THE BLOG

5 Critical Ways to Stay Strong In the Midst of Emotional Pain and Chaos

02/03/2015 03:57 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015
Ilya Bushuev via Getty Images

In late 2013, I was intrigued to watch a friend's article on Forbes.com begin to balloon and reach millions. Cheryl Snapp Conner's post featuring psychologist Amy Morin's insights on "Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid," hit an international nerve and is now one of the most read posts on Forbes.com.

Interested to learn more from Amy about the back story of this piece, and how she identified these 13 critical ways mentally strong people stay resilient and retain their strength, I asked Amy to share the events that led up to this tremendous hit. Now an internationally recognized expert on mental strength, Amy is a psychotherapist, speaker, college psychology instructor and the author of the great new book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do.

Kathy Caprino: Amy, what were the events behind your arriving at these 13 traits of mentally strong people?

Amy Morin: In the Fall of 2013, I found myself in a surreal situation. Celebrities were tweeting my work, national figures were talking about me on the radio, and I was being interviewed by major media outlets across the world.

A mere 600 words, written just weeks earlier, had launched me into the midst of a viral super storm. Within hours of being published to the web, my work was read and shared millions of times. Just a few days later the list was reprinted on Forbes, where it reached nearly 10 million more readers.

It seemed like everyone in the media had the same question -- "How did you come up with your list of the 13 things mentally strong people don't do?" I always responded by explaining the concepts were based on my training, education, and experiences as a therapist. While that was true, it certainly wasn't the whole story. But, I wasn't ready to reveal the painful situation that was still unfolding around me on national television.

In 2003, my mother passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Then, on the three year anniversary of her death, my 26-year-old husband passed away from a heart attack. While publicly helping others deal with their emotional pain as a therapist, I'd spent years privately working through my grief. It was hard work but I made slow but steady progress.

A few years later, I was fortunate enough to find love again and I got remarried. Just as I felt grateful for my fresh start however, my father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I found myself thinking, "I don't want to go through this all over again." But just as quickly as I began to feel sorry for myself, I was reminded that self-pity would only make things worse.

I sat down and created my list of the unhealthy habits I needed to avoid if I wanted to stay strong while facing my inevitable circumstances. When I was done, I had a list of 13 thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that would hold me back from facing my circumstances with strength and courage. Although the list was meant to be a letter to myself, I published it online in hopes someone else may find it helpful. I never imagined millions of people would read it.

Caprino: What do you think are the five most critical strategies of the 13 that help people stay mentally strong?

Morin: Throughout my painful experiences, these five critical strategies helped me personally stay mentally strong during my time of emotional trauma and pain:

1. Exchanging self-pity for gratitude
When life became difficult, I was tempted to exaggerate my own despair. Losing my loved ones was certainly terrible, but I still had much to feel grateful about. After all, I had a job, a roof over my head, and food to eat.

Whenever I'd begin feeling sorry for myself, I'd create a list of all the things I had to be grateful for. It wouldn't take long to recognize all the loving, supportive people I still had in my life. And it served as a wonderful reminder, that although some of my loved ones were no longer here, I was fortunate to have had them in my life.

2. Focusing on what I could control
The repeated losses in my life served as a reminder that there are many things I didn't have any control over. Wasting energy focusing on all those things however, wouldn't be helpful. Instead, I needed to focus all my energy on the things I could control.

And no matter what, the one thing I could always control was my attitude. I could choose to allow my difficult circumstances to turn me into an angry, bitter person or I could choose to remain a hopeful, positive person with a desire to become better. Focusing on all that I could control -- whether it was helping a family member with a practical task or making a decision about my finances -- helped me recognize that I wasn't simply a victim of my circumstances. Instead, I was able to create a wonderful life for myself by making the most of every day.

3. Living in the present
The loss of my loved ones tempted me to dwell on the past. After all, the past was where my loved ones were still alive. And I feared that if I didn't constantly think about the past, or if I moved forward, I'd somehow be doing them a disservice.

It takes courage to make the conscious decision to live fully present in each moment, rather than ruminate on how life used to be. But once I was able to shift my focus to honoring my loved one's memory -- rather than trying to prevent life from moving forward -- I was able to begin fully enjoying life again.

4. Retaining my personal power
When I was going through tough times, everyone had an opinion about what was best for me. Although their intentions were well-meaning, doing things simply because others advised me to wouldn't be helpful.

I had to deal with my grief in my own way and I needed to create my own plan for how I was going to move forward in life. Taking ownership meant I couldn't blame anyone else. Instead, I had to accept personal responsibility for my thoughts, behaviors, and feelings.

5. Embracing change
My world changed drastically over the course of a few years. And, although it was tempting to dig in my heels and try to prevent my world from changing, it wasn't going to be helpful. I had to embrace change -- whether or not it was welcomed.

I had to create a new sense of normalcy without my loved ones present. Often, that meant giving up certain goals or activities that were no longer meaningful and searching for new opportunities that would give me purpose. Embracing those changes allowed me to move forward and create a fulfilling life for myself.

Amy's advice is both powerful and empowering. As holocaust survivor and renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl shared in his life-changing book Man's Search for Meaning, "...everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Check out Amy's new book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do, and learn more about her work at here.

(To build a happier, more rewarding career, visit her website and take her 6-day Amazing Career Challenge.)