mentally strong man stretches by the ocean

The Work Of Changing: Building Mental Toughness in Sobriety & Beyond

I used to be a runner. By most metrics, I was above average. Good, even. There was a problem though.

In practice I showed signs of someone with the potential to be a GREAT runner. I frequently recorded split times that would’ve challenged some of the top runners in the region.

So why wasn’t I a GREAT runner?

Because every time I had a race, I choked. With comical consistency, I’d get in my own head by the first mile marker and one by one get passed by slower runners until I was ten or more positions back from the lead.

This frustrated everyone invested in my running – my parents, my teammates, and especially my coach. He thought I was a wimp. I could see him on the sidelines trying desperately to transfer some of the passion and confidence he had in my ability onto me.

Toughen up! Push! You can do this!

But I never did. I didn’t know how. Of course, I wanted to match my practice speed in races, but my head would start spinning a mile a minute. My legs would feel like lead. There’s was a constant refrain blaring between my ears, “You can’t do this. You’re not good enough.”

And so that’s how it was.

woman with mental toughness running on road
developing mental toughness


Mental Toughness, Grit, & Addiction

Some version of my running failures would play itself out in nearly every aspect of my life for the next twenty years.

Eventually, I sought refuge in alcohol. I’d spend an entire decade getting drunk in an effort to escape myself.

It took nearly four years of failed sobriety attempts, relapse, and mental health diagnoses to get to long term sobriety. I don’t take any of it for granted.

But sobriety is not the end-all-be-all. Getting there can feel like a Sisyphean task. Imagine the shock when you realize that quitting drinking was actually the easy part.

Related Post: How To Bounce Back After A Relapse


Addiction Transference

After the initial high of sobriety passes, you realize that you’re old buddies – self-doubt, depression, worthlessness – all come with you.

Oh, look! The gang’s all here!

After my daughter was born and life returned to some semblance of normalcy, I noticed something going on with me.

I was putting on weight and emotionally eating.

Woman binge eats mcdonald's fries
mental toughness and emotional eating

If I felt stressed out, I impulsively ordered expensive, greasy takeout. There were days when it was not uncommon for me to drink 4-5 cans of Diet Pepsi. I felt this strong internal pull, to eat or drink until whatever urge inside of me was satiated.

And then I’d feel horrible about it, physically and emotionally.

It’s exactly what I did with alcohol, except now it was food and (fake) sugary drinks. That all familiar compulsion was still there. It’s the feeling of a desperate emptiness that needs filled.

For the first time since my drinking days, I felt completely out of control.

Then the spiral.

Wherever You Go, You Bring Yourself With You

I’ve noticed in the last six months that familiar themes are emerging. I start things I don’t finish. Not always, but enough that it raises an eyebrow.

Not this again.

Workout regimens fall by the wayside. A journal entry gets skipped a few days during the week. That meditation session is pushed back to the next morning.

It’s the crack in the routine that allows for all those feelings of failure to come crawling out.

You have two choices when faced with this kind of backwards slide. You can accept it, let the eating get worse, become disconnected from your goals, maybe even drink again. Or you can feel grateful that you caught it in time and actively work against it. I’m choosing the latter.

The stakes are too high not to.

Learning Mental Toughness & Grit in Sobriety

I’ve often said that complacency is the killer of sobriety. When I’m actively moving towards a bigger goal and hitting the smaller benchmarks, my emotional and physical health is good. I rebound from bad days quickly. I’m happier.

The opposite is also true.

If I get complacent and fall into lazier routines that don’t challenge me or require much effort, I become lethargic. My mental health takes a plunge and I find myself catching colds more easily and wanting to nap all the time.

The challenge becomes twofold:

  • How do I cultivate a habit of consistency?
  • How do I combat old beliefs that I’m a quitter?

To find these answers, I’m referring to the experts and going to show you how I’m applying these strategies to my daily life and sobriety.

How To Be Mentally Tough According To James Clear

If you haven’t read Atomic Habits by James Clear, run out to your nearest bookstore or order online today. It will change your life.

James Clear has become the “habits guru” to millions of people, myself included. And it just so happens that the key to mental fitness is developing and consistently maintaining good habits.

He sites the work of Angela Duckworth, author of the tremendously insightful Grit: The Power Of Passion and Perseverance, to identify what makes some people succeed where most others fail.

It’s not physical strength, talent, or intelligence. It’s grit.

Great! But how do we become more gritty?

The same way we become better at anything. Practice.

Flexing Your Grit Muscle

mentally tough woman stretches before working out
mental fitness

Clear says that in order to have more grit, you need to work on your consistency. Gritty people don’t skip workouts, or fail to meet a daily goal, nor do they shirk responsibilities. They show up for themselves every single day, even when it sucks.

That second part is where I fall short more times than not.

I can remember to do my workout and my journal entry on days when I’ve gotten enough sleep and the morning hasn’t thrown me a curveball. It’s the days when I’ve been up with my daughter in the middle of the night or have an early appointment to get to that I consistently drop the ball.

How do I (we) stop that?

According to Clear, the key lies in small, physical wins. He writes:

“Choose to do the tenth rep when it would be easier to just do nine. Choose to create when it would be easier to consume. Choose to ask the extra question when it would be easier to accept. Prove to yourself — in a thousand tiny ways — that you have enough guts to get in the ring and do battle with life.

Mental toughness is built through small wins. It’s the individual choices that we make on a daily basis that build our “mental toughness muscle.” We all want mental strength, but you can’t think your way to it. It’s your physical actions that prove your mental fortitude.”

For me, small physical wins look like doing a five-minute yoga or barre routine instead of skipping it altogether. Or setting a bedtime for myself that is non-negotiable so that I can get up early enough to make sure my routine is completed before anything can get in the way.

It’s the accumulation of small wins done consistently over a period of time that changes the internal narrative inside of your brain.

Oh hey, I CAN do this! I’m not a loser.

The key is SMALL. Set yourself up for success.

This is where I’ve routinely fallen short. I try to take on too much at once which leads to major crash and burn, which makes me miserable. I’m impatient. I want to be and feel different NOW, not a month from now.

And when I fail? It piles onto an already toxic narrative in my head.

But here’s the thing.

Crash diets don’t work. Neither do bold “I’m going to fix everything at once” lifestyle changes. Our brains aren’t wired to handle that much at once (usually). If you want a change to stick, you have to give it time to become second nature.

I’m learning.

Breaking Down Negative Belief Systems

Amy Morin is a psychotherapist who wrote an interesting piece in Inc that discusses her findings from over 15 years of studying mentally strong individuals.

To develop mental strength, you need to do more than develop good habits, she argues. You simultaneously have to tear down old, bad ones. (Easier said than done, I know).

In order to break those bad habits, you have to attack the core beliefs that drive them. She identifies three types of core beliefs that she says “make people less effective and rob them of mental strength.”

  • Unhealthy beliefs about themselves
  • Unhealthy beliefs about others
  • Unhealthy beliefs about the world

At my lowest point, I suffered gravely from all three. I thought the world was out to get me and that people were inherently flaky and replaceable. My expectation was that everyone would to let me down. (They usually did, but in most cases, I had it coming.)

The world was a big scary place where people like me didn’t make it. Every time I “tried” I failed, so there was something in the cosmos that had it out for me. Never mind the fact that my so-called efforts were tepid at best. It wasn’t ME, it was the world.

Which inspired a dozen different beliefs about just how awful of a person I was. I smothered myself in victimhood.

I’ve eradicated the beliefs about the world and others, but still wrestle with beliefs about myself. I keep bumping up against self-imposed limitations and pity parties. So that’s where my focus is currently.

How do you change these negative beliefs? 

According to Morin, Clear, and others, you prove yourself wrong. You set a goal, stick to it, and achieve it. Every small win is a gut punch to the part of you that believes you’re shit.

Accumulate enough wins and your identity begins to shift from one of “loser” to “winner.”

When I got sober, I noticed after awhile that my confidence level was much higher than it had ever been. My ability to wake up every day and not drink changed the way I thought about myself.

I WASN’T a pathetic drunk after all. Who knew? That effect began to snowball. If I can do that, then maybe I can learn how to build a website. And then if I can do THAT, maybe I can learn how market effectively and design.

Sometimes all you need to get started with a transformation is one, small win that says, “Hey, you can do this.”

Mental Strength Takes Maintenance

Unfortunately, breaking down one bad habit and achieving a particular goal doesn’t mean it will go as smoothly every time.

There are things I have been able to push through and keep going, namely every single frustration I’ve experienced trying to understand web design as a recovering technophobe.

But there are other things – emotional eating, binging on soda – that haven’t come nearly as easily. In fact, it feels like booze and cigarettes all over again.

What HAS stuck is my attitude about it.

I’m not a victim, nor am I defined by my struggle to get the food thing right. It’s just the mountain I’m currently climbing.

My mental strength wins have taken me a LONG way from the person I used to be, but there’s more work to be done. When I catch myself in these crossroads moments, I force myself to go back to the beginning.

If you let something get away from you long enough, you’ll notice that your emotions take over how you handle it. Getting back to basics allows you to give logic and reason their voice.

The Basics of Mental Toughness

mentally strong man stretches by the ocean
mentally strong

I’m a pen and paper gal, and this is the point where I get to work. Something I consistently read from neuroscientists, psychologists, and therapists is that you can’t “think” your way out of bad habits and lifestyles.

You have to plan. Then you have to DO.

James Clear stresses how it comes down to consistency and daily practice. He says, “It’s about doing the things you know you’re supposed to do on a more consistent basis. It’s about your dedication to daily practice and your ability to stick to a schedule.”

Before you can do any of that, you have to define what your schedule and daily practice is going to consist of. Ask yourself some questions. I’ll use binge eating as an example following James Clear’s formula.

1. Decide who you want to be.

I want to be someone who eats healthy foods and doesn’t use unhealthy food as a way to handle difficult emotions. 

2. Identify a small win to help you get there. 

For breakfast every day, I will opt for a healthy fruit smoothie with almond milk and spinach.

3. Develop a routine to help you stick to the plan, even if you don’t feel like it. 

I’ll set a reminder on my phone for 7 AM every morning to make my smoothie. I can prep the ingredients in freezer bags so all I have to do is dump it in the blender and go. 

4. Stick to the schedule and don’t worry about the results. 

I’m going to put a sticker on my calendar every day I have my smoothie and I’m going to keep away from the scales for now. If I have to do something early in the morning, I will wake up five minutes earlier to make sure the smoothie gets made. No excuses. 

5. If you make a mistake, get back on schedule ASAP.

If I miss a smoothie, I’ll have it for lunch. 

Note: The above plan doesn’t deal with the emotional aspect of my eating. That is a separate issue that needs to be dealt with differently. This is just one example that is easy to follow and replicate.

Keep Going!

The most important thing is that you take action. You DO something to make a change.

It is so easy to get stuck inside your head. But thinking about or even reading about a problem for hours on end isn’t going to cut it. You have to convert those thoughts and knowledge into actionable steps that will lead you towards your goal.

I know that sounds obvious, but a lot of people don’t get to the actionable part. They try to tough it out internally. It doesn’t work.

Even though my sobriety is strong, I still struggle.

If you haven’t noticed, I’m right here in the trenches with you all.

Maybe my poison isn’t alcohol or cigarettes anymore, but I’m still dealing with my “stuff” and trying to break the bad habits that have formed as a result.

I have weeks where I succeed followed by a failure that forces me to start over.

And I’m okay with it.

This is part of the process. You fall down, and you get back up. I’m telling you this because I want you to know that if you feel like you’re struggling, it’s okay.

We all feel that way. None of us has it 100% together.

But you keep trying. You look for ways to get it right, and when you do, you move on to the next thing.

woman rock climbs behind title how to develop mental toughness in life and sobriety
developing mental toughness in sobriety



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One Comment

  1. My dad always tried to fight his drinking problem with thinking, and he needed to take action. He was always buying books, but never could get to a meeting, or call someone for help.


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