The element of control in mental toughness

mental toughness: complete control


Those who have higher levels of mental toughness are better able to deal effectively with challenge, stressors and pressure in life and business, irrespective of the circumstances.

According to research by Professor Peter Clough and colleagues, the core components of mental toughness are control, commitment, challenge and confidence.

This post focuses on control. It explains the concept of control in mental toughness and how to increase your levels of control.

In this context, control in mental toughness can be broken down into two factors – life control and emotional control.

Life control describes the extent to which you believe you can influence what happens to you or shape events around you.

Emotional control is all about managing your emotions. It doesn’t mean suppressing emotions, but rather controlling the effect they have upon you and the the extent to which you reveal what you are feeling to others.

Mental Toughness: life control

If you have high levels of life control:

  • You have a genuine belief that you can do what you set out to do
  • You believe you can make a difference
  • You are happy to take on multiple projects and tasks
  • You are well organised and good at planning
  • You work hard and in a focused way
  • You are undaunted when faced with something you are not familiar
  • You believe you can master most things.

However, if you have lower levels of life control, then you might:

  • Be thrown off track when the unexpected happens
  • Be wary of taking on too much work at once
  • Be inclined to want to work in a fairly linear fashion – finish one thing, then move on to the next
  • Not recognise opportunities as such, and let them pass you by
  • Blame circumstances or other people for lack of progress
  • Lack self-belief
  • Have a fairly narrow vision or limited horizon that only takes in those things that are directly under your control.

The benefits of high levels of life control are therefore pretty self-explanatory. But there are downside risks.

First, unless you are careful, you can take on too much and find yourself spread too thinly across a range of projects.

Second, you can try to be too influential, pushing too hard to shape things the way that you see them and, in the process, upsetting and demotivating team members or collaborators.

Third, you can over-estimate your abilities and take on tasks that are beyond your skillset and better left to those with more specialist expertise.

Mental toughness: emotional control

Emotional control is important because emotions drive your thoughts and your behaviours and are thereby at the root of much of what happens in your life.

The ability to control your emotions means that instead of reacting instinctively to perceived threats or negative events, you can intentionally choose how you respond to those situations.

Unless the threat is a direct physical one, our instinctive reactions are usually not adaptive. We typically over-react, becoming angry, nervous or anxious, often without a full appreciation of the true scale of the problem we need to deal with.

This can lead us into arguments and confrontations, or cause us to avoid or flee from the situation we are facing.

In most cases, such as in a business environment, these reactions are not helpful, which is why it benefits us to increase our capacity to controls our emotions.

If you do have high levels of emotional control, you’ll typically:

  • Only reveal to others the emotions that you want to reveal
  • Control your emotions well
  • Be difficult to annoy
  • Not appear nervous
  • Understand other people’s emotions and respond appropriately.

However, if your levels of emotional control are at the lower end of the spectrum:

  • Everybody knows how you feel
  • You’ll show emotions when challenged
  • You’ll react to things that don’t go your way
  • You’ll be anxious looking
  • You’ll pick up on others’ emotions and be affected by them.

Again, the benefits of increased levels of emotional control are pretty obvious.

In challenging circumstances you can focus on the facts or the problems you are solving, rather than the way you feel about things.

You can also deal more effectively with others, for example in negotiations or situations where you are trying to be persuasive, or when others are themselves failing to exercise emotional control.

But remember, this is not about emotional suppression. When you develop higher levels of emotional control, you become more emotionally literate.

This means you are better able to recognise your emotions as they arise and review them in context. You don’t allow them to overwhelm your rational choices and the reality of the situation. You control the extent to which emotions will be part of your response.

Of course, overdoing emotional control can have its downsides too.

If you never show any emotions, you are likely to struggle to build relationships, people may not warm to you and you may lose the benefits of making connections at a deeper level that are essential in business as well as in your personal life.

The key is for your emotional responses to be appropriate and proportionate and, above all, within your own control.

Complete control

As I’ve described elsewhere, in my view, mental toughness comes from increased mindfulness together with increased intentionality in the way that we approach challenges in life. By improving in these areas you develop the tools you need to improve in any of the particular facets of mental toughness, including those outlined below for improving your levels of control in mental toughness.

How to improve life control

Here are some suggestions to help develop your life control:

  • Try to accept that setbacks are normal part of life, especially when you stretch yourself.
  • Identify the factors you can control and those that you can’t. Focus on the areas in which you really can exert influence and don’t beat yourself up about the areas in which you can’t.
  • Learn form what has gone before. Look at any setbacks and – with the benefit of hindsight – identify what went wrong and what you would now do differently. Take special note of the elements that were outside your control and where you couldn’t have made any difference in any case.
  • Give yourself a break from time to time. Don’t take on too much.
  • Try to collaborate on pieces of work. This way you can share the challenges and will have somebody to discuss the problems with.
  • Keep what you are doing under review. Are you actually trying to achieve the impossible? Are there any other ways to bring about what is required?
  • Try visualisation. This is what top athletes do to prepare for success. Imagine what it looks and feels like to succeed in what you are trying to do. Visualise each step to success in your mind.

How to improve emotional control

Here are some suggestions to help develop your levels of emotional control:

  • Practice meditation for 20 minutes each day.
  • Try relaxation techniques, for example breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Be deliberate about placing your attention on your strengths, skills capabilities and value. Remind yourself about the importance of your role in things.
  • Differentiate between what you can control and what you can’t. Focus on what you can control.
  • Visualise yourself doing the things that you find emotionally challenging. See yourself acting calmly and imagine the feelings of ease and control. Visualise the body language involved, so that you can emulate it in practice.
  • Take time out when you need to so you can gather your thoughts before engaging in a difficult task or conversation. Breathe deeply and put things into perspective.
  • Try distracting yourself from a difficult situation for a short while by doing something you enjoy, such as reading or listening to music.
  • Use mindfulness to tap into your thoughts. Intercept the negative “self talk” before it takes hold, replacing it with a realistic appraisal of the situation and positive self-talk.

Of course all of these suggestions are practices. You need to do them regularly and consistently so that they can help bring about the changes you are looking for.

But if you do so, the result can be a big boost to mental toughness and your ability to perform at your peak.

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