the preceding ideas: it slowly becomes a pattern of behaviour. With the current digital landscape, we have become increasingly accustomed to getting what we want, when we want it. Or, to put it differently, we’ve become increasingly unaccustomed to patience.
Naturally, the parameters that differentiate between the unhealthy and healthy forms of instant gratification are entirely up to you. For me, as an example, I aim to eat healthy throughout the week and then loosen up on the weekend. Also, I try and follow a morning routine despite the temptation to just lie in bed.
Choosing where to be disciplined will come down to your own values.
Ultimately, if you’ve got big goals that you’d like (and have yet) to achieve – whether physical, financial, social, you name it – what choice do you have other than to become an improved version of yourself?
Mental resilience is a matter of seeking out demanding environments and feeling capable to prosper in them. This self confidence, as Ed Mylett points out later in the same interview, stems from a trust in yourself which is developed through an ever-expanding collection of small, fulfilled, self-promises.
However, alongside the wins there will be losses. It’s important to embrace that. Resilience will come through succeeding more, failing more and learning from both.
I’m no David Goggins. I often leave the gym earlier than I would like; sometimes I stop halfway through my runs and practically every day I catch myself mindlessly scrolling through my phone. But, I recognise that failure doesn’t erase progress and so I continue to edge myself forward in the direction that I’d like to go. I’d encourage you all to do the same.