Building Mental Muscle

I listened to a really insightful Asian Boss Girl podcast episode (no. 44) where Christine Chen was interviewed about mental health. The episode discussed building resilience and how we can build our mental muscles. Which got me thinking: can it really be done?


I suppose everything is about perspective. One quote that I thought was quite beautiful was: “Instead of looking for calm waters, learn to ride the waves.” Beautiful. I guess it’s a nicer way to say: don’t run away from, or ignore, your problems. To sit with it, and deal with it.

I suppose, of course, it really does depend how choppy the waters are. If you are drowning, you have to try and catch a breath and rest; whilst if you’re treading water or paddling then it doesn’t seem so bad a situation. Everyone has their own threshold – a paddling pool to someone may look like stormy seas to another. Of course, this is being applied to safe situations.

When sitting with your situation and when decisions need to be made, Chen advised to “Choose love, not fear; to make decisions from love not fear.” This I do not do. I have made many a decision out of fear! Fear of not being able to pay rent so I accept the first job offer made. Fear of missing out so I (used to) attend all social gatherings instead of resting up at home (pre-Covid of course). Fear of looking like an imposter so I work extra hard putting in long hours when fresh eyes can really save the day.

But since pandemic and lockdown I’ve begun to see, and maybe agree with, this way of thinking. How I should buy a property that I love and not the first ok property out of fear of missing out on the current stamp duty holiday. How I should see people that I would love to see and not out of fear of obligation or missing out.

Another saying that caught my attention was: “Life happens for me, not to me.” I interpreted that as being more active in making life decisions, instead of passively letting things happen and run their course. A little difficult now with the pandemic where I’ve seen people waiting to get married.

I suppose it is all about perspective when applying this logic. Like practising gratitude: thinking “I get to apply to a job” instead of “I have to apply to a job”, or thinking “I get to go to work” instead of “I have to go to work.” Little things, like changing one word in a sentence, can start to change your perspective to build your mental muscle.


Of course, it’s not always easy. The podcast episode talked about imposter syndrome, something I’ve had on and off for years, though many colleagues and ex-colleagues would probably not believe that. Chen talked about anxiety and mood being by-products of imposter syndrome.

How you can feel not good enough, for example at work, and how it seems like everyone else is doing well. But in reality we don’t know what they’re going through or if they have their own struggles. No one wants to talk about the struggle they’re going through to get to where they are.

People don’t like to be vulnerable or display weakness. Everyone portrays their “best self” on social media. But that one snapshot is just their front cover, and we don’t know what’s actually inside the book.

If you feel you’re not good enough that’s because no one talks about it and that can make you feel like you don’t belong. Hearing that no one else has their stuff together – that’s just life.” And I totally agree with Chen. As children, we think adults have everything figured out, that adults know what to do. In reality, as an adult, I don’t know what I’m doing. And I know I’m not the only one. And that’s ok.

Be your own cheerleader not a critic

How can you show up as your most authentic self: by showing vulnerability. If you practice talking to yourself with no self judgement and no self criticism then you can build that mental muscle even more.

Chen discusses in the podcast episode that we are conditioned in life to be our own self critic – we’re programmed to think this way. She advised that to build your mental muscle, when having conversations with yourself, substitute someone else and continue to have that conversation. Chances are, that someone else is kinder to you than you are to yourself.

And where does that inner critic come from? Maybe family, friends, teachers, colleagues have thought a certain way, even if well intentioned, and then you follow that thinking too. But if that is where the inner critic has come from, those people have only seen your front cover or a few chapters, not your whole book.

Self awareness and interpretation

Chen advised to “Be unforgiving for the things you need – set up boundaries. But with boundaries, if you don’t know yourself and don’t know how to define them then how can you let others know.” It also helps to be aware of your thoughts and mood.

A brilliant technique they discussed was to think about a negative thought you had. Then think about what happened that caused this thought and then how you interpreted that event. Then flip it. What is the opposite interpretation and think of a time that the opposite interpretation was true. This is an active way to think differently. Understand and accept that there are different ways of looking at things.

A lot of times where things trigger you, it’s not about that person or thing, it’s about you and how you’re interpreting it. I have definitely done this in the past. When I thought someone was being mean by not inviting me to something, it just turned out they forgot I was away. It’s an actual thing, Hanlon’s razor: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Of course, the other way round is also possible: even salt can look like sugar.

If you are able to identify that you’re feeling a certain way, it’s a symptom, so then think back to why or when you’re in a bad mood. Then use tools to get yourself in a better place. Unroot the cause. Maybe as a child I used to be left out of things, so as an adult it brings up bad thoughts and puts me in a bad mood. Then flip it: I’ve been invited to so many things as an adult.

The podcast episode discussed talking about things and not internalising. That we have a self responsibility to be in charge of our own happiness. How we show up as our best self is how we show up for the world and people around us and how others show up too.

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