How to Foster More Resilience at Work: Mental Fortitude

If you’re anything like me, you’ve likely found yourself in a work environment (either now or in the past) that’s complex, uncertain, and fast-paced. In fact, a few years ago, I was in the midst of this type of work environment, feeling deflated that I couldn’t keep up with the ever-changing demands and pace of the work.

Morale was beginning to tank as my team felt it too. We were tired, uninspired to innovate, and on the brink of burnout. It was then that I realized I had two choices: 1) give up and bring on the burnout or 2) boost my resilience in an attempt to not only survive, but begin to thrive.

While I’ve talked about the importance of resilience when it comes to bouncing back from failure, resilience is also a critical muscle that we can strengthen to help us navigate our everyday challenges and cultivate greater well-being in our lives. And who doesn’t want more of that?

Resilience and positive psychology researchers Dr. Martin Seligman, Dr. Karen Reivich, Dr. Rick Hanson, and Shawn Achor all point to key methods we can put into action to draw out greater resilience within ourselves. I’ve compiled the research into three key methods we can each do to foster more resilience day-to-day and I’ll be breaking them down in the next few blogs. This month, we’re focusing on the first method: exercising mental fortitude. 

What is mental fortitude?

Mental fortitude is essentially our ability to focus and execute solutions, especially in the face of adversity or challenge. This practice requires:

  • Self-awareness: Ability to notice our thoughts, emotions, and physiology

  • Self-regulation: Ability to not just notice, but change our thoughts, emotions and physiology

  • Mental agility: Ability to take new perspectives and solve problems

  • Optimism: Ability to separate what you can control from what you need to accept. Ability to see stressors as challenges and believe in a positive future.

Why does mental fortitude matter?

Our thoughts drive our emotions, behaviors, and physiology. While we can’t always control what happens to us, we can often control how we think about or interpret things.

In other words, our perceptions create our reality.

For example, let’s imagine I have a big presentation coming up in which I will be speaking to influential stakeholders. I could think about this upcoming presentation as a dreaded task that I can’t wait to get over, a unique opportunity to grow my presentation skills, a chance to make a large impact by influencing stakeholders, or something else entirely! The point is that my perspective shapes how I think, speak, and behave moving forward.

The trouble is that when we’re in the midst of adversity or a challenge, we often get caught in what’s known as “thinking traps” or rigid patterns of thinking that make it harder for us to see our situation accurately. According to Dr. Reivich, common thinking traps include:

  • Mind-reading: assuming we know what another person is thinking

  • Catastrophizing: ruminating about worst case scenarios

  • Personalizing: believing you are the sole cause of the problem or setback

  • Externalizing: believing that other people or circumstances are the sole cause of your problem or setback

  • Helplessness: thinking a negative event will impact all areas of your life and you don’t have any control or ability to stop it

As you can likely recall from your own experience, when we are caught in a thinking trap, we tend to hold a fixed mindset and have limited capacity to deal with setbacks.

How can we enhance mental fortitude?

Rather than getting stuck in a thinking trap, we want to exercise mental fortitude to foster a growth mindset and therefore more resilience within ourselves. There are several techniques we can try to do so:

  1. Provide evidence: When you find yourself stuck in stories or assumptions that limit your mental fortitude, try completing the sentence, “That’s not true because…”

  2. Reframe: Provide a realistically optimistic perspective by finishing the sentence, “A more helpful way of seeing this is…”

  3. Plan: Make a contingency plan using an if-then statement like, “If X happens, then I will Y.” This technique is particularly useful for those times when you find yourself catastrophizing.

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Try these techniques for yourself and notice how your reality changes by shifting your perspective. What’s possible from your new point of view?