What does it mean to be strong? In the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the three top definitions of the word are:

  1. Having or marked by great physical power
  2. Having moral or intellectual power
  3. Having great resources (as wealth or talent)

My definition of being strong tries to encapsulate all three: a strong person has  great capability at facing challenges. Being strong means having the resources, the mental skills, and the physical capabilities to confront difficulties of all kinds. When you are strong, you have an ample excess of energy and stamina, so that when facing a challenge that depletes you of energy and inner strength, you still have enough left in you to act.

Some initial things to think about when starting to build inner strength:

1. Strength is the opposite of aggression: People act aggressively out of defense. When one feels like they are not strong enough to resolve a situation, violence and aggression come in handy as a means to deter and fend off others, thus avoiding real confrontation of a conflict. Think about people you know and consider to be strong. Strong individuals do not need to act aggressively because they feel that they have the power and skills to take over the details of a situation and bring it to a close. Aggression is a means of covering weakness.

2. Mental and physical strength cannot be separated: You can be the most psychologically resilient individual and  break down mentally if you lose a few days of sleep. Physical and mental strength work in synergy and feed each other to form a strong individual, and the opposite is also true: being physically inactive and out of shape can make one sink down and vice versa. Several recent studies have shown that physical exercise is an effective way for treating clinical depression (see reference to Dunn et al below), and the medical community is now starting to treat stress from both physical and mental perspectives. To build inner strength you must build both physical endurance and mental muscle.

3. The first step is identifying your natural strengths: All of us are born with unique capabilities and skills, and the way to build one’s strength is to focus on these specific skills and grow them. Some people run fast, others are flexible, some can lift significant weight. When it comes to mental muscle, there has been significant work done in the past decade on identifying natural strengths. Most notable is the work of Chris Peterson at the University of Michigan, together with Martin Seligman of UPenn, the founder of the positive psychology movement. You can find out your natural strengths at the VIA Institute’s website, and learn more about Character Strengths and Virtues in Peterson and Seligman’s excellent and thorough book. First identify what your natural strengths are, and then start working to enhance them further. Don’t focus on what you know you are just not good at.

4. Mental strength is harder to track: It’s easy to notice changes in physical strength: weight is lost, muscles are toned, and breathing becomes easier after running a short distance. It’s much harder to notice differences in mental strength, and sometimes it simply helps to take notes: have you been losing your temper less often? Are you noticing a change in the way people respond to you? How do you feel when you open your eyes in the morning?

Building inner strength is a lifelong task. If done right, not only will it pay off when difficulty arises, it will become habit, and eventually a part of your identity. Be strong!

Next: Step 2: Be Present

Dunn et. al, “Exercise Treatment for Depression: Efficacy and Dose Response,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine Vol. 28, issue 1, pp.1-8, Jan. 2005