How To Develop Mental Toughness


When I was a young man, training to become an Army officer, we did exercises in some of the most miserable conditions and places. As with most things, exposure leads to tolerance – so, over time, we became better able to ignore the conditions and get on with the job.

There was a running ‘joke’ we’d use to keep our chins up: The basic concept was, whenever you saw a mate doing it tough, you’d say: “Things could always be worse. (Then you’d insert whatever unpleasant thing was about to happen).”

So you’d hear or make comments like “It could be worse – the extraction could be cancelled and we’ll have to walk out” or “It could be worse – the resupply might not come through” or, commonly, “It could be worse – it could be raining.”

For extra impact, you’d try to time the comment so it was said in the moments before the reality presented itself. You’d be shivering, hungry and less-than-impressed on a cold, windswept hilltop and you’d see the wall of rain approaching. Just before it drenched everyone, you’d say “Cheer up guys, it could be worse. It could be raining.” Cue downpour.

Army humour.

Point being, we all came to believe in this principle. Things CAN always be worse. No matter how sad, sorry or dire the situation might seem … things could still be a whole lot less satisfactory.

Thinking this way has an advantage. It helps reduce the intensity of our current pain, stress, discomfort, difficulties or unpleasantness – by reminding us we’re actually lucky it isn’t worse. In a perverse way, ‘the joke’ forced us to recognise the relatively positive things we were ‘enjoying’.

The joke never ended – because there was always something potentially worse. When it started pouring down rain, someone would point out ‘It could be worse. It could be snowing.’ I can even remember a warning about sharks being topped by “sharks with freaking lasers”.

The thing is, most of us are fortunate in so many ways. The country we live in, the roof over our heads, the food we get to eat, the health we enjoy, the friends we have, the perfect sunset we saw … and much more.

It’s easy to take these things for granted. It’s easy to overlook the many things we have going for us and instead focus on the negatives.

Which is usually counter-productive. Fact is, negatives are an unavoidable part of life. Things won’t always work out. We’ll experience difficulties in different areas at different times. But we can choose to dilute the distress those problems cause by reminding ourselves how well off we still are (especially relative to how things could be).

As the old adage says, ‘I complained about the hole in my shoe until I saw someone with no feet.’

Try this idea for yourself. Next time you’re having a hard time and things are grim, just say to yourself … ‘It could be worse. It could be raining’. (Feel free to insert your own ‘worse thing’.) Then do it again with something even worse. Then think of something worse again. Then think of something much worse, ‘with freaking lasers!’

Then take a quick look around and find 5 things to be grateful for.

Do it often enough and it becomes an automatic response. The tougher things get, the more grateful you are for what you’ve got – which gives you the will to carry on.

And that’s what ‘tough’ is all about.

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