How can we alter our default setting for Mental Toughness? Our culture, our bodies, our own upbringing and habits, the stories we have heard about our heroes and relatives- all this will have a bearing on your own default setting for mental toughness.
That’s your starting point. If you have never had anaesthetic for dental work then having a filling with no injection is no big deal. My grandfather once pulled out a rotten tooth he had with a pair of pliers. But I’ve always asked for an injection. I’m not about to use pliers unless I’m on a desert island like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. And even then...
The default setting is nothing to be ashamed of. But it may not be your optimum setting. In fact it won’t be.
You may have grown used to being irritated when the bus is late. You can stop that today. Almost any reaction which is negative in a trivial sense can be stopped by adopting a stance of mental toughness.
What are ‘non-trivial’ negativities? I suppose pain and fear settings that are long entrenched. If you have been scared of spiders since you were four it won’t disappear just because you ‘will it.’ You’ll need to do certain things, have certain positive smaller experiences to enable you to overcome such early programming.
Conditioning or programming is what we are talking about, largely, when we talk about mental toughness default settings. By nibbling away, bit by bit, you can overcome a setting that says X cannot be done. You can also do it by having a BIG experience. Say, you’re frightened of snakes- OK go on a snake hunt. Reverse the situation- you are actively looking for what you normally avoid.
Sometimes simply adopting a mentally tough stance will dissolve a default setting. Others can be more permanent. But by assuming a mentally tough posture you can erode them.
“Pushing Yourself” versus Mental Toughness
You can ‘push yourself’ and it can look like mental toughness but the end result can be depression or a nervous breakdown.
It’s important to distinguish between refusing to be fazed by something and forcing yourself on, stressing your system. In the former you aren’t taking the activity in question too seriously, in the latter case, you are.
When we over-associate with a goal, when we become over attached to an outcome we can strain ourselves trying to achieve it. But who cares- in the great grand scheme of things whether we get a first class or a second class degree? Who cares if our book is finished this year or next? Who cares if we make a million dollars or not?
Targets are good for getting us going, for starting the race. They are bad if they simply become weapons to beat ourselves up.
Mental toughness is about encouraging stretching but avoiding strain. Say, you’re trying to finish writing your book and feeling tired- OK tough it out- not for any ulterior motive (because it MUST be finished) but because you want to test yourself and see if you CAN tough it out. If it works, and you ‘break through’- as often happens when you refocus hard on a thing- all well and good. But if you still feel tired then so what- go to bed, get some rest and be tough again in the morning. Toughing it out isn’t about pretending you’re superhuman. It’s about accepting your limitations and pushing them, a bit at a time, in a way that stretches and does not strain.
It’s not an easy call. But, if you are not wedded to some goal in an obsessive way, you will be perceptive enough to stop when toughing it out becomes damaging.
The Japanese swordsman Tesshu set himself the task of copying out the entire Buddhist Cannon by hand. He was asked, “Isn’t that a huge undertaking?” “Not at all,” he replied, “I only copy one page at a time.”
What’s the big deal about ‘thinking positive’?
There is a whole industry out there devoted to promoting Positive Thinking. What’s that all about? Why does it strike such a chord and claim such great results? Surely we should endorse it if it really works?
But what’s the downside? The downside is simple: positive thinking requires energy you may not have. This is an important but subtle point. When you raise your game- such as going on a mission or an expedition you get an across the board rise in energy to help you succeed. But if you don’t raise your game, say in everyday living, then ‘being positive’ is an effort and you may not be always up to it.
But ‘toughing it out’ raises your game. It’s a ‘level up’ across the board. Once adopted, you don’t need to push yourself each time you take a tougher attitude, it’s just there, like a backstop, ready and waiting. Positive thinking involves ‘trying’, getting tough involves ignoring the imaginary- think of it as double negative…and therefore ultimately positive.
Being ‘positive’ all the time is a very effective way of isolating what is good in any situation and focussing on that. But that may not be what is required. The situation maybe insoluble, or simply very bad. You need to be clear sighted and making the right judgements, not distorting things in order to make it seem ‘positive’.
But seeing the flaw in unthinking ‘positivity’ is not, as some feel, a thumbs up for negativity. That kind of either/or thinking is primitive to say the least. Positive thinking in fact derives its incredible power- and for some it is almost like a religion- because it activates mental toughness.
When we think positively we are slamming the brakes on ‘following up’ any negative thoughts. We are choosing NOT to think certain things. Both these things happen when we are mentally tough. We just say to ourselves- nothing bothers me, nothing freaks me out. And when it does we say- well, I’m human but so what? And get on with it. Becoming mentally tough is about taking a stand. It’s about saying “NO MORE” to feelings of inadequacy, intimidation, anxiety. It’s about over riding them. Now, we will see, you can put in place certain behaviours and practices that make OVER RIDING these negative emotions much easier.
When I was first a father I knew about being woken up all through the night and I didn’t look forward to it but I was certainly unprepared for how it hit me. I felt like a zombie. Work was really hard. And worst of all I became irritable. I had never before allowed irritation at others to flourish. Now I did. And like all negative emotions- once they have a home they just keep on enlarging it. You keep going back there, being more irritable and allowing irritation to become a normal behaviour. And it did with me: I became an irritable man. It took several years for me to actually notice this, and several more for to do anything about it- slow learner eh? But the answer was simple: be tough. Tough out the irritating feelings, don’t give in to them. The more you grin and bear it the easier it gets.
I could have tried to be ‘positive’ about having no sleep but where is the positive? Having no sleep sucks. But you can tough it out. Doctors do. Soldiers do. And they can’t afford to make mistakes even when they are dog tired. By toughing it out and not giving in you gradually find it easier.
The power of mental toughness lies in the way it CONVERTS negativity into fuel. It’s like saying “OK life, give me your best shot! Call that hard? Come on try again!” It is empowering because it is not fearful or greedy. The harder life hits you the better you feel because you’re ‘winning’, you aren’t folding, you aren’t giving in. There is sophistry here but not much, it works you see. There are always people smaller and weaker than oneself who have withstood greater calamities. They empower us with their example. They give us the strength to keep getting back up.
Positive thinking derives similar power from taking a stance: nothing is going to get me down. The problem is- when something does- the dam bursts, you find you can’t find a positive foothold anywhere. You get swept away. I’ve seen a very positive person completely devastated when something with NOTHING positive at all about it hit them. (It didn’t help that they were a little ill and in a new environment.) They just collapsed.
But mental toughness is a little like fighting in the mountains. The terrain is your friend even if you are on the defensive. You never need to flee, just pull back and regroup behind a convenient summit. It’s almost impossible to flush fighters out of mountainous terrain- look at Afghanistan. With mental toughness you accept each attack on your calm as a test of your toughness. It doesn’t matter how bad it is- can you take it on the chin? Can you remain calm? You don’t have to make out you can solve it, or that it will get better or that there is hope of any kind. You just have to face it like a person who is mentally tough, who won’t be beaten.
And then you find there is a sliver of hope, there is a chance, there is a way. And because you didn’t panic and turn tale and run you can actually do something.