THE BLOG
01/18/2015 12:18 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2015

The 5 Biggest Myths About Mental Strength

As a society, we spend a lot of time talking about physical strength. Newsstands are filled with weight lifting and fitness magazines, workout videos generate over $300 million dollars a year, and TV commercials are dominated by the latest fad diets and weight loss supplements.

Mental strength has certainly never attracted that much attention. Yet, without mental strength, we aren't likely to reach our physical fitness goals -- or any other goals for that matter. Building mental strength is the key to reaching our full potential in life.

Despite the significance of mental strength, many people aren't familiar with the concept. There are a lot of misconceptions about what mental strength really is and why it's important. Here are the five biggest myths about mental strength:

Myth #1 -- The Idea That You Can Build Mental Strength Is a Fleeting Pop Psychology Trend

Mental strength training isn't some New Age phenomenon that will go out of style. The idea that you can learn to regulate your thoughts, manage your emotions, and behave productively despite your circumstances is backed by research. Therapy techniques that teach those skills have been around since the 1960s.

Building your mental muscle is a lot like building physical muscle. If you want to become physically stronger, you'll need healthy habits -- like going to the gym. You'll also have to give up unhealthy habits -- like eating junk food. Building mental strength requires healthy habits -- like practicing gratitude -- while also giving up unhealthy behavior, like giving up after the first failure.

Myth #2 -- People Are Either Mentally Strong or Mentally Weak

There aren't two categories of people -- the mentally strong and the mentally weak. Instead, everyone possesses mental strength to some degree and we all have the ability to become stronger. Just like you have to keep working out to stay physically strong, mental strength requires ongoing exercise and practice.

When it comes to physical strength, someone may have a stronger upper body than lower body, or a stronger right arm compared to the left arm. Similarly, we're likely to excel in some areas of mental strength, while struggling with others. A person who is able to manage her emotions in most areas of her life, may struggle with one or two sore subjects that really trigger her to behave unproductively. Addressing the areas where we can grow stronger can help us improve our overall mental fitness.

Myth #3 -- The Concept of Mental Strength Stigmatizes Mental Illness

Just like talking about physical strength doesn't stigmatize someone with a physical health issue like diabetes, talking about mental strength doesn't stigmatize people with mental illness. Everyone has the ability to build mental strength, regardless of whether they have depression, anxiety, ADHD, or some other mental health issue.

That's not to minimize the fact that mental health issues may add an extra degree of difficulty to building mental strength. A person with depression, for example, may experience more negative thoughts than others, but that doesn't mean depressed people can't grow stronger.

People with a mental illness aren't mentally weak. In fact, many of them are incredibly strong. And just like everyone else, they possess the ability to create positive change in their lives.

Myth #4 -- Mental Strength Means Always Thinking Positively

Building mental strength doesn't mean you should start expecting great things to happen or that you should only think happy thoughts. In fact, thinking overly positive thoughts can be just as detrimental as thinking overly negative thoughts. Building mental strength is about training yourself to think rationally and realistically.

Although we're prone to believe our thoughts, our thoughts aren't always true. When we're feeling bad, our thoughts are likely to be exaggeratedly negative. On the other hand, when we're extremely happy, we're more likely to overestimate ourselves and our abilities. Developing mental strength increases our ability to evaluate our thoughts and develop more realistic inner monologues.

Myth #5 -- Mentally-Strong People Behave Like Robots

Being mentally strong doesn't mean you shouldn't cry at funerals or gush at adorable babies just so you can appear tough. Rather than suppressing emotions, building mental strength increases our awareness of them.

We make our best decisions in life when we're in control of our emotions -- rather than allowing our emotions to control us. Mentally strong people are able to recognize when their feelings are likely to lead to unhealthy behavior and they proactively take steps to regulate those emotions.

Amy Morin is a licensed clinical social worker and an internationally recognized expert on mental strength. Her book, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do: Take Back Your Power, Embrace Change, Face Your Fears, and Train Your Brain for Happiness and Success provides strategies and exercises to build mental strength. Watch the video trailer to learn about her personal story behind the book.