Mental Toughness

I am in month ten of a program with Precision Nutrition. I enrolled in the program primarily to get a better handle on nutrition and to improve my level of fitness for cycling.

When I first started, I thought the program was going to be focused primarily on food and exercise. Which it was in the beginning. But it became far more than just a fitness program.

One area in particular came to the forefront for me: mental toughness. But not in the way that I have framed mental toughness over most of my life.

I am driven by two pretty intense factors: obligation and guilt. And everything that I accomplish is never, ever good enough. So the pattern of obligation and guilt drives a set of behaviours and it often leads to a significant level of personal stress. Those behaviours? Discipline. Focus. Intensity. High standards.

Someone on the Precision Nutrition program had sent in a question about how to better develop mental toughness. Something that I have been struggling with personally. The reply surprised me.

You don’t need more strictness, or higher expectations, or goals. The strictness, expectations, and goals…they’re usually the problem, not the solution.

I was encouraged to think about self-compassion. And specifically, the message of self-compassion from Kristin Neff.

It really made me think about how important it is to get right about yourself so that you can be right with others.

Here is the full response:

Q: Hey John, Can you recommend any books on mental toughness?

A: I have an answer. But, unfortunately, it’ll feel pretty dissatisfying. Go with it anyway. Trust me

Read Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff.

Truth is, I really dislike the word “self-compassion”. So the title would turn me off. But, here’s the thing, I could care less about the book. What’s important is the mental model.

You see, there are lots of books out there on mental toughness. And I’ve read a bunch.

But a lot of the mental toughness stuff doesn’t address the underlying problem – which is almost NEVER “toughness”.

Of course, I know what you’re asking this. “Why is my ‘willpower’ so weak? Why don’t I have the ‘discipline’ to follow through? Why do I always ‘break the rules’?”

But here’s the thing: “mental toughness” just imposes more rules. More self-flagellation. More beating yourself up.

And that’s not what anyone needs, especially you.

You don’t need more strictness, or higher expectations, or goals. The strictness, expectations, and goals…they’re usually the problem, not the solution.

Truth is, the standards you have for yourself, in your head, are already higher and probably weirder than any mental toughness coach could give you.

So perhaps it’s time to try THE OPPOSITE approach.

Instead of beating yourself up for not being the “type of person” strong enough to “avoid cookies” or whatever. Why not discover what type of person you are? Why not try to deeply align who you are, your goals, and your behaviors?

In a weird way, “self-compassion” – again, hate the word but it works here – is the foundation for “mental toughness”.

My friend, Krista Scott-Dixon even argues that this is the “toughest” mental exercise of all.

You see, true self compassion requires brutal honesty and clarity. You have to see yourself – for real – and still make the decision to move forward.

Goal-setting, planning, “toughing it out”…a lot of that is just a diversion from the really hard work of getting clear on who you are and what you want.

Obviously I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s what we do every day at Precision Nutrition.

Real coaching. Not just a bunch of BS “don’t eat cookies” rules. And more “mental toughness” exercises.

So take this for what it is…a thoughtful suggestion based on years – and 30,000 clients – of experience.

And, remember, in the end, maybe this will help…maybe not. We all see words and actions differently.

However, I do think it’s important that you reorient your mind around this challenge of yours. Because the issue you bring up isn’t about discipline. It’s about something else.

And until you figure out what that is, you’ll just be stuck in a perpetual loop of asking “how come I’m not tough enough?”. Then “trying to be tough” (whatever that means). They failing to live up to some crazy expectations. Then feeling guilty. Then circling back to the beginning.

And, all the way, you’ll bear the scars that you inflict upon yourself through continually beating yourself up. Both physically and emotionally.

So, yea, try the self-compassion book. Or something like it. I think it’ll be a game changer. This may sound corny…but be good to yourself, man!

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