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How to Be Mentally Tough

Some parts of life are downright brutal.

No matter who you are, you’re going to go through devastating experiences and difficult emotions.

You’ll face disappointments and injustices. You’ll go through physical pain and sickness.

At different points, you’ll part ways with all the people you love. And in the end, you’re going to die.

We all know about these inevitable facts of life. But they’re so scary that most of us prefer to ignore them.

Unfortunately, denying them won’t make them go away. It just leaves you helpless and fragile when disaster strikes.

A much better approach, according to the Stoics, is to prepare yourself for these challenging moments well in advance.

By deliberately training your mind, you can withstand even the hardest blows of life.

Here are the Stoic’s best techniques for developing extraordinary mental toughness.

1. Visualize Negative Outcomes

“We need to envisage every possibility and to strengthen the spirit to deal with the things which may conceivably come about. Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck.”
— Seneca

We tend to take what we have for granted. And this creates two major problems. Firstly, it makes us ungrateful for the blessings in our lives. And secondly, it makes us feel terrible when we lose them.

Luckily, the Stoics devised a powerful technique to solve both of these problems. It’s called negative visualization and, as the name suggests, it’s a practice where you deliberately imagine the worst possible outcomes in your life.

When you wake up in the morning, remind yourself that this might be your last day alive. When you leave your home, imagine what it would be like to lose it. When you meet up with a friend, remind yourself that this might be the last time you see each other.

Obviously, you won’t want to ruminate endlessly on these things. That won’t do you any good. But just a few seconds of negative visualization sprinkled throughout your day can work wonders for your mental well-being.

Just like an army that’s preparing for war in peaceful times, you can prepare for the most catastrophic moments of life before they happen.

The Spartans had a warrior creed that captures this idea well: “He who sweats more in practice bleeds less in war.”

Practice brief moments of negative visualizations each day. That way, you’ll feel much more grateful in your everyday life and be better prepared for disaster strikes.

2. Practice Voluntary Hardship

“Everyone faces up more bravely to a thing for which he has long prepared himself, sufferings, even, being withstood if they have been trained for in advance. Those who are unprepared, on the other hand, are panic-stricken by the most insignificant happenings.”
— Seneca

During his lifetime, Seneca was one of the wealthiest people in the Roman Empire. Still, he would occasionally live as if he was poor. For a few days each month, he dressed in rough clothing and ate very little food.

Why? Because he wanted to reduce his appetite for material things and pleasure, increase his appreciation for what he had, and — most importantly — develop the courage to handle future challenges.

This Stoic technique is known as voluntary hardship, and it’s a very powerful way to fortify your mind and develop your courage. The practice can take any shape you want, but I’ll list out some ideas for inspiration:

  • Underdress for cold weather.
  • Turn off the air conditioning in your house or car.
  • Take cold showers.
  • Occasional fasting.
  • Drink only water.
  • Sleep without a pillow.
  • High-intensity exercise.

By putting yourself through voluntary hardship, you’ll prepare your mind and body for unforeseen and challenging situations. And, with enough practice, you’ll find that things you used to be afraid of aren’t that bad after all.

3. Live With Little

“It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.”
— Seneca

According to Seneca, it’s absolutely essential to learn how to live with little. No matter how well off you are right now, there will inevitably be challenging situations and difficult times ahead.

The good news is that we don’t need nearly as much stuff as we think we do. We use most of the things in our lives out of habit, not out of necessity. And by stripping away unnecessary stuff, you can simplify your life and reduce your desires.

You’ve probably heard stories about how successful people like Mark Zuckerberg wear the same outfit every day. These guys can easily afford to buy more clothes or even hire a stylist to do it for them.

Yet, they choose to wear the same stuff day in and day out because it limits the complexity in their lives. It saves valuable time, energy, and focus that they can use for more important decisions.

You can accomplish the same thing by practicing simplicity. Get rid of unnecessary stuff and see how it affects your state of mind. You’ll probably find that your happiness is way less dependant on material goods than what you think.

4. Consider Everything Borrowed

“Our duty is to keep ready the gifts we have been given for an indefinite time and to return them when called upon, making no complaint: it is a sorry debtor who abuses his creditor.”
— Seneca

The only thing you own in your life is your mind. Everything else — including your health, possessions, and loved ones — are on loan. They are temporary gifts from Fortune that can be taken away at any moment.

According to Seneca, we’re welcome to enjoy these gifts, but we should always remember that they’re borrowed. And when the time comes to return them, we should do so gratefully and without complaining.

This idea was hugely helpful to me when my dad unexpectedly passed away. In the aftermath of his death, I felt as if he had been stolen from me. He had passed away “too soon,” and I was devastated not to get the time with him that I was “supposed” to have.

But as I learned about Stoicism, I realized that Fortune actually had been very kind to me. My dad was an amazing person, and I had got to have him in my life for almost 30 years. Still, when Fortune took him back, I responded with ungratefulness and anger. What kind of way is that to treat a generous lender?

Obviously, it’s natural to grieve your losses. But getting stuck there isn’t helpful. So, try your best to shift your perspective from entitlement to gratitude. Be thankful for the temporary gifts Fortune grants you, but also ready to return them when the time comes.

That way, you’ll feel much more appreciation for the blessings in your life, and much less like a victim when they are taken away.

5. Reflect on Death

“There’s no difference between the one and the other – you didn’t exist and you won’t exist – you’ve got no concern with either period.”
— Seneca

There is nothing we fear more than death. Most people are so scared of it that they ignore it or pretend that it doesn’t exist.

But the Stoics taught that fear of death is highly irrational. And instead of being in denial about it, you should reflect on it routinely. This technique is called “memento mori,” which is Latin for “remember that you must die.1

According to the Stoics, death gets a bad rap because of inaccurate rumors from the living. If you ignore this gossip and see death for what it really is, you’ll understand that it’s nothing to be afraid of.

So, what is death? Well, it’s simply the same condition you experienced for an eternity before you were born. And that wasn’t too bad, was it? In one of his letters, Seneca puts it this way:

“We suffer somewhat in the intervening period, but at either end of it, there is a deep tranquillity.”

Continually remind yourself of this. Reflect on death and accept that it may come at any moment. That will help you keep a rational perspective on death and create a healthy sense of urgency to make the most out of life.

And that’s immensely helpful because much more important than a long or short life is a life well-lived.

How to Be Mentally Tough, In Summary

  1. Visualize negative outcomes. You’ll develop a deep appreciation for life and be better prepared when disasters strike.
  2. Practice voluntary hardship. You’ll fortify your mind and develop the courage to handle future challenges.
  3. Live with little. You’ll simplify your life, reduce your desires, and cultivate happiness without material goods.
  4. Consider everything borrowed. You’ll let go of entitlement and develop a deep sense of gratitude for your life’s blessings.
  5. Reflect on death. You’ll keep a rational perspective and a healthy sense of urgency to make the most out of life.

Footnote

  1. Memento mori