A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

How to Gain Strength Through Difficult Experiences

It's all about the mental game.

As I think about the process of psychological growth, I really like the three ingredient recipe of grace, truth, and time that I wrote about in last week’s blog post. But the more I think about it, the more I also realize that there is one more essential part of the recipe that I forgot to mention. It’s so obvious that it’s easy to overlook. It’s like having a list of ingredients for a delicious soup but not mentioning that you have to put them together in a saucepan, turn on the heat, simmer, and stir. Yes, psychological growth takes grace, truth, and time. But it is not a passive process. It doesn’t just happen. Metaphorically speaking, the recipe only works if we get into the kitchen and start cooking.

Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion emphasized the idea that the mind only gets stronger through experience. We don’t develop mental strength by osmosis any more than we develop physical muscle by reading books or watching Youtube videos. Cookbooks have their place, but at some point, we’ve got to try out the recipe. Learning may begin in the classroom, but it only takes root when applied in real life.

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Bion believed that the kinds of experiences that strengthen us are experiences that challenge us. Just like the body must be taxed to develop physical muscle, so the mind must be taxed to develop mental muscle. In everyday life, challenging experiences are not hard to come by. Our rudimentary efforts to seek pleasure and avoid pain don’t take us very far. Real life challenges us, frustrates us, flummoxes us, and disappoints us. Often, our knee-jerk response to such challenges is to turn away from them in search of an easier way. But if we are to strengthen our minds, we must turn toward them. By turning toward challenging experiences, we give ourselves the opportunity to grow ourselves into the kind of people that can deal with challenging experiences well.

With this general principle in mind, let’s take the next step. If developing mental strength through challenging experiences is generally what we’re after, what specifically are we working to strengthen? I would like to highlight two specific strengths that are extremely useful in life: the capacities to delay gratification and bear frustration.

Delaying gratification is essentially the capacity to wait while staying engaged in a productive process. The context might be financial investing, therapy, a long-term relationship, parenting, or learning a new skill. Inevitably, difficulties arise in these sorts of experiences. The market has its ups and downs. Relationships go through seasons that are lean and stressful. A smart long-term strategy may not yield success at first. It is important to determine whether or not such difficulties signal a problem that cannot be solved or if they reflect ordinary challenges that, with persistence, can be overcome. After all, it isn’t wise to stick with a fund or a relationship or a strategy that doesn’t have a reasonable chance of working in the long run. But we also don’t want to abandon a good strategy prematurely. As the saying goes, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”

If we can stick with working at something that, at some level, we know is potentially good for us—even if the benefits don’t come right away—we give ourselves the chance to have a double gain. Not only do we receive the benefit of that particular investment, we develop a greater capacity to be a long-term investor. A person who can commit to persistently working without immediate rewards has the opportunity to grow something really substantial over time—both on the outside and on the inside.

The capacity to bear frustration goes hand in hand with the capacity to delay gratification. Developing the capacity to bear frustration means that we stay engaged with the feelings that emerge while we are delaying gratification. After all, painful feelings will come up in that psychological space: frustration, disappointment, anger, hopelessness, as well as other painful feelings. We develop mental strength when we face such feelings and try to work with them rather than run away from them.

To put it simply, we strengthen our minds when we add a middle step between impulse and action. Rather than acting on our impulse to quit, we take the step of staying with the process and our feelings in it. There’s a lot of growth that can happen in that middle step. We feel our pain, and we think about it. We get acquainted with our feelings and find that they do not overwhelm us. That’s what I mean by mental muscle. We develop the capacity to carry a greater emotional load.

There’s nothing like watching a first rate soccer team in action to know how these mental capacities make or break us. One of the reasons why we admire a team that can come from behind is that we intuitively understand the mental toughness that is involved in such a process. So much of long-term success in sports —and, frankly, in life itself—is mental. Beyond the physical training, we’ve got to dig deep to play the mental game well, too. This means that we must work to develop the kind of mind that can cope under pressure—the kind of mind that can get in the game when we are behind or even stay in the game when we are losing our lead. When we can overcome our impulse to give up, we develop skills for a lifetime. When we can bear the painful feelings that arise when we are struggling, we gain strength not only for that moment but for all the moments that will inevitably challenge us in the future.

A strong mind can only be developed in the crucible of challenging experiences. The recipe of psychological growth that includes grace, truth, and time also involves mental strain and effort. To state it in the positive sense, if we want to get cooking, we’ve got to learn to stand the heat by getting into the kitchen.

Copyright 2014 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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To learn more about making changes that last, check out Jennifer’s newly released book, Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out

 

Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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