When the word toughness gets thrown around, we often imagine someone who is stoic, who can withstand enormous amounts of pain without displaying any signs of weakness. We think of the athlete playing through injury. The person who’s been beaten down by life but continues to press on toward their goals.
Overcoming; pushing through; accepting the grind. That’s the image that most of us see when we think of toughness.
Seldom do we think of emotions. And if we do, it’s in not showing any.
Yet, in writing Do Hard Things, I found the opposite is true. Research continuously shows that emotional control is linked to not only toughness but also behaviors that we associate with being tough, such as tolerance of pain.
But when we think of emotional control, most of us think about it wrong.
We tend to think it’s the capacity to ignore or push away our emotions. To remain stoic and strong in the face of stress or threat. But emotional control is far more than that. It is a process involving monitoring, evaluating, and modifying our reactions.
Emotions and feelings aren’t something to hide away from, even on the athletic field. They are feedback that your body is providing. We can utilize that information to help make a better decision. Think about the sensation of pain or effort during a running race. While often thought of as a negative, it’s actually acting like a car dashboard, telling you how hard the engine is working and how much gas you have left.
That’s where evaluation comes into play. Like a driver or a pilot, we have to evaluate the feedback coming our way. Is it trust worthy? Is this really a dangerous scenario or is just our natural ‘alarm’ being overly cautious? Can we make it to our destination before running out of fuel? Monitoring, understanding, and evaluating feelings is not a liability, it’s an asset. And it’s an ability that can be trained.
And finally, there’s our response, or ability to modify our emotions. This is the point where we engage the all-too-familiar solution: ignore or push through. This is a tactic that’s akin to insisting that the only tool in our toolbox should be a hammer. Ignoring or forcing our way through might be helpful in some situations, but it shouldn’t be your only tool. Modifying emotions, and more importantly your response to them, involves creating the space to do so. To make sure that you don’t jump from feeling pain or stress to an alarm like reaction. When you can create space, it allows you to have a say in whether you respond, ignore, or let the feeling float away.
Emotional control is a key part of actual toughness. For example, when I compared high and low performers among college and professional runners, the better performers scored much higher on emotional control. It wasn’t because they ignored or pushed their emotions away. The faster runners were better able to listen to their bodies, evaluate what it was saying, and then respond appropriately. In other words, they leaned into their emotions.
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