As an FBI agent, I became an observer into the lives of people under investigation. Upon my retirement from the FBI, I completed graduate studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary. In the process, I became a more thoughtful observer of my own life.
I started to embrace the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire are not worth the pursuit. Instead, Stoic philosophy focused on how to develop the mental toughness to manage negative emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear.
Stoicism was the forerunner of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one of the most effective psychological tools used by therapists today. CBT proposes that when we change the way we think about a problem, it leads to a change in behavior. Mental toughness can be defined as managing our emotions, thoughts, and behavior in ways that set us up for success.
The ancient Stoic philosophers had great tools to help fight the helplessness that sets in when it feels like the world is against you. Stoics knew how to develop mental toughness. Stoicism sounds serious but it started with a bunch of guys in togas who sat on porches almost two thousand years ago and taught philosophy. Stoa means porch so stoicism is actually porch wisdom.
Here are 5 tips from the Stoics on how to develop mental toughness:
1. Train In Winter
“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.”—Epictetus
Roman armies disbanded during the winter unless engaged in a series of raids. Epictetus believed that there was no such thing as Spring training for soldiers—or anyone for that matter. To land on our feet, we must keep our mind active all the time.
It’s too late to train or prepare when the shit hits the fan or when the stakes are high. As entrepreneurs, business owners, and leaders, you already know you can’t read a book on basketball and then go to the NBA. You know you must always prepare for what life might throw at you, so when it does, you’re ready.
When we train and prepare, we continually learn new skills. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to continuously create new neural pathways. When we repeat skills we are trying to learn, we strengthen those neural networks.
How To Make It Work For You: You learn how to develop mental toughness when you train your mind to think and prepare for the challenges ahead. Keep your brain alert and active all the time. If you can’t actually perform a particular task, simply visualize yourself doing it. Your brain cannot tell the difference.
2. Embrace The Test
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”—Seneca
When I look back over my 24 year career as an FBI agent, you know what I remember the most? The difficult times. The hardest training at the FBI Academy and the most frustrating investigations were also the moments that were the most formative for me.
Challenges in life are unavoidable. Researchers believe that if we can learn to accept them as children, it will help our chance of success as adults. Children who learn to handle their own problems are also the ones with exceptional achievement as adults.
There is a Chinese saying “Chi Ku Shi Fu” (eating bitterness is good fortune) that highlights the idea that there is the opportunity for wisdom and growth in the midst of misfortune. While we don’t have control over the situations that life will bring to us, we do have a choice as to how we will react to them.
How To Make It Work For You: You learn how to develop mental toughness when you face your opponents, challenges, and misfortunes with an open mind. Look for ways to learn from your challenges. You may need to dig deep, but claim the wisdom from those times you are tested. It will you move to a higher level of well-being and perspective.
3. Prepare On Sunny Days
“It is when times are good that you should gird yourself for tougher times ahead…so it is that soldiers practice maneuvers in peacetime, erecting bunkers with no enemies in sight and exhausting themselves under no attack so that when it comes, they won’t grow tired.”—Seneca
Seneca writes that we should prepare in advance so that nothing ever takes us by surprise. In today’s language, he wants us to develop resilience in the face of adversity. We should toughen up before the crisis hits us so we know how to respond.
When we spend time thinking about the downside, Cognitive Behavior Therapy says that we decatastrophize it. Remember CBT? The Stoics invented it. Don’t be the person who freaks out at work when something goes wrong. Be prepared and handle it with finesse and aplomb.
How To Make It Work For You: You learn how to develop mental toughness when you ask “What is the worst that could happen?” This is not pessimism; it’s being realistic. Take the time on a sunny day to prepare yourself to respond in an effective manner when the storm hits.
4. Find Your Hidden Power
“Consider who you are. Above all, a human being, carrying no greater power than your own reasoned choice, which oversees all other thing, and is free from any other master.”—Epictetus
Epictetus walked with a limp as the result of being chained up as a slave. For Stoics like him, the only thing you ever really have control over are your deliberate thoughts. You can’t control other people, you can’t control your situation, and you can’t always control your own body. So the only thing over which you do have control is your emotions, thoughts, and behavior—the essence of mental toughness.
We need to accept that there are many things over which we have no control. We can, and should, try to influence them if we can. But once you begin to feel you need to control other people or situations, it’s likely that emotions will get out of control if things don’t go your way.
How To Make It Work For You: You learn how to develop mental toughness when you acknowledge that it does no good to worry about things you can’t control. Instead, spend your time on things over which you have complete control, like your goals and values. If you do this, you’ll avoid the anxiety that comes with the need to control.
5. Color Your Thoughts
“Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.”—Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics had some great tools to help fight negative feelings because when you know how to deal with the negative, it gives you more time for the positive.
If we maintain a negative outlook, soon everything we encounter will seem negative. When we color our thoughts with negativity, it bleeds into other parts of our life as well.
Stoics believed that we are moved to action by positive emotions, such as a sense of indignation at having witnessed an injustice, or a desire to make the world a better place for everyone. Negative emotions color our thoughts, emotions, and behavior in unproductive ways.
How To Make It Work For You: You learn how to develop mental toughness when you seek the positive in your situation. Believe you will prevail in your circumstances rather than believing your circumstances will change.
© 2018 LaRae Quy. All rights reserved.
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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths”
This is a timely post for me. Working with someone who needs every ounce of wisdom you’ve squeezed into this piece. “Eating bitterness is good fortune.” If for just a second we’re willing to believe that’s true, lessons that were before hidden to us are suddenly available.
Excellent post LaRae! Very interesting on the concept of stoicism. I love the idea of: “What is the worst that can happen?” I often follow this philosophy and it really helps me get through the difficult challenges that many seem insurmountable at first.
Thanks so much for sharing!
Very excellent post.
This is your best article to date LaRae. Very well done!