The Paradox of Mental Toughness

‘Weak is tough’ – Have you ever noticed, when you are not doing too well, that admitting to someone you are struggling is often harder than simply brushing them off with “I’m OK”?

The paradox of mental toughness is that it takes real courage to admit to weakness; it is much tougher than putting on a brave face.

Mental toughness is critical to the practice of excellence; nevertheless, mental toughness, also known as resilience, might be something different than how many people conceive it.

As a sport and performance psychologist – I hear the phrase ‘mental toughness’ used mostly in the context of being capable of pushing through a challenge, being stoic, not being phased by pressure – behaviours that are associated with mental toughness; however, what seems to make athletes, performers and business people truly tough is when they can balance the capacity to push hard with the smarts to recover well, and balance the courage to be open to their weaknesses with the effort to doing something about those weaknesses.

It can be psychologically easier just to put your head down, work hard, push through pain, ignore concerns and shortcomings – the ‘more is better’ philosophy – than it is to practice awareness for one’s needs – physical and mental – and to put time and energy into balancing oneself emotionally and physically.

I think choosing the ‘easy path’ of stoic denial may have to do with wanting to avoid the complexity of the many more variables involved with trying to stay in balance.  There is a relative simplicity in just working hard, which makes it attractive to equate mental toughness with a ‘more is better’ approach. In my PhD research, however, I talked to many top athletes in Australia who acted out that philosophy, repeatedly, until it ended in overtraining and injury (and I, myself, am a culprit of this misguided behaviour – having got injured twice in the lead up to two Olympics). I also sense that there is some ego involved in the one-sided approach to Mental Toughness – which is why being ready to admit to weakness is so tough….

So… mental toughness might be construed more accurately as the capacity to make the decision that is harder to make and then acting on it.

The important aspects of that decision making process:

(1) Be honest with yourself about your limitations – be wary of your ego jumping in to send you into denial about your own vulnerability.

(2) Learn to differentiate between when you need to work hard and when you need to spend more time recovering. People who only work hard, without break, can end up spending a lot of time stuck in mediocrity because they never quite have the energy to perform at their peak. Reaching for excellence requires balance.

(3) Admit to others when you are struggling, but do it in a powerful way by being responsible for acting on your situation. E.g. “I am not going so well at the moment, but I am committed to doing whatever it takes to get myself right.”

(4) Ask for help. There are often not too many things more difficult than asking for help – it can take extraordinary courage to do so, but it can make all the difference.

(5) Commit for the long term. Mental toughness is required to give up short term rewards in return for the desired long term impact.

In my heart, I am a competitor. I love to push my mind and my body to the limits to see how close I can get to excellence, but I have learned the hard way that excellence can be elusive when you don’t embrace the complexity of its pursuit. If you want to accelerate your practice of excellence, get tough, admit to your weaknesses and limitations, and then take action to do something about them!

We must combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.  ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

All the best,

Dr Sean R

www.seanorichardson.com.au

17 replies
  1. Kyle Newman says:

    Hi Sean, I wholeheartedly agree with you. This is a topic I’ve been mulling over myself of late. More in relation to myself than my clients. As human beings we have a huge ability to deceive ourselves and believe our own press, yet true mastery as you say comes from learning to see ourselves honestly, the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Only then can we truly grow and achieve our full potential.

    And yes, it takes a huge amount of strength and courage to do that, and admit your failings and weaknesses to yourself, let alone anyone else. It requires us to become vulnerable which is something many of us find hard and goes against many of our primal instincts. Living in denial or putting on a brave face are easier, and much more ‘normal’.

    The thing that fascinates me about this the most, is the ability to tap into your strength and power at a much deeper level when you are open and honest about your fears and weaknesses. I learnt from my own experience that when I am able to do this with people I know and trust and that can handle it, it allows me to really go out and play a bigger game and be at my best. As you say, a paradox.

    I think for many people the challenge in this for many people is having a safe and trusted environment where they can be open and vulnerable about their weaknesses without fear or reprisal or ridicule, and where they will receive support to learn, grow and address those weaknesses.

    So for me the question becomes… how do we create more of these environments for people, both in the sporting world and the rest of the world, when what’s normal is something quite different.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts… Kyle

  2. drseanr says:

    Hi Kyle,

    Thank you for your lengthy and thoughtful comments. There are many paradoxes that go with being human… eh?

    With regard to your question – “how do we create more of these environments?” – I believe it is multi-layered prospect. It probably involves a decision at the individual level that a safe and supportive environment is desirable – which is preceded by the acknowledgment that being able to admit to vulnerabilities is helpful. When we are talking about contexts like sports teams, or business environments, or anywhere there are groups of people, it is critical that such acknowledgment comes from people in leadership positions. Leaders set a tone for a culture, and can have significant influence over large groups of people. If a leader is closed to learning and self-development, stuck in the “must be stoic” definition of mental toughness, or simply unaware of what makes up true resilience, it will be pretty difficult to encourage openness to vulnerability. When we talk about other contexts, like family, friends, and social settings, it is a similar thing – we all need to acknowledge what makes up true resilience – part of which is the courage to be open and authentic about one’s weaknesses.

    At the individual level, I believe that there is a middle point of peaceful action to aim for along a continuum with being a victim on one end and being a stoic on the other. This middle point is difficult to hit – when we try to avoid one end of that spectrum we risk flying right past that middle point to the other end. Many people hold the stoic in esteem because at least the stoic appears to keep getting things done… and they despise the victim, who appears to complain about his or her troubles all the time, and get nothing done. Nonetheless, regardless of short term advantages of stoicism, in the long term, the stoic can do more harm than good for progress, resolution and peace by residing in denial about things that need to change. The trick is to get that opening to vulnerability is not about doing nothing – it is about acknowledging it and then choosing to do whatever it takes to work through it, to transform it in oneself (even if that includes asking others for help). What would it be like if that person you know, who usually complains about everything without doing anything about it, one day added to their list of complaints “and today I am going to start doing anything I can to work through these problems. I am not sure what I need to do yet, but I am committed to making a change”? What would that be like?

    Openness to vulnerability + commitment to action = possibility for change = inspiration.

    To create such environments, we need to encourage all people, but particularly those with great influence over others, to seek and develop their own inner peace – to identify their own human beingness and to commit to doing something to transform their complaints, struggles and/or insecurities. Perhaps, one target population, with whom we can have a large impact, is children – help them to feel good about themselves from the outset – educate children to grow up with greater acceptance for themselves and others – help kids to see that in fact we might classify weaknesses not as such, but as things that make us different and unique. We might also teach them that weaknesses are not the enemy but the ally – they show up as opportunities/invitations to learn and grow, even if they don’t always feel so nice. Let’s teach kids to operate with compassion and acceptance, combined with commitment to change and we are going to influence the future generations.

    We probably need to get to a tipping point where enough people want to see a positive shift in how we judge each other (basically, to let go of judging each other), which will probably follow from enough people transforming their own self-assessment from one of judgment (criticism of what is wrong with oneself) to one of acceptance (and curiosity about what one could do differently).

    In competitive team sport, the tipping point can be more straightforward to get to because all players and coaches share an objective common goal – and if you can show them that acceptance, non-judgment, and openness will help them achieve that external goal – they will buy into such concepts and organically transform some of their inner goals (the task of getting athletes to see the value of such openness is no small one, however). In other contexts, the tipping point can seem more challenging to reach because common goals may not be as objectively clear, and thus can be harder to achieve collective alignment around. Nonetheless, it will make a difference in any context to apply the following key points:

    (1) Understand and value the concept of learning from weaknesses

    (2) Focus on long term goals, rather than short term results

    (3) Practice non-judgmental acceptance for things that are just part of being human

    (4) Work with the influencers on this planet to get them to a place of inner peace and acceptance, so that they don’t take up and reinforce a defensive state of denial

    (5) Educate the younger generations about what is most functional to achieving success and happiness, which includes an openness and honesty about self

    (6) Emphasize that taking action is critical to creating change

    ..some initial thoughts… 🙂

  3. Joe Roberts says:

    Sean I always enjoy your thoughful and well produced ideas. As I train I am reminded of the need for rest, and the need to be vulnerable to build strength. As a boy growing up there was this idea of “suck it up buttercup” your ideas stand that on its head – Love it mate!

  4. drseanr says:

    Thanks Joe. Your big goal to make a difference through your hard work and inspiration is awesome – you have been a model of mental toughness as long as I have known you!

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