Three C’s of Mental Toughness

26 Sep

Karen’s world crumbled when her professor said to her with skepticism, “You haven’t figured out what you want to do yet, have you?”  With a furtive glance, she bowed her head. Embarrassed to have demonstrated such a lack of conviction toward a specialization in her program, she replied, “I guess you’re right.”

“You can do anything you want to do, Karen. You don’t have to pick marketing as your primary area of study in business.”

How will you choose to perceive your situation?

Retreating from the meeting feeling lost and hopeless, she spent a few days spiraling, various thoughts bouncing around in her brain like tennis balls. She couldn’t dodge them. As one rolled away, another came flying at her. What do I do? Why have I spent so much time studying this particular area? If I don’t go into marketing, what DO I go into? How do I know what path to take with my job if I don’t know what I’m going to study?

As she told me the story of the seven days that had passed since our last discussion, the pace of her speech became rapid throughout the high tension areas, words tripping over one another. She explained that after two or three days she knew she needed to get a handle on her thoughts. Her concentration was suffering, she wasn’t sleeping, and her work was suffering.  As she recounted the situation, she was noticeably agitated.

I interrupted her here and asked if I could tell her a personal story.  “Please!” she stated eagerly.

“Karen, I went into counseling having no idea it’s what I wanted to do until I had already graduated from college with a degree in exercise physiology and then started dating a guy who was working on his PhD in psychology. When I enrolled in the graduate program I remembered in 8th grade that I was named a “Natural Helper.” Funny, I thought, how that part of my personality was resurfacing eight years later.  I had started college as a vocal performance major, then I changed my major to broadcast journalism after one year. I attended a career fair and met some women who worked for the local news channel.  The women at the fair made it clear that I could never expect to make a very good living, that it would take a long time to work my way up the ranks of getting good assignments, and it would just be really hard.  I wasn’t confident or discerning enough to soak up their words objectively and weigh them for myself, and with disappointment, I changed my course of study yet again.

Prior to enrolling in graduate school though, Karen, the program advisor told me that I hadn’t had enough life experience to expect to do well in the counseling program!”

I stopped here for effect—and because I am still in awe that someone who is in a profession embodying growth, acceptance, and awareness could make such a black and white statement.

Understand your WHY!

“This time though I didn’t let his words steer me in a new direction. I didn’t perceive them as limiting. I saw them as a challenge, and I committed to prove him wrong!  One, with my perception tilted toward the positive, my actions were galvanized in strength, determination, and perseverance.  Two, and here’s my other big point, Karen…. did I ever, for a single moment, believe that I would be where I am right now? I knew I loved to write. I knew I loved to perform. I knew I loved to be active and that health, fitness, and nutrition were passions of mine. How the heck did I go from vocal performance to working at The Diet Doc as the Wellness Director, creating the Mental Edge program, managing our nutrition consulting programs, writing for magazines, giving lectures, writing a book? You don’t know where you’re going to be 10 years from now, and you may not know exactly what you want to study, but you know where your passions lie! You know what you’re interested in. You know what your talents are!  You know what is important to you and what your values are! AND….all of those things can grow and change as well.

Every person who comes into your life, every situation, every circumstance can mean opportunity for you. But you have to be open to them and you must recognize how your perception of your circumstances is governing your reaction to it.”

She laughed—a knowing, assured chuckle.

“Kori, after those few days I felt like I just needed to purge everything that was in my head. I decided to clean! I started with the frig and just threw out all the old food that I knew wouldn’t get eaten. Then I moved to the cupboards…”

She paused and we giggled at the same time, similar thoughts shared just through our knowing, familiar connection.  This was a metaphor for a clearing of space in her life for a new challenge. A novel commitment was being made to approaching her situation differently.

“Then I went to my bedroom and organized my dresser drawers, getting rid of the clothes I hadn’t worn in a long time and knew I wouldn’t.  I felt such a sense of clarity when I was done.  You’re right.  My sense of being out of control all came from my perception that I needed to have everything planned out.”

“You may take this new job you’re applying for,” I said,  “with the understanding that you’re going to learn some valuable lessons and that it’s a stepping stone. But to what you can’t necessarily predict. What you can predict is that change is inevitable.”

Hans Selye, who in the 1950’s coined the term ‘stress’, explained how stress is a response.  We often hear people express statements like “I’m so stressed.” This would indicate a feeling or a reaction to a stimulus.  On the opposite end of the continuum is a statement of stress AS the stimulus, for example, “I have a lot of stress to contend with.” Selye called the stress response the General Adaptation Syndrome, signifying the inevitability of stress and the unavoidable nature of it but also the imperative that we adapt and respond to it effectively in order to survive! Karen certainly was surviving in the midst of her stress, however, had she perceived her professor’s statement differently and the meaning of his words, she would have moved from surviving to thriving.

Control, a key psychological factor in stress protection, was what Karen felt she was lacking in this situation. Dr.  Suzanne Kobasa, a researcher at New York University has studied this concept in the context of disease and health.  Related significantly to self-efficacy, a term for the confidence in the ability to learn and grow, control embodies a belief that one can influence their surroundings and circumstances and have a role in making things happen. I like to call this industriousness.  As Karen became more aware of her thoughts and feelings, she was able to call into question their impact on her sense of control.  Dr. Kobasa emphasizes such activity as imperative to developing control—being willing to ask oneself tough questions about life, development, and changes that can be made within one’s response repertoire.

Secondarily, Karen’s immediate response immediately moved her away from a position of commitment.  Commitment encompasses an awareness of mind and body moment to moment, in essence the ability to pay attention and be in tune for the purpose of doing whatever it takes to remain in a state of positive equilibrium in order to thrive. Dr. Kobasa explains commitment as being fully engaged in day to day activities and giving them your best effort.

Finally, after a few days of stewing, the stress eventually dissipating with effort, Karen began to perceive her situation as a challenge.  Rather than viewing it as confining, she saw it as a door being opened to new possibilities.

“People who are high in challenge,” Dr. Kobasa explains, “see change as a natural part of life that affords at least some change for further development.”

This was the Karen I had seen emerging during our weekly work together.  Her mind, through focused effort on consciousness-raising and being attentive to physical and psychological cues, had expanded toward perceiving whatever situation she was in as an opportunity for growth– a personal enrichment project!

Change is a sure thing!

We reviewed the three C’s, and as our conversation came to a close and she thanked me in her characteristically kind and gracious way she said, “I’d like to add a fourth C, Kori.  Change. I’m recognizing and accepting the fact that it’s inevitable.  This moment-to-moment awareness practice is allowing me to be okay with that, perceive it more positively, and trust that I’ll be okay within it!”


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