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February 2, 2021

How to Build Mental Muscle – #MTtalk Roundup

Yolande Conradie


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©© GettyImages/Metamorworks

"I have gotten where I am today by refusing to stay where I was."

Danielle Bernock, American author

The lawn in our front garden was all but decimated. My flower beds were half-ruined (I'm being generous here) and everything was full of dust. My husband had a teary wife, and a considerable chunk of money had exited our bank account. It was the end of a long day that's known in our household as, "The Day We Drilled a Dry Hole."

In the town where I live, we regularly experience water outages. With that in mind, we decided to drill for water. The drill rig arrived early in the morning, and by seven o'clock, the massive drill bit was already pounding the earth with determined monotony, emitting a deafening noise.

To begin with, it happily churned out evidence of its journey through millions of years of geological events. But, by noon, it was evident that the rock layers were getting thicker and harder – and the drilling slowed down visibly.

"Maybe," we told ourselves at 40 meters deep, "we'll hit an aquifer in the next few meters." When we reached 50 meters, we had to decide: carry on, or call it quits?

"Let's go 10 meters deeper," my husband said. Then 60 meters... and still no water.

"Let's go 10 meters deeper," I said, all too conscious of the cost – but choosing to focus on hope.

But at 70 meters, we had to stop. The costs were already sky-high, and we had no idea at what depth we'd find water.

Work It Out With Mental Muscle

We went into the situation knowing we might not find water, and also knew we'd have to be able to cope with the disappointment of possibly drilling a "dry" hole.

Life is like that: you can't stop drilling when you hit the first layer of rock and the process slows down. Or stop working toward a survival or achievement goal every time you hit a roadblock.

You have to learn how to become strong enough to persevere through tough times and situations. It's essential that you learn to deal with outcomes other than the ones you wanted. You have to build strong mental muscles.

Flex Your Mental Muscle

Dr Supriya Dhongde, our guest host on #MTtalk, is an expert on the topic of building mental muscle. And she recognizes that, when setbacks occur and pull us down, we often wonder how we can better manage those difficult times.

The answer, she says, lies in building stronger "mental muscles" – which can also be described as developing grit, tenacity, persistence, or discipline.

We need strong mental muscles to cope with challenges in all spheres of life – including our relationships, career, health, finances, and any decisions involving these things.

Dr Dhongde refers to something called the cognitive triangle. She says, "Anytime we want to start, sustain, or stop anything, we are always moving within this triangle."

Whenever there is an activating event (something that happens), we move between:

  • Thought – I tell myself something.
  • Feeling – I feel something.
  • Behavior – I do something.

For example, say you decide to exercise to get fit and lose some weight. On the third day, your partner disrupts your program by asking you to change your exercise time because it clashes with their routine.

  • Thought – "They always do this; I have no space in this relationship."
  • Feeling – You feel restricted and upset.
  • Behavior – You tell your partner that you won't be watching a movie with them over the weekend like you'd promised.

And the result: you don't exercise, harbor resentment, and feel as if your whole week is ruined.

Day-to-Day Mental Muscle

Of course, we need strong mental muscles when we're faced with extraordinary adversity. However, strong mental muscles are just as important (if not more so) when dealing with small, day-to-day issues.

But how do you build strong mental muscles? All it takes is a few simple steps:

1. Building belief

The word "building" brings to mind a picture of a tall, strong building, and it's representative of how we should look at ourselves. All of us, irrespective of our genetic makeup or experiences (read "failures"), can build our mental muscles.

2. Awareness

Let's use the classic rating-scale question from the coaching world. On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being the lowest, 5 being the highest), how strong are your mental muscles? This rating will help us to assess ourselves.

3. Plan

Baby steps can have a big impact. By taking just five to 10 minutes a day to do something, you'll experience your stamina and confidence gradually building up. Although a few minutes a day might not look like much, each session will help you to create new pathways in your brain.

4. Sustain

This is the trickiest part. Many New Year resolutions have already faded away! It's up to you to find strategies that will work for you. For example, if you miss your morning exercise, set aside time in your planner to do it in the evening.

5. Appreciate

You've heard this many times, right? Still, we constantly beat ourselves up while working out a whole "correction plan" in our minds. Observe your self-talk, and choose the most affectionate words to push and persuade yourself.

All's Well That Ends Well

Finally, anytime you don't do your small daily action, don't waste energy on analyzing it – just get up and start.

And that dry hole? We really had to "dig in" to cope with the enormous disappointment we felt. But we did. Then, refusing to accept that we had no other choice, we started thinking of other ways to buffer ourselves against water outages.

Maybe we didn't have the ideal outcome, but we came up with a workable and cost-effective alternative. And sometimes that's what mental muscle means: to learn to live with a reality other than the one we'd imagined.

How to Build Mental Muscle

During the #MTtalk Twitter chat this week, Dr Dhongde and I hosted the discussion on making your mental muscles stronger.

Here are the questions we asked, and a selection of thought-provoking answers from participants in the chat:

Q1. What words do you think of when you hear the phrase "mental muscle?"

@SizweMoyo I think about the levels of strength to keep a positive attitude and work ethic even in tough times.

@J_Stephens_CPA The first thing that comes to mind is exercising the mind – reading and learning; using reason.

@ZalkaB Mental resilience. Having a bend-able mindset that helps you adapt to any challenges ahead.

@TheToniaKallon Awareness, perseverance, resilience.

Q2. What is your strength when it comes to your mental muscles? What is your gray area?

@ColfaxInsurance I have determination like none other, that's my strongest. I have a harder time with focus if I'm lacking motivation.

@MarkC_Avgi It is said that life is 20% what happens & 80% how one deals with what happens. Many do not exhibit that ratio. I believe one of my mental strengths was learning how to deal with stressful situations, as well as making a commitment & sticking to it.

Q3. The events of 2020 tested us in many ways. What did they teach you about your mental tenacity/muscle?

@SayItForwardNow 2020 taught me many, many lessons, including that an optimistic and hopeful mindset kept me going.

@TwinkleEduCons Highlighted my strengths & weaknesses. I learnt I can cope very well in lockdown by practising gratitude & focusing on the small things. I didn't feel the distress many did. However, I learnt that lack of movement & staying indoors affected my mood more than I realised.

Q4. In what ways can building mental muscle help us in our personal life?

@Yolande_MT Building mental muscle helps you to break old habits and establish new, more beneficial / healthier habits.

@shamikv I see 'mental muscle' as a bridge over the troubled waters of the mind to connect subconscious to the superconscious.

Q5. Why might you have a stronger mental muscle in one area of your life than another?

@hopegovind Experience makes your mental muscles stronger. My wife sometimes says you have become stone hearted due to the past experience in your life. That's true in our life. Whether workplace or personal life, our experiences make us stronger.

@nitinwelde The muscle may be a combination of many muscles. One may not expect [the] same response in each area of mental response. So you tend to make that muscle stronger that you are comfortable with. The other areas may get ignored as it may need introspection & improvement.

Q6. We do physical strength training in a gym. What sort of "gym" is required to build mental muscles?

@emapirciu Reading builds the mental muscles.

@Raadhadhongde Making Psychology a compulsory subject like Math and Science for kids! It will go a long way in building mental muscles for every individual.

Q7. Which bad habits will you need to let go of as part of your long-term plan to strengthen your mental muscle?

@DhongdeSupriya I need to learn to consciously unwind and relax 🙂

@MyZoneofGenius If I stop focusing on my weakness and focus on my strengths! E.g. I have to notice better drivers, not be consumed by the 'idiots'!

Q8. Do you have tips or strategies you can share which have helped you to become mentally tough?

@TanjaProtic 1. Start! Just start even if it is a baby step. 2. Do it regularly. Don't skip. If you skip a day do it the next day or as soon as possible. 3. Don't judge yourself if the effort you put in isn't perfect – something is better than nothing! 4. Keep track.

@AnthonyGiannone The best tip I can think of in terms of mental muscle is you must concentrate on your task at hand and always be focused in whatever you do. Those two key points [are] how you not only develop your mental muscle, but keep it strong.

Q9. How might building mental muscle benefit your team?

@MicheleDD_MT There is strength in unity. With strong mental muscles, a team is impervious to setbacks and obstacles.

@MarkC_Avgi A good team consists of people with different strengths, such that the strengths of one compensate for a weakness in another. Too much mental muscle or "testosterone" on a team can be an issue as well, sometimes.

Q10. How can we help one another to build mental muscle?

@MichaelPotts Listen more and judge less.

@Midgie_MT Positive words of encouragement and suggestions on reframing situations in a more resourceful / positive manner.

Coming Up

Over the past weeks we've spoken about lessons, rethinking our goal setting, and building our mental muscles. In our next #MTtalk chat, we're going to talk about "How to do what we know we should do."

In our poll this week, the question we're posing is: "So you've decided on your goals – how do you make sure you go on to achieve them?" To see the poll and cast your vote, please click here.

Useful Resources

In the meantime, here are some resources to help you to build your mental muscle. (You'll need to be a Club member or a corporate licensee to access them all in their entirety.)

The Uncertainty Factor

How Can Stoicism Help You at Work?

Finding Your Allies


Core Self-Evaluations

Developing Resilience


Motivating Yourself

Breaking Bad Habits


Developing Personal Accountability

Are You a Procrastinator?

Managing Post-Traumatic Growth

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