Updated: Sep 30, 2022
Mental toughness is a marmite term: people either love it or they hate it.
The technical definition of mental toughness is the personality trait that determines in some part, how you respond mentally to stress, pressure, and change irrespective of the circumstances.
But it’s not what everyone thinks when they hear ‘mental toughness’.
And I get it. Out of context, mental toughness can sound like an unfortunate cocktail of biceps, balls, and bullheadedness.
I recently had the privilege of speaking to the incomparable Penny Mallory on The Mental Fitness Podcast. Penny harnessed her own mental toughness to become a record-breaking rally car driver, author, TV presenter, and international motivational speaker on the subject.
Who better to explore common misconceptions around mental toughness with?
Is mental toughness reserved for confident, outgoing types?
Plenty of people find the concept off-putting, reductive or not reflective of their experience; that was certainly the case for a recent client of mine.
What I loved about the conversation with Penny was how much honesty, self-awareness and vulnerability she brought to our discussion. It was the perfect example of mental toughness in a way, and served as an antidote to some less favourable takes on mental toughness.
For example, the client I mentioned earlier thought mental toughness sounded like a ‘get out of jail free’ card for someone who likes to speak over other people in meetings. When I spoke to them after they’d listened to the episode, the first thing they mentioned was how Penny emphasises that it’s often the quietest, most self-contained people who are the most mentally tough.
She expressed this perfectly in an anecdote about her co-driver, Sue, who was beside her for ten years during her World Rally days:
“While I was certainly more outgoing than Sue was on the face of it, and she was a quieter person, she was very mentally tough.
The amount of stress and pressure you’re under as a co-driver is immense. There’s a huge amount of work to do, and Sue got so much pleasure out of it for getting it right.
She never once lost it. She was able to process everything very logically and thoroughly so that it didn’t impact on my emotional state.
Sue was deeply in control of her emotions, [and] the calmer she stayed, the more it calmed me down. She’s a very mentally tough lady.”
Penny went on to describe how mental toughness is not about being the loudest voice in the room. It’s about being able to cope under stress and perform under pressure in a way that works best for you.
Basically, you can be quiet and reserved and still be deeply resilient – that’s mental toughness.
You don’t need to isolate yourself to be mentally tough
Another unfortunate myth about mental toughness is that this identity absolves you from any need to engage emotionally with the people around you. That you need to be an island of resilience standing strong against a sea of problems (and other people).
Truthfully, no one becomes mentally tough on their own and Penny was the first to point that she didn’t get where she was alone. She describes the transformative effect of working with a coach, :
“Before I spoke to him, I was driving with my foot on the metaphorical brake.
I felt like I didn’t deserve to win anything. I wasn’t worthy of it, because of my background. I didn’t embrace the idea of actually winning anything. And if I was doing really well, I would almost sabotage the rally, so that I didn’t do so well.
He took my foot off the brake. He never saw my car, never saw me in a racing suit. He just talked to me.”
Penny considered herself a resilient person even before she met her coach. She’d been through a hell of a lot and had an intense inner fire that drove her to achieve her goals.
She was already very mentally tough. But it still took the right support to bring out the full power of her focus, determination and self-awareness.
Mental toughness is nothing without self-awareness
Self-awareness is the vital ingredient to create true mental toughness.
Without it, you run the risk of being ‘too mentally tough’ which is a problem in and of itself, much like one of the examples Penny brought up in the podcast:
“I’ve just done an assessment on somebody who runs quite a small team, and he was a 9 out of 10 [on the scale of mental toughness].
Later, I spoke to his team and it turns out they were terrified of him. They never ever speak up in a meeting, because he’s scary. He intimidates them.
That’s really unhelpful to that organization. All these amazing people in the team are not saying what they’re thinking. They just keep quiet, because this guy is so focused and lacks emotional intelligence, he doesn’t listen to anyone.
So, I talked to him about it. When I asked him whether he knew, he said: ‘Yeah, all my life people have told me that.’ When I asked if he thought it had been standing in his way, he replied: ‘Yeah, probably. I just don’t know what to do about it.’
He did have a level of self-awareness, but he just didn’t quite know what to do with it. I worked with him on that basis.”
It was such a perfect example of how mental toughness without emotional intelligence can hold you back. When you’re so high in mental toughness that you’re leaving people behind, you will eventually fail. It’s like having a car with a powerful engine and trying to drive on ice – the wheels just spin.
Through self-awareness, you can appreciate your strengths and weaknesses. From there, you use emotional intelligence to engage the people around you and unlock their power.
Self-awareness and emotional intelligence provide the traction that finally allows you to move ahead.
Mental toughness is not for everyone
There are going to be plenty of people out there who just do not resonate one bit with the mental toughness model, and that’s okay.
But what I loved about the conversation with Penny was how she conveyed that there is so much more depth and nuance to mental toughness than the name might suggest.
That client who wouldn’t touch the idea with a bargepole? They now have an authentic, three-dimensional understanding of what it really means to be mentally tough.
They even see a little of themselves in that definition.
Discover what it means to build real mental toughness and hear Penny’s incredible life story in the process by listening to The Mental Fitness Podcast – available on your listening platform of choice.