A few months after my husband died, an older woman who had lost her husband a few years before sat me down to talk. She said, “I know it’s tough. But over time, you’ll notice you’re crying less. That’s good. It means you’re getting stronger.” For a split second, I thought, “Oh, that makes sense.” Then, I remembered that’s actually not true.
I was a therapist. I knew feeling and expressing emotions isn’t a sign of weakness. But for a moment, what she said sounded good. After all, when we’re struggling with something, we’ll do almost anything to find tangible evidence that we’re on track or that we’re healing and growing stronger. And “not crying” was something I could measure.
But, the truth is, crying isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, when you fight back tears, you’re just acting tough, not being strong. It takes strength to embrace an uncomfortable emotion like sadness and to express it—especially if you’re expressing it to someone else.
There are several big misconceptions about mental strength that hold people back and keep them stuck in a place of pain. As a therapist, I wish more people understood these truths about mental strength.
1. There Are 3 Parts to Mental Strength
Mental strength isn’t about suppressing your emotions or insisting you don’t feel any pain. Instead, it’s about improving yourself—and acknowledging the struggles along the way.
- Thoughts: The first part to mental strength involves your thoughts. Everyone has unhelpful thoughts sometimes. Self-doubt, catastrophic predictions, and wishful thinking can drag you down. Building mental strength involves responding to unhelpful thoughts in a healthy way.
- Feelings: Mental strength allows you to experience a vast array of emotions, including the uncomfortable ones. It also helps you regulate your emotions and express them in a healthy way.
- Actions: Whether you’re getting rid of a bad habit or you’re developing a healthier routine, mental strength involves taking positive action to improve your life.
2. Struggles Mean You’re Growing—Not Weak
Whether you’re growing physical muscle or mental muscle, you need tension to grow stronger. Lifting weights helps you develop bigger physical muscles. Experiencing uncomfortable emotionsand doing hard things helps you develop bigger mental muscles.
But so often, people think their struggles indicate that they’re weak. They worry that uncomfortable emotions, unhealthy habits, or negative thoughts means they can’t possibly be strong. But it’s the struggle to change those things that helps us grow stronger.
3. Asking for Help Isn’t a Sign of Weakness
It’s tough to ask for help. It’s especially tough to ask for help when you’re struggling with mental health. Your depression might try to convince you there’s no sense in talking to someone because it won’t work. Or your anxiety might try to tell you that you can’t handle opening up to someone.
Sometimes, there’s the assumption that seeing a therapist means you’re “broken” or that you have serious issues. But the truth is, addressing your mental health means you want to take care of yourself—a sure sign of strength.
4. Mental Health Isn’t the Same Thing as Mental Strength
Quite often, people say things to me like, “I have depression so I can’t be mentally strong,” or “I need mental strength so I won’t feel anxious.” But, a mental health issue doesn’t mean you aren’t mentally strong.
In fact, as a therapist, some of the strongest people I’ve ever met were dealing with mental health issues. It’s similar to the way physical health is different from physical strength. You could be physically strong and still have diabetes. Big muscles can help you stay healthy, but they won’t prevent all health problems.
Similarly, you might still develop a mental health problem, like depression, even though you have big mental muscles.
5. Everyone Can Build Mental Strength
No one is born mentally strong. But everyone can choose to build mental muscle. It’s all about the choices you make every day. Building mental strength is an ongoing process. If you don’t keep working on it, your mental muscles atrophy the same way your physical muscles do.
There are many different ways to build mental strength. Similar to the way you can create a physical strength building routine, you can also build a mental strength building routine.
There are many things you can do to keep learning and keep growing. If you want support along the way to grow mentally stronger, check out The Verywell Mind Podcast. If you want some one-on-one support, reach out to a therapist for guidance along the way.