Amy Morin’s theories of mental strength were tempered in the furnace of some terrible days.
Days such as the one when her mother died of a brain aneurysm at age 51. Then on the third anniversary of her mother’s death, Amy’s husband suffered a fatal heart attack at age 26. Amy became a 26-year-old widow who couldn’t find solace in speaking with her mother.
Years later, she learned that if she could give herself permission, she could enjoy life again. She met a new man who became her husband. They moved into a new house for a new life, when they found out his father was terminally ill.
If anyone was “entitled” to a pity party, it was Amy. But instead she turned to her training as a psychotherapist in Maine and made a list of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, which helped her through her father-in-law’s eventual passing.
No. 1 on the list: Mentally strong people don’t feel sorry for themselves. Amy pushed on and even published the list, which quickly went viral, being read by 30 million people. That led to a book and two TEDx talks.
Amy’s list is an essential guide for any aspect of a person’s life. The items on the list add up to a program to help us confront the things that hold us back in our personal lives and in our business.
In this discussion with Publisher Paul Feldman, Amy explains how mental strength leads to the habits that build good lives.
FELDMAN: How do you define mental strength?
MORIN: There are three parts to it. The first one is about regulating your thoughts, because you want to think realistically.
You don’t want to be overly negative. But you also don’t want to be overly positive, because then you could walk into a situation being too confident.
That would leave you unprepared for reality, or you might end up ignoring some of the harder, tough things that are going on. It’s about regulating your thoughts so that you speak to yourself in a somewhat realistic and optimistic manner.
The second part is managing your emotions, being in control of how you feel so that your emotions don’t control you. Be aware of your emotions so that you know when you’re angry or when you’re sad and how that might affect your behavior.
And finally it’s about behaving productively, so no matter what kind of circumstances you’re faced with, you can figure out what you can do to make your life or somebody else’s life a little bit better. You can figure out how to tackle a problem or how to face your fears — how to move forward in a way that’s going to be helpful to you in your life.
The stronger you become, the better equipped you are to do those three things.
FELDMAN: Why did you approach this subject by saying what mentally strong people don’t do?
MORIN: When it comes to so many other things in life, we tell people what not to do. If you’re giving out diet advice, you wouldn’t just say, “OK, eat carrot sticks.” Hopefully you’d also say, “Eat carrot sticks, but make sure that you don’t eat too much sugar.”
And when it comes to mental strength, so many people will give out advice like “Just think positive” or “Set goals for yourself.” Those things are great, but you also have to look at the things that are holding you back. Sometimes we become like a hamster in a wheel, and we stay stuck.
It’s really about building some self-awareness and knowing your weak spots and how to change them. So often I see people who just want to act tough, and there’s a big difference between being mentally strong and acting tough.
When people are acting tough, they’ll say, “Well, I’m already mentally strong. I don’t have any problems. I don’t need to improve.”
But if you were really mentally strong, you’d be willing to say, “OK, here are the areas I can work on and these are the steps I could take.” We all possess mental strengths to some degree, but there’s always room for improvement as well. It’s taking a look at where you are, where you want to be and how you are going to take those steps to become just a little bit better every single day.
FELDMAN: What happens when people aren’t mentally strong?
MORIN: We become afraid of admitting when our feelings are hurt or we get embarrassed or we get rejected. It’s like we don’t really want to embrace those emotions, so we pretend it doesn’t bother us. We tell other people, “Well, I don’t care anyway.”
It’s those sorts of things that keep us from figuring out how to do better next time. We just put on this mask. Then you doubt yourself even more. You say things like “I can’t handle that” or “I can’t go through that again.”
So then we start avoiding new opportunities rather than learning and becoming better than we were last time.
FELDMAN: The first item on the list is that mentally strong people don’t feel sorry for themselves.
MORIN: That’s a big one because I see a lot of people wasting tons of time and energy in a pity party. When something bad happens, it’s easy to think, “My luck is worse than everybody else’s” or “Nobody else has to deal with these problems.”
That sort of thinking keeps you stuck because you start thinking that life just happens to you and you don’t have enough control over it to make your life as good as it could be.
FELDMAN: Do you think that control is a dominating factor for people, getting over the fact that you can’t control everything?
MORIN: It’s having a balance to be able to let go of the things you can’t control, but recognizing that even when you can’t control the situation, you can at least control your reaction.
I see so many people who want to control other people. Those are people who lose their temper or put all their energy into trying to make other people happy. They really think that if they make everybody around them happy or control them, their own lives will be better.
But when people do that, it’s really because they have this fear that they can’t control themselves. So they say, “I’ve got to control the environment because I can’t possibly deal with being uncomfortable.”
FELDMAN: The second item on your list is that mentally strong people don’t give away their power.
MORIN: That one is about deciding that you’re the one in control of how you think, feel and behave. Somebody else can’t make you do anything or make you feel bad about yourself. It’s empowering yourself and changing your language.
I’m guilty myself of saying things like, “Oh, I have to go to the grocery store today.” But I don’t have to. It’s a choice. Sometimes it’s just recognizing that I get to do these things in life and, obviously, many people around the planet would be fortunate to go to a grocery store. They would love the opportunity.
When we start to look at everything like it’s a chore, such as when the boss makes me work late or my mother-in-law makes me feel bad about myself, those sorts of things give you this mindset that, again, life is happening to you and you don’t have any choice at all.
It’s about taking back your power and saying, “All right, I’m in control of my time and who I spend it with all day long. It’s really about what I want to do, and yes, there are consequences for those choices I make. But it’s still my choice.”
FELDMAN: Absolutely. You have to own it. The next one is that mentally strong people don’t shy away from change.
MORIN: As a therapist, I see a lot of people whose lives are crumbling around them. They’ll come in and say, “Gosh, I have all this anxiety because I have all this stuff going on.”
But in reality, it’s not having all these problems going on that’s causing their anxiety. It’s their refusal to adapt to those things. They’ll say, “I want to keep everything the same and even though life around me is in turmoil, I just don’t want to do anything differently.”
So, people going through a divorce might say, “I have to keep living in this house no matter what,” even when they can’t afford it. Or people won’t let go of a job that isn’t a good one because they say, “I don’t want to have to go to a new place. I kind of like my job in some aspects.”
Or even when people are unhappy, sometimes they say, “Well, life is bad, but it could be worse.” So they don’t want to do anything differently because they’re afraid that things will get even worse than they are now.
But success is about your ability to adapt. The world is changing, and you must have the confidence in yourself that you can adapt to whatever changes you face.
FELDMAN: Change is a constant, but to be mentally strong, you can’t focus on things you can’t control.
MORIN: So many people will say they have to make sure everything goes right. And they spend so much time worrying and thinking about things that they can’t control. You only have so much time and so much energy. If you could channel that time and energy into things that you can control, you could be so much more productive in life.
FELDMAN: People often make things out to be worse than they are, and they envision scenarios that are not going to happen. What’s the result of that?
MORIN: That dread is so much worse for people doing something new — going to a new job or taking some classes. They’re so worried about it that sometimes they talk themselves out of it by thinking, “What if it goes bad?” instead of thinking “How will I handle it if it goes bad?” Or thinking, “What if it goes really well?”
FELDMAN: You also don’t suggest that people focus on pleasing everyone.
MORIN: These are people who say, “If somebody asks something of me, I have to say yes” or “If somebody is angry with me, I have to fix it.”
I worked with this woman who thought, “The best way to get ahead at my job is to show that I am ambitious and am willing to do anything anybody asks of me.” So she kept saying yes to everything.
After a couple of years, everybody around her was getting promoted and she wasn’t, and she was really discouraged. But she finally went to her boss and asked, “How come everybody else is getting more responsibility and leadership positions and I’m not?”
Her boss said, “I can’t put you in a leadership position. I don’t even think you could make a decision. You just do whatever anybody tells you to do.”
That was this lightbulb moment for her because she said all those years she thought she was pleasing her boss and thought she was showing that she was somebody who would go above and beyond. But in reality, she was showing him that she couldn’t stand on her own two feet. That she couldn’t be assertive and be in charge of people. We can’t read anybody else’s mind, and it’s not your responsibility to be in control of other people’s feelings.
When people can let go of that, a lot of times it’s really quite liberating for them to say no and see that people will still know they care and maybe respect them more.
FELDMAN: How do strong-minded people handle calculated risks?
MORIN: Most of us don’t really think about how we calculate risk. For some reason, we spend so much time in math class figuring out things that we probably will never use later in life, but nobody really talks about how to calculate risk.
Then we tend to think about risk in terms of our level of fear. We think if it feels scary, then it must be really risky. But in reality, life doesn’t work like that.
Our fears are often quite irrational. Take public speaking, for example. A lot of people would be terrified to step up on a stage in front of an audience of 1,000 people, but those same people might have driven in a car to get there.
The car ride didn’t scare them at all, even though your chances of death are much higher when riding in the car than when stepping on the stage.
How do we balance out that logic? How do we decide how risky something is and whether we can handle it? Can I handle the rejection if it doesn’t go the way that I planned? What would I do if that happened?
For a lot of people, it’s about building their confidence and then helping them tolerate some of that anxiety.
Some people are so scared of calculating risk that they become impulsive and say, “Yeah, I’ll do that,” because they don’t want to think about it. And other people avoid risk because they think, “What if something bad happens?”
It’s about facing it head-on long enough to come up with a plan, whether it’s a financial, social or even physical risk.
FELDMAN: I would say that a lot of our readers are risk-takers. They started their own business in this career on commission only. So they’ve really taken risks to be in this industry. What are some strategies for somebody who is a risk-taker, so they don’t take too much risk?
MORIN: I’m certain you run into plenty of people who say, “I love a good challenge. I’m happy to take a risk because it could pay off.” But pay attention to your emotions when you’re faced with an opportunity. We know that when we’re really excited about something, we tend to overlook the risk that we’re facing because we’re only looking at the big prize at the end.
It’s a good idea to have people in your life who are truthful. Just bouncing that off somebody else can help you raise your logic a little bit so that your emotions don’t take hold.
FELDMAN: There’s a lot of research out there that shows the idle mind will tend to worry about things that may happen, or that it will dwell on the past. Since we already covered future worrying, what tips can you share for not dwelling on the past?
MORIN: This one, I think, can be a combination. Sometimes people will say, “Well, I made this huge mistake and I can’t forgive myself.” And sometimes it’s a matter of saying instead, “Something happened and it changed the way I look at myself.”
People make a mistake and then think they aren’t good people or they can’t succeed. It’s about figuring out how these pivotal moments of life change your perception and how they affect who you are now, and how to use that in making your future as good as it could be.
To make peace with the past, it’s important not to dwell on it. But you need to reflect on it so that you can learn and then give yourself permission to move forward.
For me, it was about giving myself permission to move forward after I lost my husband. I had to figure out that it’s OK to enjoy life and to keep going. It’s a journey of self-reflection to figure out what I need to let go of so that I can move forward.
For a lot of people, it’s childhood. It’s amazing that the things that happened to you when you were 4 or 5 years old can still affect you when you’re 44. Sometimes it helps to be more aware that things in your past do impact you one way or another, and then say, “How do I move forward so that I can make my life as good as it can be?”
FELDMAN: I’m going to jump to something on the list that I originally found a bit unexpected, where you say, “Mentally strong people don’t fear alone time.” Can you explain that to our readers?
MORIN: I’ve talked to a lot of people about this one, and they’ll say, “Oh, I love alone time.” But then when I ask them what they do during that alone time, they’ll say they’re on social media or texting a friend.
Everybody has all this background noise, and it’s so hard to get away from that with all of our electronics and digital devices. As a therapist, I work with a lot of people who have trouble sleeping at night. I used to look at all these sleep problems as potential mental health issues. But then I started asking them, “How much time do you spend in just silence during the day?” And the answer is almost always “None.”
For a lot of people, the only time that their brain has a moment to think is when they shut off the lights and put their head on their pillow. So the brain needs some time to process what’s going on in the day and to think about things.
If they don’t give themselves that time during the day, their brain is going to try to take that at night. I always encourage people to spend even 10 or 15 minutes a day simply being quiet. Whether you write in a journal, meditate, or just sit and think for a few minutes, it can really help to ask yourself, “How am I doing in life? Where am I going? What do I want to be different?”
But it’s amazing the number of people who will say, “That’s boring” or “I don’t want to do that” or “It’s not worthwhile” or “I don’t have time.” If you don’t have time to set aside 10 minutes a day, that’s a big problem.
You should be able to value yourself enough to say, “I can give myself 10 minutes of time out of the 24 hours per day.”
FELDMAN: So many people make excuses for not being able to do that. Even as I was reading your book, there were times when my mind was going all over the place and I had to stop and just take that time.
MORIN: It’s a strange world we live in, where it’s hard to take 10 minutes of time and build that into your schedule. There’s so much pressure to be productive, and so if it’s 10 minutes of not doing anything, people feel guilty. But then when you look at how much time most people waste scrolling through social media or getting lost in a trail on the internet, you can definitely make the time. You have to make it a priority in your life.
FELDMAN: In today’s society, it seems as if there are a lot of people out there who feel the world owes them something. And this obviously goes against what you’ve found.
MORIN: So many people say the younger generation feels entitled. But I think if we all were honest, we’d have to say that if we put time into something, we would be entitled to the outcome we want. Or people will say to me, “Bad things happened to you, so it’s great that you ended up writing a book because you deserve success.” But life doesn’t work like that.
There’s no fairness czar up there who’s handing out fairness gifts based on how good of a person you are or how much you’ve endured in life.
And for people to be able to stop trying to keep score or figuring out what they think they deserve in life, it can go a long way toward their being kind and generous simply because they want to be, not because they expect to get those things back tenfold.
FELDMAN: The last item on your list is that “Mentally strong people don’t expect immediate results.” It always amazes me how many quit when they are on the precipice of a breakthrough.
MORIN: Of course, because of the internet and things like that, we do expect things to happen fast. You can order something online and have it delivered to your door in a matter of hours. It seems as though everything in life should happen fast.
In my therapy office, I’ll see people who come in and two weeks into their treatment they say, “Therapy doesn’t work. I need medication. I need something that’s going to work right now because I can’t do this any longer.”
And I’ll have to explain to them that if you’ve had depression for 10 years, we’re not going to get rid of it in two weeks. It’s going to take time. Or people who say they want to lose 50 pounds and they lost five pounds in two weeks but it is not fast enough.
We have to learn how to be patient and how to stay on the right track. How to look at a setback and know it’s just one step backwards. I think the average New Year’s resolution lasts until about Jan. 18.
FELDMAN: So what are some ways to train yourself to not give up?
MORIN: Part of it is to plan for the setbacks, to know that there will be bumps in the road. Say it’s dieting. How are you going to plan for the hard times, such as the party that could derail your diet?
Or if you say you want to start going to the gym more often, what are you going to do on the days when you’re really tired or the days when you have to work late or the days when you can’t get up early for one reason or another? Know that this is going to be part of the process.
When we set new goals for ourselves, we feel motivated in the beginning, so it’s easier to stick to it. But after one, two, three weeks, our motivation declines and then it’s easy to talk ourselves out of it.
Sometimes it’s about asking, “What steps can I take to increase the chances that I’ll stick to it?” It might be a matter of having the gym shoes next to the bed or not having the remote on the couch.
For some people, it’s a matter of writing a list. For example, writing down the top 10 reasons why they should stick to this goal. When they lose their motivation, they can read the list.
FELDMAN: Is breaking it down into smaller goals part of the answer?
MORIN: Absolutely. Have those smaller objectives that you set. Instead of saying, “I’m going to lose 80 pounds” or “I’m going to save a million dollars,” ask yourself, “What am I going to do today, and how will I know if I’m successful at the end of today?”
If you can look at the small steps, we have something that’s in sight and it feels like the big goal is within reach. Then it’s much easier to stay motivated than when we just keep our eye on that big prize.