How to Develop Mental Toughness: A Former FBI Agent Says Follow These 5 Steps

How mentally tough are you?
Mental toughness is the ability to push through challenging, even painful situations and come out on top. It includes qualities like grit and determination, and it’s closely related to emotional intelligence.
I spoke recently about mental toughness with LaRae Quy. LaRae spent 23 years working as a counterintelligence agent with the FBI, where mental toughness can mean the difference between life and death. Nowadays, LaRae teaches others how to use mental toughness to navigate challenges at work and at home.
I asked LaRae for advice on how to develop mental toughness. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Build self-awareness

To be mentally tough, you need a deep understanding of what makes you tick. That involves building self-awareness, understanding of your emotions and how they work. This can also help you to better understand the emotions of others.
But how can you develop self-awareness?
“Law enforcement officers are trained to look at people around them in restaurants and airports,” LaRae told me. “They try to figure out their stories, their thoughts, their moods, even what they do for a living—based solely on observation.”
“This simple focused-awareness drill trains you to be clued into what is going on with the people around you, and you can practice it at any time. At work, it will help you build empathy and understanding with your colleagues, and enable you to tailor strategies specifically to the person or audience you’re trying to reach.”

Push through your limits

To reach your full potential, you must get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“One of the most irritating things working for the FBI was the transfer policy,” LaRae said. “As a new agent, I worked on two different squads in six months. In the first three years, I moved to three different cities.”
“It wasn’t easy to pull up roots, disrupt relationships, and start over with each new assignment. The anxiety level went up because there was nothing but tension and uncertainty ahead of me. But the old saying is true: If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”
“Focus on the fact that the current situation is temporary, and that it provides benefits. For example, embracing a new situation forces you to grow and keeps you from becoming complacent. It teaches you to avoid becoming dependent on external sources, and allows you to thrive in any location or situation.”
Of course, Larae’s right.
Change is never easy. But if looked at through the right lens, it is empowering.

Control your thoughts

You become what you think.
You can’t avoid having negative or self-critical thoughts. But you can refuse to dwell on those thoughts. You can replace them with positive thoughts, and that will have a direct effect on your actions.
By changing the way you think about self-limiting beliefs and other obstacles, you can rewire your brain so that you accomplish more than you would otherwise.

Learn to focus

If you want to be mentally tough, you must learn to focus your energy—both mental and physical.
Just look at professional athletes: They repeat the same mind-numbing tasks over and over, until they become second nature.
To achieve exceptional focus, LaRae says you must do five things:
  • Break down anything you’re trying to learn into smaller parts
  • Spend extra time on actions you find especially difficult
  • Put your ego on the back burner and ask for critical feedback
  • Adjust accordingly
  • Keep your goals in front of you, and review them over and over
Practicing these five things will increase your willpower, help you become more persistent, and lead to personal mastery.

Keep growing

Intelligence and natural talent can actually become an obstacle to success.
If you’re born smart and talented, the temptation is to avoid hard work because things come easy to you, or to give up when the going gets rough.
But to build mental toughness, you must work hard to improve your weaknesses, and the things you’re already good at.
Above all else, the mentally tough are students. They’re voracious readers and love to learn new things. They aren’t afraid of failure, because they know that every failure brings learning, with learning comes improvement, and continued improvement brings confidence, and eventually, success.
So, do you want to become mentally tough?
Learn from LaRae Quy, and:
  • Build self awareness
  • Push through your limits
  • Control your thoughts
  • Learn to focus
  • Keep growing
Learn to do these things well, and you’ll be better prepared to face whatever challenges come your way.


Want to learn more about how to increase your emotional intelligence?


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