7 lessons about mental strength I learned from being a therapist

amy morin psychotherapist
Amy Morin.
  • Amy Morin is a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, mental strength coach, and international bestselling author.
  • In her years working as a mental health professional, Morin says her understanding of what mental strength is has evolved, and adds that most people have misconceptions when it comes to mental strength.
  • It's very possible to be mentally strong in one area of your life but not in another, Morin explains, and says that mental strength should be treated like a muscle that needs to be regularly exercised.
  • If you're struggling, call the SAMHSA National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
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College taught me about mental health. But my experiences as a therapist are what taught me about mental strength.

In school, I learned how to diagnose anxiety disorders, when to describe someone as having a "flat affect," and how to use behavior therapy to interrupt patterns that reinforce depression.

But it was through my work with real people in my therapy office that I learned what it means to be strong. Some of the mentally strongest people I've ever met were battling mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. Despite their struggles, they worked hard on strategies that could help them feel better — a true hallmark of strength.

I've learned a lot from people like that. Here are seven lessons I learned about mental strength from being a therapist:

1. Most people misunderstand what it means to be "strong"

Quite often, people said things like, "I'm getting stronger. I didn't cry as much this week." But strength isn't measured by the number of tears you shed.

After all, it often takes more courage to express your emotions than it does to hide them. Suppressing your emotions is more about acting tough, not actually being strong. Mental strength is about acknowledging your emotions, expressing them, and coping with them in healthy ways.

2. No one is born with mental strength

Sometimes, people assume strong individuals are just "cut from a different cloth." But the truth is, no one is born strong. Everyone has the ability to develop mental muscle — just like everyone can build physical muscle.

I've seen people from all walks of life and at all different stages in their journeys build mental strength. It's all about the choices you make every day, like facing your fears and practicing gratitude.

3. Mental muscles need ongoing exercise or they'll get weak

Sometimes, people say things like, "I don't need to worry about my mental strength. I'm already strong enough." But that's just like saying, "I don't ever need to go to the gym again. I'm strong enough." We accept that physical muscles atrophy. But for some reason, people often assume their mental muscles don't need to be challenged.

But, if you don't work out your mental muscles, your brain gets a little lazy. It'll take unhealthy shortcuts when you're making decisions. Or your uncomfortable emotions will tempt you to reach for instant gratification rather than practice self-discipline. You need to practice mental strength exercises every day to keep a healthy mindset that prevents you from sliding into unhealthy habits.

4. Kids have the ability to develop incredible mental strength

It's tempting to shield kids from pain. But tough experiences can be some of life's greatest teachers. And when kids receive the right balance of support and freedom, they develop confidence in their ability to tackle challenges.

So rather than let them grow up thinking they need to be rescued because they're fragile, teach them how to build mental strength. Kids can be incredibly strong — I've seen it in my therapy office as well as with my foster children — if we give them the exercises to practice.

5. You can be strong in one area of your life and not another

How many times have we heard about an incredibly self-disciplined athlete who has an addiction? It happens. You might possess mental strength in certain areas of your life, but struggle with others.

Perhaps you don't mind giving a speech in front of a room full of people, but the thought of asking someone on a date makes you weak in the knees. Or maybe you manage most of your emotions really well — except anger.

It's important to recognize that no one is completely mentally strong. We all have areas in our lives that could benefit from improvement.

6. Environment plays a big role in strength

You can't be the strongest and best version of yourself when you're in a toxic environment. An unhealthy relationship, a toxic workplace, or even an overly cluttered chaotic space can drain you of the mental strength you need to be your best.

If you're in a position where you have to waste a lot of energy resisting temptations or managing your stress, you won't have much brain power leftover to build mental strength. On the other hand, a supportive, healthy environment can help you thrive.

7. You can't measure someone else's strength by looking at them

You might look at someone who works out at the gym every day and think, "Clearly, that person has mental strength." But in reality, that person might be pushing their body to the limit because they're filled with self-loathing, not self-love.

You never know what internal battles someone is fighting. That person who speaks up in a meeting in front of five people might be mustering up more courage than the person delivering a speech in front of 5,000.

So you can't always tell how strong someone is based on what you see on the outside. You never know what is going on in their minds. 

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