Our product picks are editor-tested, expert-approved. We may earn a commission through links on our site.
How Mentally Fit Are You?
Master these three skills to get your mind in its best shape ever.
May 25, 2022
YOU'VE SHATTERED your cardio PRs, dragged a rake over your abs, and biohacked every move from sexy time to slumber. But how do you become more mentally fit? How do you become the man you want to be on the inside, too? The guy who can power through a breakup, disappoint a partner or friend without shame-spiraling, and get what he needs from an infantile coworker without snapping like an angry parent.
That’s where mental fitness comes in. The hard-to-grasp, often awkward, and sometimes painful work that you can’t track with an app. Spending time on a hearty mental-fitness practice can create more long-term benefits for your mind and life than virtually anything else you do. And no, meditation isn’t required.
We asked dozens of experts who train people to be mentally fit or study mental health for a living what it takes to forge mental fitness, and they all came back to three things: emotional intelligence, vulnerability, and resilience. Working on each of these pillars, using the strategies here, gets you the mental equivalent of what strength, cardio, and mobility training do for your body. “These are the reps men need now,” says MH mental-health advisor Drew Ramsey, M.D. “Once you get a grasp on these three pillars, you’ll see life-changing results in yourself and how you relate to others.” They’re what let you connect, adapt, and really show up for life.
The skill of emotional intelligence is simply the ability to recognize your feelings and understand how you’re responding to them—and do it without judging yourself, says psychologist Susan David, Ph.D., a Harvard Medical School lecturer and the author of Emotional Agility. Ever stared at passing clouds or observed an army of ants hustling around in the dirt? It’s like that but with your feelings. Emotional intelligence is also known as EQ, or “emotional quotient”—like an IQ for stuff that’s harder to measure.
At its best, EQ might look like this: Over dinner, your partner makes a remark about wanting to grab your “love handles.” They were trying to be playful, but in an awkward nanosecond, you notice that your body is tingling; you know that means you’re feeling ashamed, which makes you angry. You understand it’s because you were fat-shamed by your dad as a kid. You also remember that your partner has similar issues and might be projecting their shame onto you. Having speed-processed the data, you calmly explain your feelings. They apologize, confide what you’d suspected, and vow to be more conscientious. Later, you make love so meaningful it should have its own Spotify playlist.
Same scenario, minus the EQ? Partner makes remark. You go silent, stomp away, tell them it’s rude to deliver a low blow, especially since you never say a peep about their cankles. They cry. You feel like a dick. No one apologizes. You sleep on the sofa, go a month without sex, and never talk about it—until the next flare-up.
Notice how it starts with paying attention to what’s going on and accepting that your feelings aren’t good or bad. Feelings just help us make sense of the world, explains David. Building EQ helps you relate to others better; you develop empathy, the ability to listen to others without judgment, and an aptitude for responding to people in a thoughtful way. EQ also helps you level up and have what David calls emotional agility—the skills to adapt and make changes in yourself and your world.
4 Ways to Boost Emotional Intelligence
When you’re feeling something you don’t like, such as disappointment, don’t pretend you’re not feeling it. Accept that you will experience difficult emotions, says David. “This changes the relationship you have with these emotions,” she explains. “It boosts your level of well-being and brings you a sense of freedom and connection with yourself.” Basically: Stop lying to yourself about how you feel.
After you ID a feeling, ask yourself what it might be telling you. If you’re frustrated by how bored you are at work, that might be a signal that you value learning and growth and don’t have enough of it right now, says David. Letting yourself have the feeling of frustration gives you the opportunity to figure out what to do about it.
Get granular about your feelings. When someone asks how you are or you’re thinking about a conversation you had, go beyond big labels like angry or sad. The clearer you are, the more those feelings help you know what problem to address. For instance, each time David asked a certain client what he felt in his job, he’d say he was angry. She asked if there were other labels to describe that feeling. And he said, “Maybe I’m scared that I’m not going to be effective.” Now he had info to act on: He needed to be less scared and inspire coworker trust.
Instead of thinking, I’m nervous, try saying, “I notice I’m feeling nervous,” says David. This gives you the perspective to see that you are experiencing nervousness. But you’re not the same as it. That spills over to how you see other people, too.
40, photographer and climber; cut short a 2012 climb on Mount Everest due to an anxiety attack; recently left another climb in Nepal, citing mental-health concerns.
The feelings I was having on Everest and in Nepal were irrational, fast, and overwhelming and were manifesting as anxiety attacks. The choices I made relied on the ability I’ve developed through the years to observe all of it as it was happening and understand, even without full comprehension, that something was drastically off and needed to shift. Understanding something doesn’t make it less painful, but emotional intelligence makes room for those experiences without drowning in the torrent.
BRIAN LEE SHIELDS
38, real estate services owner/operator; learned workplace EQ from a supervisor and committed to passing it on.
My most important lesson on emotional intelligence was early in my career, at a Wall Street job. I was exhausted and kept making small mistakes. My supervisor could’ve blown up, justifiably. But he had the presence of mind to be empathetic, explaining what was working and what wasn’t. I didn’t feel attacked. It made me want to do better. Now I’m careful about how I give my team critical feedback. With these hard conversations, you need to have empathy—let people know they’re valued so they feel secure when you offer criticism.
38, actor, director; founded the Man Enough podcast, which investigates the negative effects of traditional masculinity.
As men, we’re taught that we have the intellectual power to figure out anything. But we can’t always figure out how we’re feeling. When I started therapy and my psychologist asked me what I was feeling, I didn’t have any words. My brain tried to explain and rationalize it, but my therapist kept challenging me and asking me to quiet my mind and go deeper—to go into the feeling. When I finally did, I was met with a reservoir of built-up pain and sadness that released through a lot of tears, which put me on a healing path.
One of the most courageous choices you can make is to be vulnerable. That’s when you let your guard down, exposing and expressing your truest feelings—anger, sadness, fear, shame, all of it—despite the judgment or pushback or hostility you think you might receive as a result. Michael Gervais, Ph.D., a performance psychologist who has worked with NFL teams, CEOs, Olympians, and other high performers, defines vulnerability as “the courage to be authentic, the courage to be true, the courage to say the thing that needs to be said, even though it’s hard to say.”
Here’s how optimal vulnerability might look at work: You stepped into your boss’s role when she left. The agency’s biggest client is thinking about following your ex-boss. They tell you they’re coming in tomorrow for a make-or-break meeting. Your hands get shaky and your heart rate spikes. Knowing you’ve had panic attacks in the past, you go to a supervisor you trust, explain the situation, and say: “I’m pretty anxious. Can I walk you through my talking points?” The supervisor thanks you for your candor, then gives you a pep talk and some guidance. At the meeting, you kill.
Same scenario, minus vulnerability? Client tells you they’re coming in for the make-or-break meeting. You bury your emotions in a two-beer lunch, go home, and take a shame nap till 6:00 p.m. By 11:00, crippling anxiety has set in, along with a false narrative: All eyes are on me. If the client bails, the agency’s revenue plummets, and it’s all my fault. It’s too late to ask for help, and if I do, everyone will know I’m a fraud. You go to work on an hour of sleep with a half-assed presentation scribbled in a notebook; the partners read the dark circles under your eyes, take over the meeting, and let you know later how close you came to a total catastrophe.
Saying what needs to be said can be hard. But you likely do hard things all the time.
3 Ways to Practice Vulnerability
Start with a small ask, recommends Corey Martin, M.D., of the leadership and team-development company Innovations in Resilience. Suppose you’re having a difficult time at home—somebody’s sick, your house needs expensive repairs, your parents are starting to show cognitive issues—and it’s making work hard. “Be up-front with your team and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a lot of stuff going on right now, and I’m not on my A game. If I’m dropping things, I need you to let me know. I’d really appreciate it because we’re here to be a team,’ ” says Dr. Martin.
Celebrities reading mean tweets out loud becomes funny because it’s clear they’re not true. Try the DIY edition: Listen to what the voice inside your head is tweeting at you. “Take a piece of paper and write that stuff down,” Dr. Martin says. Ask yourself if anyone who cares about you would say those things. See the untruths. Then trash the paper.
Perfectionism and vulnerability are mortal enemies, Dr. Martin explains. We think that if we appear perfect, nobody will know we’re not the best dad or spouse—the veneer of perfection is an armor against people finding out what’s inside you. If perfectionists fall short, instead of being vulnerable, they try harder to be perfect. Perfection is driven by what other people think, and it can never be achieved. So you get stuck in a try/hide/try harder/hide more cycle. “Strive for excellence instead of perfection,” says Dr. Martin. “Just aim to do better tomorrow than you did today.” Forgive yourself if you come up short.
44, grant coordinator; graduate of GRIP Training Institute, a group-therapy program in California’s state prison system.
The first time I shared my emotions with the group was kind of like popping a soda can. Everything just sprayed out. I had a lot of fear because I was sharing about my sexual abuse as a kid. I didn’t really want to make eye contact with anybody. I grew up believing that a man is not supposed to be emotional. Once I locked eyes with people in the group, that belief went away. I’ve felt power before, in prison, where I was aligned with certain people to survive. But being vulnerable, expressing emotions—this was real power.
51, former Green Bay Packers player, two-time Super Bowl starter; spent years living in silence with symptoms of anxiety and depression.
I lost my mom and dad pretty much within a year, plus two of my best friends. My elder son just died by suicide. It can be total turmoil inside. You want to talk, but sometimes you don’t know the words, or how they’re gonna perceive what you say. I grew up being very shy. I finally opened up to a therapist. From there, I started talking to other athletes I trusted and friends who’d been in the military. We all had traumas. And we could open up to each other. I learned to drop that guard and to be the person I always wanted to be on the inside.
31, senior Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Independent published his book, We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation, after going public about his autism in an essay.
Writing an article about my autism changed my life. I embraced my identity and see it as an asset. I no longer needed to explain myself. Maybe I didn’t get certain jobs or dates as a result of sharing about my autism; on the other hand, it was also liberating, because it revealed who would accept me. I no longer have to guess or be secretive. Covering the autistic community allowed me to be vulnerable with people like me. It led me to embrace my multiple identities as a Latino, as a disabled man, and as an autistic person.
Resilience keeps you going, but not by toughing it out or flipping off the emotion switch.
When the going gets tough and you find ways to recalibrate and thrive—whether you’re coping with the loss of someone you love, learning a new language, or losing your shirt on an NFT—that’s resilience. “It’s about adjusting and adapting to a challenging environment, either internal or external,” says Gervais, the performance psychologist. “It’s about moving forward towards the mission as opposed to being set back. It’s using internal skills when something is pushing us off-balance.”
At its best, resilience might look like this: You’re a marathoner, but no matter how hard you train, you still can’t make the cut for Boston, thanks in large part to the anxiety-fueled lack of sleep you’ve had the night before your qualifier—three years in a row. And a nagging toe injury has gotten you bad finishes in the local marathon. You’d like to take another stab at it—if your newborn lets you rest.
Nevertheless, you adjust: You negotiate a child-care schedule with your spouse, find a sleep consultant, and join a running club, whose coach teaches you to alter your gait. You qualify for Boston and know you can do even better next year, or the year after.
Same scenario, without resilience: The injured toe, the lousy finishes in the local race, the kid, the sleep trouble—they’re the nails in your competitive-running coffin. They make you feel like a natural-born failure, which in turn causes unreasonable amounts of shame.
Resilience can be learned, especially when you see setbacks as opportunities for growth.
3 Ways to Build Resilience
When you notice you’re chastising yourself for something that didn’t go as you wished, shift your internal conversation. Ask yourself how today’s setback can help you do better tomorrow. When Dieffenbach researched the psychological characteristics of Olympic athletes, one of the traits she saw was that they didn’t beat themselves up when they didn’t hit the mark. Instead, they got curious about where they fell short and how they could do better next time. Using what happened today as a launchpad for the next day is a key to resilience.
“While that can feel like it’s just words, words matter. Choosing to view things as ‘challenges’ rather than problems can keep your focus on solving over wallowing,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., an associate professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University. “It’s a proactive strategy that allows you to be in the driver’s seat.” In challenge-facing mode, you can then go on to ask, “What resources do I need to tackle this challenge?” and figure out who or what can support you in moving forward.
Instead of punishing yourself when you’ve messed up, take a beat, put the cap on the booze or the negative thoughts, and remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes. (You can still take responsibility for a mistake and remind yourself of this.) “Recognize that highs and lows are normal and happen to everyone,” says Dieffenbach. Normalizing errors helps keep you from dwelling on them and allows you to bounce back.