A father came into my therapy office with his son and said, "He's so strong. He hasn't even cried once since his grandmother passed away."
Being mentally strong isn't about stifling your emotions and ignoring your pain. After all, it takes strength to allow yourself to feel sad, anxious, and scared.
You don't want to stay stuck in a place of pain, however. It's important to be able to shift your emotions when they aren't serving you well. Here are five ways mentally strong people manage their emotions:
1. They schedule time to worry.
Whether you're a natural worrier who worries about everything or there's something specific that you can't seem to get off your mind, all of those "what if..." questions can consume your mental energy. What if something goes wrong? What if I end up broke?
One of the best ways to manage your anxious thoughts is to schedule time to worry. It sounds absurd, but studies show it actually works.
Set aside 20 minutes a day to worry and put it in your schedule. Then, when your worrying time rolls around, worry up a storm. When your time is over, go back to doing something else.
When you find yourself worrying outside your scheduled worrying time, remind yourself that it's not time to worry and you'll have plenty of time to do that later.
The goal is to contain your worrying to a specific portion of the day so it isn't all-consuming. With practice, you'll be able to spend your day focusing on the task right in front of you, rather than ruminate about what happened yesterday or worry about what might happen tomorrow.
2. They label their emotions.
Your emotions affect how you perceive events and how you decide to take action. When you're anxious about something--even something completely unrelated to your current task--you'll likely avoid risks.
When you're sad, you're more likely to agree to a bad deal (never negotiate when you're sad). When you're excited, you'll overlook the challenges you're likely to face.
Despite the major influence of emotions, most people spend very little time thinking about their feelings. In fact, most adults struggle to name their feelings.
But labeling your feelings is key to making the best decisions. When you understand how you're feeling and how those feelings might cloud your judgment, you can make better choices.
Labeling your emotions can also take the sting out of uncomfortable feelings like sadness, embarrassment, and disappointment. So check in with yourself a few times each day and identify how you're feeling.
3. They determine whether their feelings are a friend or an enemy.
Emotions aren't either positive or negative. All emotions can be helpful sometimes and harmful at others.
Sadness is helpful when it reminds you to honor something or someone you lost. But it can be harmful if it tries to keep you from getting out of bed and tackling your day.
Anger is helpful when it gives you energy to take a stand for a cause you believe in. It can be harmful if it encourages you to do or say things that hurt people.
Anxiety is helpful when it talks you out of doing something dangerous. But it's not helpful when it keeps you from stepping outside your comfort zone in a positive manner.
So after you label your feelings, take a minute to identify whether that emotion is a friend or an enemy to you right now. If it's helpful, allow yourself to embrace that feeling fully. If it's not helpful, change how you feel by either changing the way you think (or what you're thinking about) or how you're behaving.
4. They engage in mood boosters.
Behaving contrary to the way you feel can shift your emotional state. For example, smiling can evoke feelings of happiness when you're feeling down. Or taking a few slow deep breaths can calm you when you're feeling anxious.
It's important to have a few activities in mind for boosting your mood on a bad day. The easiest way to do that is by creating a list of things you enjoy doing when you're in a good mood, like going for a walk, listening to upbeat music, or having coffee with a friend.
Then, when you're in a bad mood (and your emotions aren't your friend), engage in a mood booster. Changing your behavior can shift your internal state and help you to feel happier.
5. They embrace discomfort.
Ask yourself, "What emotion is most uncomfortable?" For one person, it might be embarrassment. For another, it might be anxiety.
You likely go to great lengths to avoid the emotion you find least tolerable. Perhaps you don't try for a promotion because you think you can't handle rejection. Or maybe you pass up an invitation to give a toast at a wedding because you fear public speaking.
Many people go through life working really hard to avoid discomfort. Ironically, however, they end up feeling uncomfortable almost all the time because they're wasting all their energy running away from things that may cause discomfort.
Embrace a little bit of discomfort. The more you expose yourself to uncomfortable feelings (as long as you do it in a healthy way), you can gain confidence in your ability to tolerate distress.
Build Your Mental Muscle
Learning how to regulate your emotions is key component of mental strength. And there are many exercises you can perform to become mentally stronger.
The stronger you become, the better equipped you'll be to face the challenges that will help you reach your greatest potential.
In addition to creating healthy habits that will build mental muscle, however, it's important to give up the bad habits that are robbing you of the mental strength you need to be your best. When you give up the things that are holding you back, you can become the strongest and best version of yourself.