There’s a common misconception that mental toughness means the same as “cowboys don’t cry.” That people who are mentally tough don’t have emotions, or at least that they don’t show them. However, while it’s true that sometimes mental toughness and a “stiff upper lip” go together, that’s not always the case and is misunderstood. 

Here’s what you need to know about what mental toughness really means.

Being Able to Feel and Express Emotions 

Emotional intelligence is a big part of being mentally tough, and people who are emotionally intelligent are able to identify a wide range of emotions in themselves and other. In fact, people who are mentally tough understand that finding healthy ways to express emotions is the best way to deal with them and still be able to function.  

So instead of keeping them pushed down and pent up, they find healthy ways to express and work through their feelings. Many people choose creative outlets such as writing and journaling. Others choose physical activity such as going to the gym. Both are forms of mindfulness that let emotions out, leaving the opportunity to rationally work through their problems. 


Able to Continue Living in Spite of Feelings 

Everyone feels sad sometimes. Everyone gets angry, and we all feel depressed when things are going wrong. Mental toughness is about being able to feel those things, and still continue living your life and doing the things that need to get done. It’s understanding that you can feel emotions without letting them consume every moment of your day and prevent you from persevering.  

However, as mentioned earlier, it’s not about hiding your emotions from both others and yourself. It’s really when you can have a quiet cry, understand that your situation is not ideal and that you may feel frustrated, but despite that you will keep on pushing for the things that are important to you.  

Mental toughness means having resilience despite of setbacks. If punching out on a punching bag or taking a few deep breaths gets you through obstacles and help you to persevere, then you are mentally tough.  

As they say, true courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway, and being mentally tough is the same thing. 

Understanding Your Weaknesses and Accepting Them 

If you want to be mentally tough, you also have to recognise that no one is perfect. We all have flaws and weaknesses. We all do things that we shouldn’t, and sometimes, our choices and actions might hurt others.  

If you are mentally tough, you are able to recognise those flaws and weaknesses and face them head on. Find ways to work around them, and make sure that you’re not letting them stand in your way.  

Never Shying Away from Challenges 

People who are mentally tough know their own abilities and have faith in them. This allows them to view challenges that arise in their lives as something to be conquered, rather than something that is standing in their way. When someone who is mentally tough discovers a problem, they don’t deny that it’s a problem. They look for ways to overcome it.  

It takes an enormous amount of mental strength to face problems head on, and to keep working on them until you have beaten them. Many people who are mentally tough have methods of dealing with these, such as venting and prioritisation. Removing these blockers allows them to spend more time battling their challenges. 

Taking Personal Responsibility 

Perhaps one of the most important traits of mentally tough people is that they are able to take personal responsibility. Instead of blaming others for things they don’t have, or for things that have gone wrong, they take the time to analyse how their own choices have affected the outcome, and what they might have done differently.  

It takes a lot of mental toughness to acknowledge the part you might have played in things that have not worked out the way you wanted them to, and to make the changes necessary to address the problem.  

Rolling with the Punches 

People who are mentally tough know that even though they might plan their lives carefully, sometimes, things still go wrong. Mentally tough people aren’t happy when life throws them a curveball, but they also know that just because things have changed, they don’t have to give up completely.  

Instead, they adjust their plans, change their tactics, and plan to work towards their goals with the new factor accounted for. In fact, someone who is mentally strong knows that they cannot control everything. Learning to be flexible allows them to be better at being resilient because the things out of their control will not stunt their progress as much as someone who wants to control everything. 

They Accept Help 

Perhaps the most important part of being mentally tough is acknowledging that you can’t always do things on your own, and you need help.  

Being able to acknowledge that you need help and being able to accept it graciously is a huge factor in mental toughness that many people never master. However, if you can do that, and everything else on this list, you would be equipped to handle nearly everything that life throws at you.  

Mentally strong people often don’t look as strong as those who are not. They’re more likely to bend under pressure, and to show their emotions when they have them. But they’re also more likely to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get back into the game, even when things don’t go their way. The more practice you have with this, the better you get at it! But that means embracing discomfort and showing weakness. But, after all, showing weakness and overcoming it is what being mentally tough is all about… 

If you’d like to learn more about mental toughness from Return of the Panda’s founder, listen to this podcast where she talks about this in greater detail.