The Instagram toilet thoughts #3: about mental toughness

* The lists of “how to achieve mental toughness” and pictures supposedly associated with some idea of mental toughness seem to be increasing on social media. I wonder if they are a development of the “no pain, no gain” bodybuilder motto, that became a bit old and faded

* Some people offer courses on mental toughness. I examined some of the contents of the course advertisement (they haven’t gotten into the habit of writing a syllabi) and it goes around promises as in “I will teach you to be mentally tough and ____” (deadlift 50lbs more in a day or something on that line)

* They also resemble the self-help books, courses and seminars on “how to be successful” and “how to make a million dollars before 30”. Some of these made the author a millionaire before 30. It also made him a charlatan, since any serious economist will laugh at the idea that in any economy there can be an algorithm for dramatic increase in personal wealth. It is simply against the foundations of market economy. Or any other economical structure, for that matter.

* None of these “mental toughness” gurus actually has a degree in anything close to being able to generate an effective model or even a concept of mental toughness. Some are people who have undergone hardship and achieved unbelievable success (and raised to the status of heroes or other types of icons). Dan Millman is possibly the paradigmatic “mental toughness” and “mental everthing” guru. The movie (“Peaceful Warrior”) is ok – his writing is shallow and self-help-like.

* Let’s try at least a definition of mental toughness before attempting to create an algorithm for achieving that. The expression suggests the idea of a higher level of resistance to frustration, pain, fear, etc. “Tough” means hard, strong. Being tough usually means being strong against some sort of threat or attack. Considering that life will offer anyone some dose of adversity, being mentally tough means being able to “live through” those issues. Some of them represent very unpleasant and painful situations or experiences, which we are equipped with instincts to avoid. Why should anyone agree to endure pain or annoyance? There must be a reason. There must be a MOTIVATOR. So, no, there is no algorithm for achieving mental toughness. People will be mentally tough depending on the intensity of their motivator, their psychic structure, their environment and their genetics.

* The three main motivators originate from the feelings of LOVE, HATE and FEAR. Fear of death, fear that your progeny my die, therefore, protection of progeny (we are programmed to defend our offspring, in whom every mammal, particularly humans, invest most of their energy to ensure the continuity of their genomic contribution – ok, it is much more complicated than that, but get the basics before taking the advanced classes), fear of losing social status (which is translated by the brain into fear of death), fear of losing (which is translated into fear of death), etc. Any sort of potential danger of death, for most normal humans, elicits a reaction of fight or flight. The proverbial “survival instinct”, so incredibly strong in some people (and prevalent in the majority), is the basis for their “mental toughness”: the guy will do the impossible and endure what seems unbearable to survive.

* The second motivator is LOVE. Not the romantic love, no. LOVE in deeper form. The need to attach meaningfulness to life and to value what one represents as a meaningful life. A dancer may bleed her feet rehearsing one piece of choreography into perfection, because perfection is her expression of love. Humans are programmed to love “work well done”. Art defies our understanding up to now, with gigabytes of theories on it, but there is a love impulse to produce meaning in any act or work of art. Art can be understood as the subjective manifestation of an interpretation of reality. The amount of love that is required to handle one’s own darkness and express it in outward form is immense. It is a powerful motivator, sometimes greater than survival. I believe true sport and the martial arts (which I see as one and the same, even historically) belong in that class. An “artist” (lato sensu) will endure hardship that we may not understand in order to achieve that.

* The third motivator is HATE. Some scholars understand hate as a secondary expression of fear. I believe it has a place on its own. Hate is the rationalized determination to completely destroy something, which may well go way beyond physical death. Symbolic death, in a cultural species as ours, may be more satisfying to hate than physical death. Hate is often the result of resentment, deep hurt or envy. Willingly or unwillingly, the subject feels damaged by someone or a group of people. Destroying this person or this group becomes the only purpose of life for this individual. Achieving outstanding levels of expertise and skill may be involved in a life guided by hate. Enduring exorbitant levels of pain and adversity, as well. Hate, however, is not a self-perpetuating motivator: it may end suddenly with the destruction of the object of hate, leaving the subject in a profound state of emptiness. That may simply take away all motivation to continue living, so that not even the most basic survival instincts remain, or other things may happen, such as finding another object of hate, since the subject has developed an extremely specialized form of existence (and mental toughness) based on hate. Hate sects and movements have a number of such individuals.

* With this, I hope to have shown that there is no algorithm to achieve any of that. You cannot teach mental toughness to a powerlifter. Either he loves the art of powerlifting to the deepest of his soul, and he will endure everything and anything to keep devoting his life to his love, or he doesn’t. It is as simple as that. “Don’t pay attention to the opinion of others” (that’s a favorite in the self-help lists). Bullshit: in any social endeavor the opinion of others is important. And such others, if motivated by hate, may harass the individual to the level of extinction. Or not: “love will prevail” and the individual will simply ignore any opinion. Or… hate the opinion holder. Who said love and hate are exclusive motivators?…  None are.


A few days ago, Eric looked at me at the end of a set and said: “I’m really proud of you”. I asked why. He said it was because how much pain I was going through without quitting or complaining. Yes: I feel pain at every workout. Some injuries are chronic. Some generate intense pain. But if you love doing that thing so much that that level of pain can’t make you even slow down, this is no sacrifice: it is love. I need the meaning and rooting that movement provides me more than water or air. I prefer to die than not powerlift. Then pain is ok. Yes, my jaws contract and I shiver: those are physiological reactions to pain. I remember my recovery from ACL surgery with patellar tendon graft. In five months I was squatting 150kg (with wraps). I used crutches for two days. During my recovery, I felt pain. Sometimes my eyes watered. I didn’t cry, I sweated like a pig and tears dripped from my eyes out of pain. Sometimes I spasmed out of pain. But I went on and on and on. Mental toughness? Really? What about suicide? I’ve committed suicide – I just failed. This is seen as mental weakness. Both are useless concepts. That’s all.

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