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Mental Toughness

Updated: Feb 16, 2019

There are some things that are self-evident about mental toughness and resilience. In the Army and especially in the Infantry they have become so self-evident that they just become buzzwords to talk about hardships you will inevitably face in your job. However, I believe that when something becomes so self-evident that we start to overlook it, that we can miss hidden truths and meanings that aren’t so self-evident upon further investigation. The same is true for all things. That’s why I wanted to explore mental toughness a bit more to try to see some of these hidden truths so that we can better understand what mental toughness and resilience are.

Firstly, let’s start with definitions. I would define mental toughness as the ability to face, persist in, and recover from difficulties. I say this because how you lead up to difficulties, how you continue through those difficulties, and how you recover from difficulties is dependent on your mental toughness. If you try to avoid necessary difficulties, then you aren’t mentally tough. If you quit or lower your goals during difficulties, then you aren’t mentally tough. If you can’t recover from difficulties so that you become better off from them, then you aren’t mentally tough. These seem like harsh words but it’s necessary to be harsh so that we understand what to strive towards in the pursuit of becoming mentally tougher.

However, I would go even further than this and say that mental toughness relates directly to our will and willpower. Aristotle says in Nichomachean Ethics, ‘it is the good that is the object of the willing, but for each man it is the apparent good.’ This means that our will strives after what we perceive as Good. What we perceive is good is based upon our reason and emotions. Our Reason is the true Good because Truth is good. Emotions may not always show what is good and so it is an inferior way of understanding what is Good. Therefore, our willpower is our ability for our reason to subordinate our emotions; for our reason to drive our emotions rather than our emotions to drive our reason. Our mental toughness is the strength of our willpower to keep our emotions subordinate to our reason. By emotion I mean any feeling. This can be physical like pain and pleasure, or psychological like Catharsis, Anxiety, Depression, etc.

Now our emotions are not opposed to our willpower. Our emotions can help our willpower. However, when our emotions drive our reason this is a corrupted use of reason because it is being driven by emotion rather than what is rational or logical. In such an instance a person’s mental toughness is still existent but is compromised because it is being used towards a corrupted good. Likewise, the willpower is compromised because it has already allowed the reason to be subordinated to some emotion. This doesn’t mean that any time emotion affects your reason that it has corrupted your reason. Your reason is what is rational or logical. So, for us to have reason we need information to be able to decide what is reasonable. Sometimes emotion can provide valid information as to what a reasonable thing to do is. However, it is when emotion has persuaded you to do something that is ultimately unreasonable, irrational, or illogical that you then possess a corrupted reason. This corruption can be fixed but it is only fixed when the reason returns to subordinating the emotion that is corrupting it.

We learn in the Army that mental toughness and resilience is like a muscle that can be exercised. However, the literature that explains how one should exercise one’s mental toughness is very limited and is truly relegated to Special Forces literature since it seems to be more necessary there. This lack of literature is again due to the self-evident nature of mental toughness within the workplace. Why read about something everyone already knows about? For people in the Infantry it would like reading about why you would want to kill the Enemy before he kills you. We already know why instinctively. However, in the Special forces (SF) world the soldier is more focused on self-mastery. Whatever little advantage an SF soldier can get over his enemy is an opportunity that needs to be seized. This means that they will often revise things which may be “self-evident” to see if there was anything they missed. This includes mental toughness. From reading SF literature, they emphasize this point to train mental toughness, “Voluntarily make decisions that will make your life harder for periods of time.” This is a succinct way of describing what I want to expand upon because I think we can get even more precise as to how we can train our mental toughness.

If mental toughness is the strength of our willpower to subordinate our emotion to reason, then the best way to train it is to place our willpower under strain by purposefully strengthening our emotion’s attempt to subordinate our reason. What does this mean? We should increase our pain, deprive ourselves of pleasure, increase our stress in order to put strain on our willpower to keep these emotions in place. Now, obviously we shouldn’t become masochists and try to find some sort of enjoyment out of these activities. We ought to loathe them, because by doing so we assist our exercising of our mental toughness. Also, we should make sure we are controlled in how we increase our emotion’s attempt to subordinate our reason. Just like with exercising we don’t start out dead-lifting 3 times our own body weight. We start off small and work our way up to bigger things.

Start off by setting goals for yourself and achieving them. For example, go for long runs and give yourself a goal (5km, 10km, 15km, etc) and don’t quit until you’ve achieved that goal you set out to do. Don’t try to lower your goal or find some excuse to get out of it.

Next you can start giving up some form of pleasure for a month. This could be smoking, drinking, watching TV, eating out, sleeping in, or even depriving catharsis. You probably have a good understanding of things you derive pleasure from that you could give up for a month.

Next, you can then go further by putting yourself under pressure or discomfort by exercising in the rain, listening to some uncomfortable noise (like crying babies for example) for long periods of time or introduce pressure by shortening the time you have to do certain tasks with added punishments if you fail.

This is a clear progression of training. Start off with understanding the technique of the exercise (reaching goals without quitting), taking away anything assisting you from doing the exercise (deprivation of pleasure), then finally start adding weights (introducing discomfort and pressure). By doing these three steps we are exercising our mental toughness. The first step is testing to see if our apathy will remain subordinate to our reason, the second step is testing whether our craving for pleasure will remain subordinate to our reason, and the third step is testing to see if our pain and stress will remain subordinate to our reason. All three of these things create a holistic approach to training mental toughness.

Why does setting goals and achieving them help build our mental toughness? This relates back to our primary definition of mental toughness which looks at facing, persisting in, and recovering from difficulties. This first step in training is to be able to face and complete a goal. There is a tendency due to apathy or laziness to want to quit or lower our standards to make goals easier for ourselves. Without being able to complete simple goals you set for yourself, you won’t be able to move on to harder challenges. By doing this exercise you will start to develop coping mechanisms for pushing past the desire to quit or make things easier for yourself which is vital to developing mental toughness.

Why does depriving ourselves of pleasure help us develop mental resilience? Depriving pleasures is directly linked to the idea of delaying gratification. By giving up certain pleasures for periods of time we delay the gratification we gain from those pleasures. By delaying Instant gratification, our brains become uncomfortable. This makes our brains create coping mechanisms which help us with more challenging events. The emotional craving for pleasure is a great way to train our emotions to be subordinate to our reason simply because this craving is directly affecting our reason to give into this craving. Now, not all emotional cravings for pleasure are unreasonable and corrupt our reason. However, the vast majority do. The emotional craving for certain foods can be unreasonable because they negatively affect our diet and health. The craving for smoking is likewise unreasonable because it is averse to good health. The craving for Technology is unreasonable because it can become an entertaining distraction from doing more important things. By creating discipline in these areas, you lower your attachment to these pleasures and gain a greater resilience to other forms of distractions and cravings in your life. By detaching yourself from these pleasures you build coping mechanisms that will help you when these cravings and distractions stop you from achieving your goal.

Why does adding pressure (discomfort, pain and stress) help us develop mental toughness? By adding pressures to your set goals, you create an atmosphere that purposefully adds discomfort which pushes your reason to become subordinate to your emotions. However, instead of emotional cravings being the trigger, it becomes pain, discomfort and stress that tells our mind to stop. This discomfort will help us build coping mechanisms for pushing past pain and stress to achieve our goals. By creating effective coping mechanisms in the small doses of discomfort, pain and stress, we will be able to use these same coping mechanisms in the larger doses.

These Exercises of depriving pleasure and adding pressure will help us in the second part of our primary definition of mental toughness. Persisting in difficulties.

Now, there are opportunities we can take to help us train as well. Through the circumstances of everyday life, we often become subject to things like anxiety or depression. We can use these circumstances to help us strengthen our mental toughness when we overcome them. The coping mechanisms we create through dealing with these situations are invaluable to helping our mental toughness. Therefore, it’s important to see a psychologist or counselor

if you are struggling with these problems or if you aren’t, to at least study psychology. They will help you build these coping mechanisms that strengthen your resilience to these mental health problems if you can’t build them yourself.

These coping mechanisms are vital to the third part of our primary definition of mental toughness. Recovering from difficulties. By having effective coping mechanisms in place and understanding more substantially the place of emotion to reason, we can better recover and grow from these difficulties.

I hope that what I’ve written will help you get past the idea that there is nothing more we can learn about mental toughness and resilience. I hope you can use what I’ve written to help you train to become more mentally tough. Mental toughness is such a vital part to our job and we can always grow and get better at it.

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