We all know what physical strength is. But inner mental strength? What is it? Put in the simplest terms mental strength refers to any set of positive attributes that helps a person to cope with difficult situations.
Someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about this is Amy Morin. She is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and lecturer at Northeastern University in the United States. In this powerful 15 minute video she very helpfully explores three kinds of destructive beliefs that can derail us and rob us of our mental strength.
What makes her explanation particularly meaningful is that she talks not just as a psychologist, but from her own experience at the age of 23 with the sudden loss of her mother and then exactly 3 years later of her then husband.
As she says about that time,
"So now I found myself a 26 year old widow, and I didn't have my Mom. I thought, 'How am I going to get through this?' And to describe that as a painful period in my life feels like an understatement. And it was during that time that I realised when you're going through tough times, good habits aren't enough. It only takes one or two bad habits to really hold you back...... Because sooner or later you're going to hit a time in your life where you will need all the mental strength you can muster."
Even after these tough experiences Amy Morin still had further challenges in her life to deal with, but her insights about helpful and unhelpful thinking habits are universally applicable.
What kinds of bad habits is she referring to?
The first has to do with unhealthy beliefs about ourselves. When things don't go the way we want, it is quite normal to feel sad or upset for a period of time. That is quite natural and to be expected. The danger comes when we fall into self-pity and start to magnify our misfortune. Saying things to myself such as "Why does this have to happen to me?" in effect causes us to be stuck and focussed on our problems, rather than finding a solution or moving forward in our lives.
The second type of unhealthy beliefs that hold us back is when we have destructive beliefs about others. We have a tendency to think other people control us and that we have no choice. The reality is we have much more power than we give ourselves credit for. (For more on this also see It Took Just A Change of Words).
The third type of unhealthy beliefs that hold us back have to do with the world. We tend to make the assumption that the world owes us something. That if we sacrifice and work hard, then we will come to deserve success. Unfortunately that is often not the case. The world is not fair and the longer we take to accept this the harder we will be on ourselves and others.
Amy Morin's very helpful insight is that to get through tough times good habits are not enough. Quoting her again,
"My journey taught me that the secret to being mentally strong was that you had to give up your bad mental habits. Mental strength is a lot like physical strength. If you wanted to be physically strong, you would need to go to the gym and lift weights. But if you really wanted to see results, you would also have to give up eating junk food. Mental strength is the same. If you want to be mentally strong you need good habits like gratitude. But you also have to give up bad habits like resenting somebody else's success. No matter how often that happens it will hold you back."
So if we go back to those three types of unhealthy beliefs, we need to understand the following reasons why we resort to those unhelpful patterns.
The reason we have unhealthy beliefs about ourselves is because we are uncomfortable with our feelings, especially the feelings of sadness, hurt, anger or just feeling scared. So our natural reaction is to go to great lengths to avoid feeling uncomfortable. We wallow in our misfortune or find others to complain to and continually go over the bad things that have happened. To a point that is natural and even normal, but the problem is this becomes only a temporary distraction and just prolongs the pain. As Amy Morin says, "The only way to get through uncomfortable emotions, the only way to deal with them, is you have to go through them. To let yourself feel sad, and then move on. To gain confidence in your ability to deal with the discomfort."
When we have unhealthy beliefs about others it is so often because we are comparing ourselves to other people. Our problem is in our minds we make out others as being better or worse than us; or we think how others are controlling us or how we want to control them. Often that can lead us to blame them for holding us back. This is Amy Morin's response to that, "But really its our own choices that do that. You have to accept that you are your own person and other people are separate from you. The only person you should compare yourself to is the person that you were yesterday." (For more on this see Podcast #018 Spiritual Maturity).
When it comes to unhealthy beliefs about the world it is because deep down we want the world to be fair. We want to believe that we if we do the right thing then God, the world, the universe (whatever way you think about life) then we will be guaranteed success and the good rewards we desire. But again while this is so natural, it will hold us back. Amy Morin's response to that is, "You ultimately have to accept that life isn't fair. And that can be liberating. Yes it means you won't necessarily be rewarded for your goodness, but it also means no matter how much you've suffered, you're not doomed to keep suffering. The world doesn't work that way." (For a deeper exploration of this do see Why I Struggle With Religion).
For me Amy Morin's experience resonates with the sudden loss of my friend Bunty in 2014 ( I write about that here and also on the first year anniversary and second year anniversary). That was certainly a time I had to gather all the mental strength I could muster.
To explore this subject more also see:
How does this issue of inner mental strength resonate with you? What questions and comments come to mind?