Updated: Jan 11, 2020
What do you think of when you hear the term “mental toughness”? I’m a former athlete so that term is very familiar to me. When I have been called to be mentally tough, my mind immediately switched gears to mean, mad, and emotionally high. Locking myself into that mode produced great results for me, but there was always one issue… it was not repeatable. I can’t (nor do I want to) be mean, mad, and emotionally high all the time. I do, however, want to be mentally tough all the time.
This has been a big confusing obstacle in my life. On one hand, I have great memories of my mental toughness allowing me to step into a persona that I didn’t know I had. It helped me outwork the other team and charge straight into the fight even when I was nervous. But much smaller issues could get under my skin, make me cry, or bother me for days. Having a tough conversation with my coach or a comment from my roommate would have me in a puddle.
As I got older, I continued to be frustrated with myself. Why am I so bulletproof in this situation and so fragile in that situation? Because the mean, mad, and emotionally high is a character I play in order to get a job done. If I tried to be that way all the time, I would probably give myself a stress-related medical condition.
I have spent a lot of time in prayer about this considering many things:
Maybe I am just a wimp?
Maybe I need to ignore my feelings?
Maybe I need to listen to my feelings?
Maybe I need to pray for God to change me?
Maybe I need to pray for God to help me accept myself for who I am?
This led to experimenting. I spent weeks plowing over my feelings like they didn’t matter. Then I spent weeks listening, stopping, and giving attention to every little feeling that I felt. It was in this experiment that I thought I don’t know how people sort themselves out without God. That’s absolutely not a knock on people who don’t have faith-- I believe everyone has a reason that is very valid to them on why they would or wouldn’t have a religion of some sort. This thought is one of my main reasons that I do.
I had read 2 Corinthians 10:5 “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” I greatly appreciate this verse because it told me that my feelings cannot always be trusted. In fact, the more I let my feelings fly, the less I will be able to trust them. Where I struggled was who I am when I take that thought captive. If I proclaimed “not today, Satan” I still didn’t feel as if I was blazing on in my life in the strength of Christ. If anything, I felt like I was noticing Satan more and becoming worn down. I kept thinking I know life is never going to be easy, but when will I feel like I am equipped to face my day without crumbling? Mean, mad, and emotionally high might get me some kind of result, but it does not really look like Jesus. I was drawn to a verse in Matthew 5:11-12 that changed my perspective on what mental toughness can look like in everyday life.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Now, I didn’t feel particularly persecuted… a little wounded, a little victimized maybe, but mostly just feeling like I was on a losing streak. I had the choice of becoming “mentally tough” (as I understood it), but I honestly didn’t want to create a habit of switching into mean, mad, and emotionally high. But as I read about what Jesus expects of those who are persecuted, he says to rejoice, be glad, because a reward is coming. I have a gut feeling that Jesus isn’t just telling us to rejoice because there’s something in the future, I also believe it’s for our own sake to get through right now. How would my situations change if I used my influence to be glad in a hard time? What if controlling my emotions means taking a deep breath and being thankful for a lesson that helped me grow? What if being mentally tough means having joy in my hearts instead of a hard exterior?
I think of myself as a young coach or a college athlete and I think I probably would have seen a joyful peer as weak or not very competitive. There’s no way that person is tough enough to be here. Then I think about some of the toughest women I know. I think about mine and Josh’s grandmothers, the cancer survivors in my life, and wives of other wounded veterans. Why do I credit them with mental toughness? Because nay-sayers, statistics, or difficult times haven’t stolen their joy. They don’t walk around wounded and offended because the world had an opinion about them. In fact, I think they were so focused on the path ahead that they didn’t even notice.
James 1:12 “God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”
Reflecting on this has made me realize that I am tempted with a method that I once thought was good. In fact, I thought it was so good that there was no other way to be. But, when we can face trials of many kinds and keep a smile on our faces, we are not only mentally tough, we are emotionally intelligent. We possess the ability to feel the importance of right now while never losing perspective on the big picture. We can look at people and remember that… they’re people; imperfect and selfish in stressful situations just like us. Above all, we can remember that nothing is for nothing… it’s all giving us an understanding of what our Savior feels. Wounds can create compassion, but only if we are thankful we survived them.
Let your mental toughness look like a mission with a smile today!