You’ve probably seen it somewhere in your social media feeds. A couple months ago it was passed around more than a cheap handle of vodka at an underage party: a tip sheet called “18 Things Mentally Strong People Do.”
It was supposed to be a more “positively focused” way of looking at the super popular “Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid,” written by Cheryl Connor for Forbes a couple years ago, which has racked up over 10 million views since.
But upon reading the list of 18 things, I found myself growing more perplexed by what the author deems “mentally strong.” Turns out, it’s a pretty subjective term.
Let’s first consider that the original article was written by Connor, a businesswoman and entrepreneur, for Forbes, a business magazine. What might be considered “mentally strong” in a business capacity doesn’t apply to everyone, but this hardly means such people are mentally weak. This is especially true for creative personalities, as neuroscience has confirmed that creative people think and act differently than the average person; their brains are hardwired in a unique way. In other words, the list reinforces conventional perceptions of toughness and accomplishment, which don’t apply to everyone:
1: They move on. They don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves.
It’s true we need to keep our eyes on the future. The only way out is through. But according to 19th century author George Gissing, who wrote nearly exclusively about class issues and poverty, “Life, I fancy, would very often be insupportable, but for the luxury of self-compassion.” Feeling sorry for one’s self briefly from time to time, especially after an uncontrollable event, is not wasted time. It’s necessary to lick our wounds and regain strength before moving on.
2: They keep control. They don’t give away their power.
“Control” and “power” are two words often associated with business and are used here in a weirdly hierarchical way. Perhaps a better way of saying this would be, “mentally strong people stay true to their convictions despite the pressures and whims of others.”
3: They embrace change. They welcome challenges.
Change can be terrifying for lots of people. And not everyone is always up for a challenge, depending on how many they’ve already dealt with. Say you’re offered a job in a new city or country. You aren’t mentally weak because you may not “embrace” the idea of giving up your current job, friends, home, and (possibly) relationship. It’s good to approach change with an open mind, but be cautious and consider whether or not the challenge is one that you even care to accept. Going through a “silent period” in the midst of change, to evaluate your true needs, is a crucial thing many adults try to avoid going through. Take time to consider if the change fits into the larger picture of what you want to do with your life.
4: They stay happy. They don’t complain. They don’t waste energy on things they can’t control.
Considering the first two sentences aren’t humanly possible, just go ahead and disregard them. No one stays happy all the time, and being happy does not equal never uttering a complaint. In fact, this piece on mentally strong habits (which is more suited for everyone, not just those in the business world) actually emphasizes that mentally strong people “don’t aspire to be happy all the time.”
5: They are kind, fair, and unafraid to speak up. They don’t worry about pleasing other people.
OK, so then kindness really isn’t a value at all here. If you’re not worried about pleasing other people, and you’re unafraid to speak up, call it what it is – assertive, not kind. This point sounds like a brochure description of what a mid-level boss aspires to be.
6: They are willing to take risks. They weigh the risks and benefits before taking action.
7: They invest their energy in the present. They don’t dwell on the past.
I concede wholeheartedly that investing one’s energy in the present is the only way to build a positive future. But if you’re dwelling on the past, that doesn’t mean you’re mentally weak. It just means you haven’t yet fully worked out your thoughts and emotions about the past. It’s entirely possible to work through it, and it can take a long time. As long as you’re working on it, that’s all that matters.
8: They accept full responsibility for their past behavior. They don’t make the same mistake over and over.
Caveat: sometimes we do make the same mistake more than once, and that is also not a sign of mental weakness. Disorders such as anxiety and depression, as well as our own personal perceptions, can lead us to repeat mistakes. What’s more important than repeating a mistake is recognizing that we’ve done so, and trying our best to evaluate the factors that have caused it.
9: They celebrate other people’s success. They don’t resent that success.
It’s true that being resentful is bad energy and won’t get us very far. However, it’s natural to feel jealousy, insecurity, and the need to compare ourselves to others from time to time. No one is immune from it. This article points out that if you’re feeling this way, it doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you’re probably having trouble finding your own passion or making your own goals come true – which is okay. Creative types struggle with this tremendously. Not only are creative career options fewer and further between (not to mention lower paying), but also there’s arguably a lot more at stake emotionally with putting your creative work out there for the world to judge. Creative people aren’t weak; they simply have a harder time believing in themselves.
10: They are willing to fail. They don’t give up after failing. They see every failure as a chance to improve.
11: They enjoy their time alone. They don’t fear being alone.
Personally, I thrive on being alone. I adore my partner and friends but I simultaneously love being alone. It helps me create, recharge, and assess. But for some people, being alone can be scary for different reasons, one of them being society’s increased focus on 24/7 connectivity, which breeds a “fear of missing out.” Digital natives in particular may have a harder time being alone because of the intensely connected world in which they were raised. Learning to embrace alone time can have numerous emotional and physical benefits.
12: They are prepared to work and succeed on their own merits. They don’t feel the world owes them anything.
While I generally agree with this statement, it’s an oversimplification of a system that doesn’t operate on an equal playing field for millions of people.
13: They have staying power. They don’t expect immediate results.
Hard as all hell to do, but agreed.
14: They evaluate their core beliefs – and modify as needed
Most people I know, myself included, fail to do this on a regular basis. Is it because we’re mentally weak? No, it’s because we’re each raised with an inclination toward a certain self-belief system, which in turn informs how we view the world. In a world with a million distractions and demands, we often take our core beliefs for granted. But we can learn to identify them and decide if they serve a purpose.
15: They expend their mental energy wisely. They don’t spend time on unproductive thoughts.
There are thousands of thoughts go through our heads every day, and it’s impossible to not spend some of that time on unproductive thoughts. No one can be, or should be, productive 100% of the time or else they wouldn’t have time to consider shit. The author seems to define “unproductive” as “negative” in this context, which I disagree with (see below).
16: They think productively. They replace negative thoughts with productive thoughts.
Basically an inversion of the aforementioned point, this point isn’t true for the majority of creative types. I get it, no one likes a Debbie Downer, and I agree that allowing negativity to consume you is not productive. But I take issue with the fact that negative thoughts aren’t productive; negative does not always = unproductive. In fact, “dark” thoughts often breed creativity. Some of the most moving pieces of art have been created in “negative” spaces. Letting negative thoughts consume you is different than thinking them and using them to produce something powerful.
17: They tolerate discomfort. They accept their feelings without being controlled by them.
Such a tiny percentage of us are able to do this without the help of professional therapy. This is because many of us were raised in families with some kind of dysfunction, which spawned emotions that can haunt and control us for years. While we should all aim to be in control of our emotions rather than the other way around, there are plenty of “mentally tough” people who are held hostage by their feelings.
18: They reflect on their progress everyday. They take time to consider what they’ve achieved and where they’re going.
This is probably the most universally applicable point in the list. We all achieve something every day, no matter how small it may be. Remembering that can help keep us afloat.
Mental strength isn’t defined by how many of the above points we can check off about ourselves. It’s measured by the steps we take to progress through we’re we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re headed. Creative people are almost certain to feel less confident about this journey, and that’s okay — remember that it’s your mental strength that got you started on it in the first place.