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The Psychology of Mental Toughness

People often seek therapy when they feel overwhelmed, out of control, or unable to take positive action. They think they come to figure things out and may not know that psychotherapy can make you stronger. Making decisions and following through isn’t simple willpower.

How Does This Work?

Life confronts us with unexpected challenges, like a global recession that drives good companies out of business. This becomes your problem when you discover that your employer of 20 years is shutting down next week. Your world has just turned upside down. You don’t know what to do. You catch your breath and find yourself with scary choices. Do you abandon your career? Take any job you can find? Go back to school for more training? Move to a smaller home?

You (and many others) might find it difficult to pick up the phone to get things going and put yourself down for being “weak” or “lazy.” You can’t muster the “get up and go” to get it done. Maybe you force yourself to act. Even then, why was it so hard? Are you really lazy? And how do you overcome that?

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going

Our cultural ideal is to be strong in adversity. It’s an ideal because it’s not something everyone can do. It’s also far too easy to see toughness under pressure as an ability you either have or not. But our living world has few absolutes. Most handle some situations well and get overwhelmed by others. Can you strengthen your ability to keep your wits under pressure? Absolutely! Let’s see how you can build mental muscle to be tough in adversity.

Think of a decathlete in the Olympic Games who competes in 10 events that test strength, skill and endurance over a grueling two days. A decathlete’s training cannot neglect any of these attributes and needs time to succeed. Otherwise, they’ll excel at the shot put but fail at the javelin throw or 1500 meter run. Likewise, if you’re going to build mental muscle, you’ll build on your strengths and shore up weaknesses.

A person with mental toughness faces challenges directly and is effective in solving them. I believe that someone who’s mentally tough has a combination of willpower, skill and resilience. How does therapy help you develop these attributes? Let’s look at the elements of mental toughness, and how these are addressed in psychotherapy.

An experienced therapist will consider your specific needs and apply proven approaches to help you. Growth usually doesn’t occur in a simple, straight path but unfolds through a process of trial and error over time. Therapy can help you pace and track this process.
It’s the therapist’s job to explain a treatment plan that specifies goals, methods, time and costs.

Building Mental Toughness with a Therapist’s Guidance

Willpower can be thought of as a combination of intention, effort and courage.

  • Intention is the “will” in willpower. It’s the tenacity to stay on task or return to it until the work is done. To build awareness of what may need to happen, your therapist may help you clarify your values to make choices consistent with them. You may also explore the consequences of changing a behavior – what you may fear losing as well as what you may gain, so when you’re ready, you’ll choose to change on your own terms.
  • Effort is power and is enhanced by helping you accurately gauge the amount that’s needed. If you’re facing a big challenge, you may be scared or feel helpless or hopeless about taking it on. If this is the case, your therapist will address your vulnerability to anxiety or depression, so you don’t stall out. If you give up easily, you may surface the thoughts or past experiences that leave you feeling scared, helpless and hopeless and then explore alternative ways to view the situation. All along, you’ll be buoyed by the therapist’s encouragement and support.
  • Courage is the willingness to bear the intensity of fear and other emotions and do what you need to anyway. An essential element of courage is awareness. Newer cognitive behavior therapies train people in mindfulness to build their capacity to witness their experience and act in their best interest despite discomforts and distractions.
The Psychology of Mental Toughness

Gary Seeman, Ph.D

Gary Seeman, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Corte Madera and San Francisco, CA. He works with adult individuals and couples, specializing in addictions, bereavement, creativity, life transitions, personal fulfillment, relationships and spirituality. He maintains a website at

APA Reference
Seeman, G. (2018). The Psychology of Mental Toughness. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.