Full text of author Amy Morin’s talk: The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong at TEDxOcala conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong at Amy Morin at TEDxOcala
So, I have a Facebook friend whose life seems perfect. She lives in a gorgeous house. And she has a really rewarding career. And she and her family go on all these exciting adventures together on the weekends. And I swear that they must take a professional photographer along with them, because no matter where they go or what they do, the whole family just looks beautiful.
And she’s always posting about how blessed she is, and how grateful she is for the life that she has. And I get the feeling that she’s not just saying those things for the sake of Facebook, but she truly means it.
How many of you have a friend kind of like that? And how many of you kind of don’t like that person sometimes? We all do this, right? It’s hard not to do. But that way of thinking costs us something. And that’s what I want to talk to you about today — is what our bad habits cost us.
Maybe you’ve scrolled through your Facebook feed and you think, “So what if I roll my eyes? It’s just five seconds of my time. How could it be hurting me?”
Well, researchers have found that envying your friends on Facebook, actually leads to depression. That’s just one of the traps that our minds can set for us.
Have you ever complained about your boss? Or looked at your friends’ lives and thought, “Why do they have all the luck?” You can’t help thinking that way, right? That way of thinking seems small in the moment. In fact, it might even make you feel better in the moment. But that way of thinking is eating away at your mental strength.
There’s three kinds of destructive beliefs that make us less effective, and rob us of our mental strength. The first one is unhealthy beliefs about ourselves. We tend to feel sorry for ourselves. And while it’s OK to be sad when something bad happens, self-pity goes beyond that. It’s when you start to magnify your misfortune.
When you think things like, “Why do these things always have to happen to me? I shouldn’t have to deal with it.” That way of thinking keeps you stuck, keeps you focused on the problem, keeps you from finding a solution. And even when you can’t create a solution, you can always take steps to make your life or somebody else’s life better. But you can’t do that when you’re busy hosting your own pity party.
The second type of destructive belief that holds us back is unhealthy beliefs about others. We think that other people can control us, and we give away our power. But as adults who live in a free country, there’s very few things in life that you have to do. So when you say, “I have to work late,” you give away your power. Yeah, maybe there will be consequences if you don’t work late, but it’s still a choice.
Or when you say, “My mother-in-law drives me crazy,” you give away your power. Maybe she’s not the nicest person on earth, but it’s up to you how you respond to her, because you’re in control.
The third type of unhealthy belief that holds us back, is unhealthy beliefs about the world. We tend to think that the world owes us something. We think, “If I put in enough hard work, then I deserve success.” But expecting success to fall into your lap like some sort of cosmic reward, will only lead to disappointment. But I know it’s hard to give up our bad mental habits. It’s hard to get rid of those unhealthy beliefs that we’ve carried around with us for so long. But you can’t afford not to give them up. Because sooner or later, you’re going to hit a time in your life where you need all the mental strength that you can muster.
When I was 23 years old, I thought I had life all figured out. I graduated from grad school. I landed my first big job as a therapist. I got married. And I even bought a house. And I thought, “This is going to be great! I’ve got this incredible jump start on success.” What could go wrong?
That all changed for me one day when I got a phone call from my sister. She said that our mother was found unresponsive and she’d been taken to the hospital. My husband Lincoln and I jumped in the car and rushed to the hospital. We couldn’t imagine what could be wrong. My mother was only 51. She didn’t have any history of any kind of health problems.
When we got to the hospital, doctors explained she’d had a brain aneurysm. And within 24 hours, my mother, who used to wake up in the morning saying, “It’s a great day to be alive,” passed away. That news was devastating to me. My mother and I had been very close. As a therapist, I knew on an intellectual level how to go through grief. But knowing it, and doing it, can be two very different things. It took a long time before I felt like I was really healing.
And then on the three year anniversary of my mother’s death, some friends called, and invited Lincoln and me to a basketball game. Coincidentally, it was being played at the same auditorium where I’d last seen my mother, on the night before she’d passed away. I hadn’t been back there since. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go back. But Lincoln and I talked about it, and ultimately we said, “Maybe that would be a good way to honor her memory.”
So we went to the game. And we actually had a really good time with our friends. On the drive home that night, we talked about how great it was to finally be able to go back to that place, and remember my mother with a smile, rather than all those feelings of sadness.
But shortly after we got home that night, Lincoln said he didn’t feel well. A few minutes later, he collapsed. I had to call for an ambulance. His family met me at the emergency room. We waited for what seemed like forever, until finally a doctor came out. But rather than taking us out back to see Lincoln, he took us back to a private room, and sat us down, and explained to us that Lincoln, who was the most adventurous person I’d ever met, was gone. We didn’t know at the time, but he’d had a heart attack. He was only 26. He didn’t have any history of heart problems.
So now I found myself a 26-year-old widow, and I didn’t have my mom. I thought, “How am I going to get through this?” And to describe that as a painful period in my life feels like an understatement. And it was during that time that I realized when you’re really going through tough times, good habits aren’t enough. It only takes one or two small habits to really hold you back.
I worked as hard as I could, not just to create good habits in my life, but to get rid of those small habits, no matter how small they might seem. Throughout it all, I held out hope that someday life could get better. And eventually it did.
A few years down the road, I met Steve. And we fell in love. And I got remarried. We sold the house that Lincoln and I had lived in, and we bought a new house, in a new area, and I got a new job. But almost as quickly as I breathed my sigh of relief over that fresh start that I had, we got the news that Steve’s dad had terminal cancer.
And I started to think, “Why do these things always have to keep happening? Why do I have to keep losing all my loved ones? This isn’t fair.” But if I’d learned anything, it was that that way of thinking would hold me back. I knew I was going to need as much mental strength as I could muster, to get through one more loss.
So I sat down and I wrote a list of all the things mentally strong people don’t do. And I read over that list. It was a reminder of all of those bad habits that I’d done at one time or another, that would keep me stuck. And I kept reading that list over and over. And I really needed it. Because within a few weeks of writing it, Steve’s dad passed away.
My journey taught me that the secret to being mentally strong, was that you had to give up your bad mental habits. Mental strength is a lot like physical strength. If you wanted to be physically strong, you’d need to go to the gym and lift weights. But if you really wanted to see results, you’d also have to give up eating junk food. Mental strength is the same. If you want to be mentally strong, you need good habits like practicing gratitude. But you also have to give up bad habits, like resenting somebody else’s success. No matter how often that happens, it will hold you back.
So, how do you train your brain to think differently? How do you give up those bad mental habits that you’ve carried around with you? It starts by countering those unhealthy beliefs that I talked about, with healthier ones. For example, unhealthy beliefs about ourselves mostly come about because we’re uncomfortable with our feelings. Feeling sad, or hurt, or angry, or scared, those things are all uncomfortable. So we go to great lengths to avoid that discomfort. We try to escape it by doing things like hosting a pity party.
And although that’s a temporary distraction, it just prolongs the pain. The only way to get through uncomfortable emotions, the only way to deal with them, is you have to go through them. To let yourself feel sad, and then move on. To gain confidence in your ability to deal with that discomfort.
Unhealthy beliefs about others come about because we compare ourselves to other people. We think that they’re either above us or below us. Or we think that they can control how we feel, or that we can control how they behave. Or we blame them for holding us back. But really, it’s our own choices that do that. You have to accept that you’re your own person, and other people are separate from you. The only person you should compare yourself to, is the person that you were yesterday.
And unhealthy beliefs about the world come about because deep down, we want the world to be fair. We want to think that if we put in enough good deeds, enough good things will happen to us. Or if we tough it out through enough bad times, we’ll get some sort of reward. But ultimately you have to accept that life isn’t fair. And that can be liberating. Yeah, it means you won’t necessarily be rewarded for your goodness, but it also means no matter how much you’ve suffered, you’re not doomed to keep suffering. The world doesn’t work that way.
Your world is what you make it. But of course before you can change your world, you have to believe that you can change it. I once worked with this man who had been diabetic for years. His doctor referred him to therapy because he had some bad mental habits that were starting to affect his physical health.
His mother had died from complications of diabetes at a young age, so he just believed he was doomed, and he’d given up trying to manage his blood sugar altogether. In fact, his blood sugar had gotten so high lately, that it was starting to affect his vision. And he had his driver’s license taken away. And his world was shrinking.
When he came into my office, it was clear he knew all the things he could do to manage his blood sugar. He just didn’t think it was worth the effort. But eventually, he agreed to make one small change. He said, “I’ll give up my two liter-a-day Pepsi habit, and I’ll trade it in for Diet Pepsi.” And he couldn’t believe how quickly his numbers started to improve. And even though he came every week to remind me how horrible Diet Pepsi tasted, he stuck with it.
And once he started to see a little bit of improvement, he said, “Well, maybe I could look at some of my other habits.” He said, “I could trade in my nightly bowl of ice cream for a snack with a little less sugar.”
And then one day he was at a thrift store with some friends, and he found this beat-up old exercise bike. He bought it for a couple of bucks, and he brought it home, and he parked it in front of his TV. And he started to pedal while he’d watch some of his favorite shows every night. And not only did he lose weight, but one day, he noticed he could see the TV just a little bit more clearly than he had before.
And suddenly it occurred to him, maybe the damage done to his eyesight wasn’t permanent. So he set a new goal for himself — to get his driver’s license back. And from that day forward, he was on fire. By the end of our time together, he was coming in every week saying, “OK, what are we going to do this week?” Because he finally believed that he could change his world. And that he had the mental strength to change it. And that he could give up his bad mental habits. And it all started with just one small step.
So I invite you to consider what bad mental habits are holding you back? What unhealthy beliefs are keeping you from being as mentally strong as you could be? And what’s one small step that you could take today? Right here, right now.