Image by Jaco Pretorius

"When the Going Gets Tough..." 
What we Get Right, and Mostly Wrong, About "Mental Toughness".

The unpleasant truth is, there are many situations in life over which we simply have no control, especially as children. Sometimes circumstances will place formidable roadblocks in front of us. When that happens people, especially young people, need to know that it’s okay to reach out for help."

by Gillian-Smith Clark


Gillian Smith-Clark is the Editor in Chief of KBI Inspire Magazine, a professional photographic artist, freelance writer and mental health advocate. She is passionate about mental health literacy, suicide prevention and creating a greater understanding of illnesses of the brain. 

Mental toughness.  It is a concept, and sometimes a method, coveted and promoted by many elite athletes, CEO’s, parents, coaches, educators, and celebrities. Aptly illustrated by the quote, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”, producing mental toughness is an idea with which we’re all familiar.  But what happens when the tough can’t ‘get going’? What if, for whatever reason, the obstacles and the roadblocks in a person’s path are simply too big, too overwhelming?

 

The answers are complicated. Yes, overcoming a certain amount of adversity, learning to build mental strength, focus and resilience are extremely important in life.  Developing grit, determination and psychological strength are all worthy traits to pursue. And of course, we want our children, students, athletes… ourselves, to have the mental tools to overcome hardship.

 

Yet while developing mental toughness is an extremely appealing idea, it’s also a problematic one. When the concept of “toughing it out” is internalized, especially in young people, it can lead to the development of deeper problems.  When a person is first faced with a situation that is too much to cope with alone, a belief in maintaining mental toughness can lead to the flawed thinking that, not only can they handle the situation alone, but that they should be able to handle the situation alone - that is a dangerous place to be. In short, passionately internalizing a philosophy of mental toughness can be a barrier to seeking help, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

 

Another problematic aspect of the mental toughness philosophy is that it can lead to a ‘performance at all costs’ mindset. Once again, young people are particularly vulnerable to this idea, and it can lead to a range of issues such as playing through pain and ignoring injuries and illness in order to optimize performance. Further, if we believe in “performance at all costs”, what happens when we can’t perform? The impact of the constant pressure to perform, whether academically, in the context of sports or elsewhere, can quickly lead to tying self-worth to the area of specialization. Once again, we find ourselves in dangerous psychological territory.   

As human beings, our pattern seeking, short-cut taking brains love the idea of finding a formula or a method that inoculates us against failure and struggle.  That formula doesn’t exist. Instead of pushing the idea of mental toughness, we need to accept and normalize the idea that to struggle is to be human. Failure in life is both inevitable and valuable – it is an integral part of growth and success in life.

 

Mental Toughness vs. Mental Strength

The word tough implies inflexibility and hardness, it conjures images of building a fortress, a barrier. In truth, the qualities of mental toughness are often in opposition to building mental strength, a mindset which requires flexibility, openness and sensitivity in order to flourish. There is a subtle but important distinction between mental toughness and mental strength: one can be extremely isolating and self-focused, the other is inclusive and builds resilience over time.

 

In the article “What is Mental Toughness?” Adam Nicholls and Jon Callard write that, “People who are mentally tough are not afraid to take control or responsibility for the situation that they are in.”  The unpleasant truth is, there are many situations in life over which we simply have no control, especially as children. Sometimes circumstances will place formidable roadblocks in front of us. When that happens people, especially young people, need to know that it’s okay to reach out for help.

 

 

An Alternative Approach

 

As human beings, our pattern seeking, short-cut taking brains love the idea of finding a formula or a method that inoculates us against failure and struggle.  That formula doesn’t exist. Instead of pushing the idea of mental toughness, we need to accept and normalize the idea that to struggle is to be human. Failure in life is both inevitable and valuable – it is an integral part of growth and success in life.

 

For those of us in the position to raise, educate or coach young people, our focus needs to be on creating a climate of psychological safety first. We need a thoughtful, measured and evidence-based approach to building mental strength.  Build a foundation based on your core values. Allow space to rest and to reflect when it’s needed. Provide young people with good mental health education early in life, focus on understanding and managing emotions, not controlling them, and promote the idea of pursuing excellence, not perfection.  

 

Remember that when the going gets tough, the tough can’t always get going. It’s just not that simple.  What we can do is empower ourselves and others with the tools to navigate through the tough times, reaching out to others with kindness and compassion.