Life is just not fair! That’s why we need to be resilient and mentally strong. I described what mental strength is in the previous Building Resilience Update (here), and I will now explain how to be mentally strong.

Stick with me as I give you some theory first.

At its core, mental strength is all about how we interpret the things that happen to us, as we make sense of our lives. What’s fascinating is that mentally strong people interpret the difficult things that happen in their lives completely differently to the people who are less mentally strong. Mentally tough people explain a negative event to themselves by:

• Realistically blaming external factors for what happened
• Interpreting the impact to be on only specific areas in their life and self-worth
• Seeing it as a temporary setback

This is in stark contrast to less mentally strong people. They explain a negative event to themselves by:
• Over-personalising and inappropriately blaming themselves
• Interpreting the impact to be pervasive or widespread in their lives
• Seeing it as a permanent setback

In other words, to be mentally strong, you need to change your interpretation and your story of what happens in your life.

Have a look at these examples:


Not mentally strong interpretation
• I was yelled at by a client who said I was stupid when I didn’t understand her request (All my fault)
• Getting yelled at infuriates me and puts me in a bad mood (Effects everything)
• Bad moods normally last for several days at work and home (Permanent)

Mentally strong interpretation
• I was yelled at by a client who said I was stupid when she didn’t explain her request so that I could understand it (External)
• Getting yelled at happens in this job, and I choose to not let it influence my next client interaction (Specific to the situation)
• A few clients are rude and unreasonable, but I know how to cope with them without it impacting my mood (Temporary)


Not mentally strong interpretation
• I am often late submitting my weekly return, as I just can’t seem to plan properly (All my fault)
• I am getting a reputation for always being tardy and not caring about my job (Effects everything)
• I will never be able to plan properly and my career will suffer (Permanent)

Mentally strong interpretation
• I was late submitting the last two weekly returns, as I am dependent on my team to give me the information I need (External)
• I will get a reputation for submitting late weekly returns, if this continues (Specific to the situation)
• I need to institute a different team process so that I get the information earlier and can then get my weekly return in on time (Temporary)

So the next time something goes really badly, and it gets you down, try reinterpreting how you think about it. Do this by thinking differently about what happened:

  1. Realistically blame external factors rather than over-personalise and inappropriately blame yourself
  2. Interpret the impact to be on specific areas of your life, rather than pervasive in all areas
  3. See it as a temporary setback rather than permanent

That will enable you to “Tell the negative committee that meets inside your head to sit down and shut up”, as Anne Bradford puts it.

So if you have something negative in your life that’s bringing you down, the challenge is to change your interpretation and your story. Do this by realistically blaming external factors, and interpreting the impact to be specific and temporary. That will make you mentally strong, and being mentally strong will change your life.



Seligman, M.,2004  Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press

Seligman, M.,1998  Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York:, Free Press