Four Steps to Becoming Mentally Strong

Have you ever seen the TED talk on Becoming Mentally Strong? That talk got me thinking about how mentally strong I’ve become over the past four years of battling my anxiety and depression.

If you suffer from mental illness, you’re already mentally strong to me. Fighting your demons takes guts. Too many people go without treatment because they’re too afraid or ashamed to come forward as a person with a mental illness. Well, I say that’s bullsh*t! But that isn’t what this blog post is about.

This blog post is all about becoming mentally strong. Your mental strength is a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly to stay in shape. These four tips will help you develop your mental strength — and become someone who sees herself as mentally strong, even if you don’t right now.

1. Using Positive Affirmations

The first step to developing mental strength is, ironically, believing that you’re already mentally strong. Repeating positive affirmations sends a message to your brain that yes, you are good enough. Even if you don’t believe them at first, your subconscious will absorb them enough times that eventually, you will start to believe them. Some affirmations I like include:

  • “I have the tools I need to cope.”
  • “I can and I will.”
  • “I am a fierce goddess.”
  • “I am a girlboss.”
  • “I keep my promises to myself.”
  • “I am a badass.”

2. Saying “No” More Often

Protecting your energy is an important part of becoming mentally strong. Your time is the most valuable resource you have; if you aren’t discerning about how much of it you give to others, you won’t have any left over for yourself. That means saying no to commitments and favors you don’t want to do, without feeling shame or remorse.

If you’re a people-pleaser, saying no is hard — but with practice, it becomes easier to choose yourself over pleasing others. In case you need them, here are some handy ways to say no when you don’t want to do something:

  • “I wish I could, but I can’t.”
  • “No, but thank you for asking.”
  • “Sorry, I have other plans!”
  • “I really can’t take on another project right now.”

And, when all else fails, remember the broken record technique from DBT: repeat yourself over and over again until the person listening finally gets the message. An example?

YOUR FRIEND: “Hey, can you help me move next weekend?”

YOU: “Sorry, I can’t.”

THEM: “Are you sure? It would be a huge help.”

YOU: “Sorry, I can’t.”

THEM: “Oh. Okay, then.”

See how being a broken record can be an effective way of communicating your needs? Like saying no, the broken record technique becomes easier with practice, so make sure you use it regularly to protect your valuable time and energy.

3. Challenging Their Negative Thoughts

You can’t be mentally strong when your thoughts are overwhelmingly negative. Even if your actions say you are mentally strong, the constant stream of negative thoughts running through your head will have a subconscious effect on your mood and the way you carry yourself. That’s why mentally strong people know not to believe everything they think. Instead, they practice challenging their negative thoughts with questions like:

  • Is this true? How do I know this is true?
  • How would I cope with this?
  • What are the costs of thinking this way? What are the benefits?
  • Will this matter in five days, five months or five years?
  • What cognitive distortions am I using?

4. Accepting Your Emotions

Finally, you can’t be mentally strong if you’re constantly at war with yourself. You need to accept your feelings, both positive and negative, and make sure you take active steps to cope with them. Radical acceptance is a DBT skill that asks you to unconditionally accept every part of yourself, both positive and negative.

You might also try the DARE technique from Barry McDonagh’s book, which states you should accept and observe your emotions, then run towards them as if you are excited by your negative emotions.

After accepting and generating excitement about your emotions, you’re then free to engage with something else that takes up your full attention. In other words, only after accepting your emotions can you ever move on from them to become mentally strong.

Learning to Be More Assertive

If you or someone you love is having thoughts of ending their life, I encourage you to contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741-741 to chat with the Crisis Text Line.

Disclaimer: I am not a certified mental health professional. My advice is based solely on my experience as a psychiatric patient and my research/personal interest in mental health. Please consult a doctor or therapist for qualified treatment if you suffer from mental illness.

Those of you who follow me on Instagram know I have been taking part in an IOP, or intensive outpatient program, designed to aid in my recovery from depression and anxiety.

I’ve talked a lot about my experience with eating disorders on this blog, which I think is part of the reason my depression has become so bad this winter: I haven’t been sharing as much about this part of my life, even though blogging is a cathartic activity for me. So, I’ve decided to blog about some of the things I’ve learned (and challenges I’ve faced) as a patient in an IOP for mood disorders.

The IOP program I am in uses DBT, or dialectical behavioral therapy, which you can learn more about by clicking here. Even though DBT was originally created to treat people with borderline personality disorder, it’s now used to treat all kinds of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, bulimia and anger management issues.

DBT teaches four main skills to help people recover from mental illness: Goal-Setting and Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotional Regulation and Distress Tolerance. Today’s topic, learning to be more assertive, is something I learned in Interpersonal Effectiveness — basically, a skill that helps you improve your relationships with others, leaving you happier and mentally healthier than before.

So, what is the key to becoming more assertive? If I had to choose one thing to work on, it would be setting healthy boundaries in my relationships with others. In this blog post, I’ll talk about how setting boundaries has helped me become more assertive and how I improved my assertive communication using the DEARMAN and GOAL FAST skills from DBT….

But first, let’s talk about why it’s important to be more assertive in the first place, and how training your assertiveness skills can make you a healthier, happier person, both mentally and in your relationships with others.

Why Assertiveness Matters

Ever been called a people-pleaser or pushover? You may have wondered why those terms are derogatory. After all, what’s wrong with wanting to make other people happy?

Truthfully, nothing is wrong with wanting to please others — except when it gets in the way of your own happiness. What’s NOT okay is lying to others about your wants and needs, or staying quiet when it’s important for you to speak up, because you’re afraid of retaliation from family or friends if you tell them what you really think.

Constantly holding in our true thoughts, feelings and desires isn’t healthy: in fact, it increases stress, depression and anxiety. Living for other people won’t make you happy, and neither will living in fear of creating a conflict. If you want to get what you want in life, you have to ask — and assertiveness is the skill that will help you make your needs heard.

If you’re not an assertive person, you’ve probably already noticed how it has made you unhappy or resentful in the past — but what about the benefits of being more assertive? In order to change, the benefits of being assertive must outweigh the costs…. and they do! Here’s how:

Benefits of Being Assertive

  • Building honest relationships with others. If you’re constantly bending to others’ whims to make them happy, you’re not showing your loved ones who you truly are. You run the risk of becoming codependent, or living your life to make another person happy.
  • Boosting your self-esteem. Constantly giving in to others’ desires, while ignoring our own, sends the message to our brains that what we want doesn’t matter. This is a negative thought I constantly use to have: “I’m not important. What I want doesn’t matter.” But you do matter — and when you start to act like it, you will also start to believe it!
  • Appearing more open to new relationships. When you are passive or aggressive (rather than assertive), you come across as distant and closed-off. However, when you’re assertive and learn to communicate more — and more effectively! — others view you as an open and honest person, which in turn makes them want to build a relationship with you more than they might otherwise.
  • Getting what you want more often. Ever wished that someone would “read your mind” and know what you wanted deep down, without you ever having to say it? This is a passive person’s favorite fantasy for a reason! When you lack the skills to be assertive, you rarely get what you want, because you never ask for it. Alternatively, when you learn to ask for what you want respectfully, rather than demanding in an aggressive style, and to come up with compromises that are pleasing to everyone, you’ll find yourself getting more of what you want far more often.

What is Assertive Communication?

In order to understand how to be assertive, we first need to understand what it means to be assertive — and in order to understand how to be assertive, you need to understand what the alternative styles of communication are.

To make this more fun, below, I’ve explained the four styles of communication — aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive and assertive — with check-boxes beside them, so you can see which communication style you most strongly identify with. Go ahead: copy and paste (or print) and play along!

Passive Communication

__ Failing to express their thoughts or feelings; opinions

__ Allowing others to infringe on their rights (deliberately or not)

__ Speaking softly and apologetically

__ Poor eye contact and slumped posture

__ Often feel anxious, depressed and/or resentful

Aggressive Communication

__ Dominating or humiliating others

__ Low emotional tolerance; high impulsivity

__ Use “you” statements

__ Interrupt frequently

__ May not listen well

__ Overbearing, intimidating and/or alienated from others

Passive-Aggressive Communication

__ Avoid confrontation; have difficulty acknowledging their anger

__ Use sarcasm and/or denial

__ Appear cooperative while doing things to deliberately annoy others

__ Use subtle sabotage to “get even”

__ Remain stuck in a position of powerlessness

Assertive Communication

__ State needs and wants clearly, appropriately and respectfully

__ Use “I” statements

__ Feel relaxed and connected to others

__ Respect others and accept their differences, without the need to control or dominate

__ Confident in themselves and prioritize their needs, wants and rights

Still unsure what type of communicator you are? Take this quiz from Amy Castro to find out!

How to Be More Assertive

So, you know where you’re starting from, and you know where you’d like to be — now what? You may not be communicating assertively now, but assertiveness is, thankfully, a skill that can be developed over time. All it takes is a little bit of practice!

Here are some exercises to try that will help you develop your assertiveness. And always remember: if your communication style is causing significant distress or problems in your life or your relationship, there’s no shame in seeking help from a qualified therapist or counselor in your area.

  1. Develop self-awareness. The first step to communicating assertively is developing self-confidence — believing that you deserve to be heard! Assessing your strengths and developing self-awareness can help. Try this Personal Strengths Inventory and/or Values Questionnaire to get a better sense of who you are and what you feel is worth standing up for (and being assertive about!).
  2. Use “I” statements. When communicating, do you focus on blaming or accusing others of what they’ve done wrong? Do you read others’ minds and put words into their mouths? These types of statements often take the form of “you” statements — i.e. “you made me do this!” or “you didn’t ask me how I felt.” Instead, shift your perspective and try phrasing statements using “I” — as in, “I felt sad when you chose work over me” or “I felt angry when you yelled at our child.” These types of statements encourage you to take ownership of your thoughts and feelings, rather than affixing blame to others.
  3. Try the “broken record” technique. One technique I learned in DBT during our interpersonal effectiveness training is to be a broken record. This is especially helpful if you’re someone who has difficulty saying no or voicing their opinions. Decide what you want to say in advance, phrase it as a simple statement — such as “I can’t take on any more work right now” — and repeat it until the person you’re speaking to gets the message. To see how this works IRL, a sample conversation can be found on this page.
  4. Notice how you respond to feedback. Feedback, whether positive or negative, can teach us a lot about ourselves and how we relate to the world — and so can how we respond to it. For example, if you’re someone who doesn’t take a compliment well, you may struggle with low self-esteem and possess a passive communication style. Or, if you’re someone who’s resistant to criticism, you may be passive-aggressive or aggressive, and may also suffer from self-doubt. Next time you receive feedback, good or bad, try filling out this Feedback Matrix worksheet from Mindtools — it will help you process your feedback in a healthier way, and determine whether your gut reaction is conducive to an assertive communication style.