On Monday morning at Forbes.com the most popular post was the recounting of an earlier post from LifeHack. "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do" currently enumerates, on Monday evening, over a quarter of a million views and counting. I myself in fact first heard about it Friday morning when I was de-facto invited to comment on a LinkedIn posting reviewing the points.

Despite the widespread appeal of the message, I can't help but wonder: says who and based on what? How do we actually know what so-called mentally tough people (whomever that is and whatever the standard is) do? There isn't a shred of psychological research referenced. It appears to be an opinion grounded in the rapidly deteriorating cases for positive thinking and intellect's superiority over emotion. Sure there are a few valuable truisms like "don't give up" but the undercurrent of stoicism running through the list is as likely to harm as to help.

Take the reader who is feeling any form of "bad" over a challenging economic situation. What's the net effect? Does the idea that they are weak if they can't always suck it up make them feel better about themselves? Does it make them feel more like they can go out and create a new economic opportunity? I actually suspect that deep-down, this list makes them feel more inadequate - or in other words, weaker. 

Frankly, that makes me mad because I think it is harmful. I think way too many people are sold the idea of toughness only to have their actions and their health unconsciously influenced by the mis-handling of their real emotion.

Take the recent UCLA study on handling fear. It showed unequivocally that verbalizing one's fears helped one behave in a less fearful way. Subjects who employed the strategies in "mentally tough" behaved notably worse in dealing with their arachnophobia than those who used the ostensible wimp's way out. What gives? More and more research is showing that our emotions, in their pure form, are meant to inform us. As this tarantula study showed, it's entirely possible to feel the fear and do it anyway. I don't know the source of that phrase but it is commonly used as the definition of courage.

Emotions have energy and information. Our brains depend on the information and our bodies on the energy. The problem isn't the negative ones but how the pattern of routinely overcoming feelings only leads to distorted actions, requests for medication and somatizing.

Take the simple example of not spending any time on being upset over lost luggage. You can walk out and say "I will live with the clothes I am wearing and buy a new toothbrush" or instead, maybe discussing the delay with the airline turns into a feeling of self-affirmation and a likelihood of an earlier reunion with our belongings.

Often there is truth within the kernel of anger or fear - truth than can benefit us if we analyze and understand it properly. When we attempt to intellectually steam-roll it, we not only don't honor our innate strength and sensibility, we actually weaken position by acting from intellect only. Passionate belief and desire are often noted as valuable attributes in success. But can you consistently set your emotion aside and be passionate at the same time?

Last, the logic in the sequence of 7) [Don't] dwell in the past and 8] [Don't] make the same mistake over and over strikes me as convoluted. Now maybe I am misunderstanding the usage of the word  "dwell" but I don't see any way to accomplish number eight without doing at least some amount of what is rebuked in number seven. At what point does reflection, grappling and acceptance become "dwell"? How do we not repeat our mistakes unless we spend time analyzing and reconciling them?

I clearly see that the post inspires people to say "yeah, I want to be like THAT". What I don't get is with the avalanche of research showing the value of emotional awareness, the benefit to negative emotions and even the destructive power of postive thinking, these kinds of insidiously critical admonitions to toughen up aren't rejected instead of embraced. 

About the Author

Denise K. Shull, M.A.

Denise Shull is the author of Market Mind Games, a game-changer in how we think about anything that seems risky.

You are reading

Market Mind Games

The Errors in "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do"

Just because it's popular doesn't make it true.

The Real Psychology of Stock Market Highs

Don't let the experts fool you

A New Year - a New View of the Mind

Cutting edge brain science reveals we don't yet get it, how we think that is.