The hard truth is that life is unfair. Sometimes things go wrong because the choices we make and sometimes they go wrong for reasons outside of our control. Whatever the reason, we will all be faced with adversity at some (or many times) in our lives. The psychological ability to take on and overcome such challenges is referred to as mental resilience.
The ancient Greek philosophers, the Stoics, defined mental resilience as ‘being able to deal with the stormy weather that life throws at you’. Science defines it as an individual’s ability to deal effectively with challenge, stressors and pressure irrespective of prevailing circumstances. Ultimately, it’s the ability to bounce back from adversity, severe loss or failure.
Mental toughness can have a profound positive effect on an individual’s pursuit of success of up to 25%. Being mentally tough can not only increase an individual’s rate of advancement but can also improve overall wellbeing and happiness. But, can you improve your psychological resilience or is it something you are born with? Although evidence shows that there is a clear genetic link in mental toughness, there are certain environmental areas of mental toughness that can be worked on, modified and strengthened in order to improve your overall resilience. The successful practice of psychology in the sports world suggests that mental toughness development is more than possible.
Mental resilience improvement strategies are not just reserved for elite sports athletes and can be applied to anyone and at any level in sport, fitness and life. The Stoics believe this too. They talked of ‘Eudaimonia’ as the ultimate goal in life, to become the highest version of ourselves. They believed that we all have the seed of ‘daimonia’ within us and have the inner potential to achieve our fullest potential.
The 4Cs model of mental toughness was initially proposed by Peter Clough et al (2002). His proposed model stated that overall mental toughness was made up of four components of challenge, commitment, control and confidence.
Challenge is all about your ability to perceive the task you are presented with as an opportunity for gain or growth. It’s about how effective are you at looking for the positive, no matter how bad or overwhelming the situation.
As the age-old saying goes, ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.’ A fundamental part of Stoicism was their belief that in order to grow strong mentally, you must front up and take on adversity head-on, embracing the suffering in order to come out the other end stronger.
Scientific studies have also found that this perception is at the core of many elite athlete’s mental toughness, including Olympic champions and Mixed Martial Artists (MMA). They view stressors as an opportunity for growth, development and mastery, actively taking part in challenge activities to help develop their ability to deal with adverse situations. They learn through training, effort and work, gaining new skills, perspectives, better relationships and greater confidence.
Next time you are greeted with a problem, setback or failure, think about how you can learn from this experience to further grow, develop and progress towards your goal.
Commitment is about the individual’s ability to keep going no matter the circumstances. It’s about staying disciplined to the task, working towards the goal when you absolutely do not want to. For example, training for an endurance race is incredibly demanding on the body, the mind and your time. You train multiple times a week, you’re exhausted, your body is aching, the weather outside is dreadful, everything about your being is screaming at you not to train. Mentally tough people will still get up and get out there to work towards their goal because they have promised themselves they would, they don’t give up on anything.
The truth is, there will always be obstacles, a reason to stop and distractions in your way. It’s your mind’s ability to ignore all stimuli irrelevant to the task and continue. We may not always have motivation but we will always have discipline. The better you are at making your tasks non-negotiable the stronger your commitment is in terms of mental strength.
Control is divided into two sub-components. The first is life control, which is the extent to which we believe we are in control of what happens to us. The second is emotional control, our ability to control our anxieties, frustrations, anger, and other emotional states.
Life control is our belief in which we believe we shape our own future. From David Goggin’s Accountability Mirror to Buddist’s Noble Eightfold Path, it’s about believing we can make a difference and take affirmative action to control our life's path.
In the Stoic’s pursuit of ‘Eudaimonia’, to thrive in life, they followed the elements of the Stoic Happiness Triangle. To live with Arete, focus on what you can control and to take responsibility. To live with arete is to express your highest self in every moment. To focus on what you can control means exactly that, to accept what already is or has happened or beyond our control and focus on what the things that we can control. Finally, take responsibility. Every external event in your life that you don’t control offers you an area you can control, your response. It’s not the events themselves that make us unhappy, but our interpretation of those events. Take responsibility and choose no longer give outside events any more power over you.
Strong emotions and the suffering they cause is referred to by Buddhists as Duhkha. The whole Buddist philosophy is based on controlling your emotions in order to control your suffering. The Stoics agreed that strong emotions are our ultimate weakness. In order to lead a good, happy life we must tame our emotions, referring to this as “therapy of the passions”.
This is not to say we must void of emotions, quite the opposite. It’s about embracing your emotions, controlling them and redirecting them for your own good, rather than letting them work against you. Emotions are powerful influences on our mentality, motivation and actions. Channel them in a positive way and you can work to become an unstoppable force.
Confidence was identified as the key component and main strategy utilized by Olympic champions and the MMA fighters and underpins the whole mental resilience model. Confidence comes in two forms, confidence in abilities and interpersonal confidence.
Confidence in abilities is the belief that you possess the necessary ability to achieve your goals. It’s so important because when you’re confident you think and act in a much more effective manner than when you are not confident. The most confident and motivated individuals look to face problems straight-on, such as competition and training, and are willing to take big risks as they are confident in their ability.
As much as you can have confidence in your ability, interpersonal confidence concerns your level of assertiveness. High levels of interpersonal confidence mean that you are able to perform better under pressure, voice your opinion when in a group, influence others and lead a team.
Take our Mental Toughness Assessment and discover your resilience score.