Inner Strength: 3 No-Nonsense, Do-It-Yourself, Highly Effective Techniques
Steroids for the Soul (But All-Natural, and Without the Side-Effects)
article by LiveReal Agents Grace and Will
Life is hard.
Life throws us challenges, difficulties, problems, even traumas. You never know what life’s going to throw at you.
Surviving it – and more, thriving – excelling far beyond mere survival – isn’t easy.
So, the key question: how?
What gives us the ability to overcome those challenges? How do we survive traumas, and even grow stronger because of them? What is that mysterious inner quality that some folks seem to have that enables them to overcome obstacles instead of collapsing under them?
Big questions. And the “answer” we’re suggesting here comes down to two words: “inner strength.”
But of course, that’s just getting us started. Two words can be easy to talk about but hard to live by, and those two words can mean a lot of things. And then, of course, there’s the challenge of actually building “inner strength,” or acquiring whatever mysterious quality those words are pointing to, instead of just talking, thinking about, reading about or studying it.
And it’s also kinda important.
Most of us can probably agree that this stuff – the “inner” stuff – is much more important than the “outer” stuff.
Would you agree?
Say you’re a few packs short of a full six in the ab department. (Let’s just pretend for a minute.) You’ll probably still manage to get through the day. Or…let’s say you bench slightly less (or way less) than your body weight. You’ll probably still manage to get yourself out of bed in the morning. Can’t run a four-minute mile? Billions of other folks can’t, but they still manage to find some way to carry on.
But if your mind or emotions aren’t strong enough to hold up under what life throws at you…
Well, that’s where it really hurts. Our overall life experience, our happiness, our relationships, our ability to work, earn a paycheck, care for our friends or family or kids, enjoy life itself, our ability to function at all – we don’t have to spell it out. All this can obviously extract a much more real, much more painful price than shin splints or soft belly. If you don’t have at least some degree of inner game, physical strength isn’t even an option. You wouldn’t even make it to a gym.
That said…we might spend several hours a week, at a gym, working on our bodies. But how many hours a week do we spend toning up our minds or hearts?
If building mental & emotional strength is as (or more) important then building a strong body, then why aren’t gyms packed with Inner-Strength-Building Classes?
Well, it turns out that there are some very good reasons.
The realm of “Inner Strength” can be confusing, weird, and difficult.
There’s a lot of confusion out there. And bad advice.
A person who sets out to “get stronger on the inside” might not know where to start. Or if they do, they could easily run headfirst into a swarm of conflicting advice, some wonderful and some terrible, from the bland to the exotic.
Medications. Expensive therapies. Counseling and expensive “coaching.” And more, all the way to “chakra openings,” “energy alignments,” “attract inner strength” sermons and so on.
Sometimes folks get lucky, miss the crazy and get good, solid advice in their first try. Or, there’s the “homine unius libri timeo” route (“I fear the man of a single book”): often someone swallow the first advice they are given, and since they don’t have much to compare it to, they think it’s great/The Answer. Only after a more prolonged effort to try a lot of different approaches – which reveals how many approaches there are – do we often understand the magnitude of the landscape we’re travelling.
In other words…it’s the Wild West out there.
Some advice helps, some of it probably doesn’t hurt, some of it is nonsense, some of it is downright toxic. If you enter into all this with an open mind, it can drive you crazy. (No irony lost there.)
Sounds like a job for LiveReal.
Our job is to travel this landscape and map the good trails, panoramic vistas, quicksand and etc, so we can all navigate a little easier.
We understand how to build a strong body fairly well.
Weights. Muscles. Sweat. Repeat.
That’s your body.
What about your mind? And your emotions?
“Inner strength”? How the heck do you do that?
This is a different ball game. They’re different realms. There seem to be a million different answers, and yet none. It can be overwhelming, and such a slippery topic that you can’t even get your arms around it.
A strong mind or emotional life isn’t as simple as just picking up a bunch of heavy stuff and putting it back down again, over and over.
That works fine for bodybuilding. But what about “mindbuilding”? What’s the equivalent of the weights, the benches, the exercise bikes of the soul? Do they sell “mental barbells” on Amazon now? Emotional pull-up bars? Any emotional bodybuilding medals in the Olympics this year?
No. Which makes us think that this field is too nebulous to even try to make sense of.
But of course, it does happen.
There are clearly some folks in the world who have developed “inner strength.”
But often, it happens by accident. They’re confronted with difficult, chaotic, challenging situations in life, and they rise to the challenge. They develop inner strength organically, through struggling with their unique situation.
Our challenge here is to figure out how to make it happen deliberately.
Plenty of folks have gotten physically strong by, say, working as ranchers, steelworkers, lumberjacks, etc, where the environment builds strength “naturally,” organically.
But what about folks who aren’t lumberjacks? What can we do if we want to get physically strong without logging oaks?
Answer: we seek out “artificial” environment built specifically for the purpose of strength and health.
Namely, gyms. Artificial environments designed specifically for the purpose of building physical strength. Professional or homemade.
But are there “gyms” for building inner strength?
Let’s take a look.
Here is what we set out to do.
We’ve been exploring those realms for a while now, trying to sort out the effective from the impotent, the beneficial from the toxic, the real from the unreal. We’ve been working to avoid the crazy and discover what really works.
We wanted something that
• didn’t cost a ton of money. (Eg psychotherapy can cost tens of thousands.)
• didn’t have a ton of negative side effects. (Eg antidepressants that help your depression but make you suicidal.)
• is non-invasive. (Doesn’t involve anyone or anything else getting in your business.)
• didn’t make you dependent on some chemical, doctor, guru, or group.
• We wanted something where you are 100% in control, where nobody gives power over themselves ourselves to any drug, other person, organization, or entity.
• We wanted something that made sense: is rational, logical, passes the “common sense” test, doesn’t require a huge leap of faith, or anyone saying “trust me, I’m an expert.”
• We wanted an approach that was reasonably self-validating, where results and effects became evident (for better or worse) as you went along. Verses, “the infinite tease,” which goes something like this: “If you just try harder, stick around longer, pay to upgrade to the next level,” etc, THEN you’ll get the results you’re after.)
• We wanted something that has been – or could be – at least to some degree, verified by good, solid science.
We’ve found three that met our criteria, to our satisfaction.
These aren't the only ways to build inner strength.
But they are the best we've found - so far - that meet our requirements.
These don’t require a therapist or counselor. They can, and should, be done by yourself. They aren’t pills or medication. They don’t require prescriptions. They don’t make you dependent on anything or anyone. They don’t involve anyone saying, “trust me, I’m an expert.” They involve no infinite tease. And they make sense when explained properly, at least to us.
And they’re free.
(Unless you want to buy a book to read more about them. Then it’s a few bucks. Or just hit the library, and it’s free.)
And they’re self-validating. If you try this stuff, before too long, you should be able to tell whether it’s working or not.
They’ve also been tested and validated, to some degree, in both scientific tests and personal experience over the years. (Of course, insert a mob of disclaimers here, as science is an ongoing, unending process. There is plenty more that has to and should be tested on these, and some of the specifics we mention below haven’t been tested thoroughly. That said, they hold up under scientific scrutiny, and they invite more of it. Right up our alley.)
Our search is ongoing. But…at long last…this is what we’ve found so far.
Technique #1: Meditation
It’s not just for monks and hippies anymore.
Once upon a time in the very recent past, meditation in the West was seen as exotic, strange, unfamiliar, scary. It’s becoming more mainstream now, and lots of folks are discovering that it’s (usually, certain groups/teachers excepted), none of the above.
This includes science.
Scientists have been discovering (to the shock of some) that at least some aspects of “ancient wisdom” were really on to something. They’re continuing to gather evidence on how meditation can effectively reduce anxiety, improves concentration, ease depression, increase body satisfaction and more. (More on this here
And that’s just the concrete, most easily-measurable stuff. Which, in some ways, is just touching the surface of the possibilities.
The basic premise of it is simple.
It’s simply becoming aware of your own mind, and how it works.
It’s a way to actually put the directive to “know yourself” in action.
(If you call sitting quietly and observing your own mind “action.” Which – at least compared to a Netflix coma – is apt.)
Lifting weights builds physical muscle. But “mental barbell” jokes aside, there is a rough equivalent that can happen mentally.
The “weights” are your thoughts and emotions. The “muscle” is your attention. (Not a perfect metaphor, but it’s enough to start the flexing.)
Some folks these days think of “attention” as something you get from a pill if you have a “deficit” of it. But others think of attention as something you can build and develop through effort.
There are plenty of places to learn basic, introductory techniques for beginners.
But one word of caution: this isn’t to say that everything that goes under the name of “meditation” is recommended.
There are literally hundreds – even thousands - of different techniques that all operate under the banner of “meditation.” Some folks, for some reason, seem to skip over this part, and talk as if they are teaching “the” one-and-only technique, while there are tons of others that they’re either unaware of or aren’t telling you about.
So if someone is “offering to teach meditation,” a good to ask: “What kind of meditation do you teach?”
The techniques can range from guided fantasies to mental imagery to walking to TM, as well as counting breaths, mantras, mental visualizations, mindfulness, suggestions, self examinations and inquiries, and on and on.
Some of these are harmless. Some are a waste of time. Some might be beneficial to the right person at the right time, and might become less beneficial after. Some tend to be more of a mental exercise that doesn’t engage with the emotions; others do engage with emotions in a way that can cultivate emotional strength. Some come with the baggage of an organization or belief system that you wind up getting enmeshed in that isn’t necessary.
So, if you’re new to this, our gently advice would be to treat it like an exercise program or diet.
If you have a heart condition, don’t start with wind sprints. If you trust someone who is into this stuff and seems at least halfway sane, consult with them first.
Beyond that, buyer beware. Keep your eyes open, cling to your common sense and know your route to the exit, and you should be fine.
We aren’t going to recommend a specific technique here. That topic is a rabbit hole that leads us off the main trail we’re currently traveling. (To be clear: it’s a great rabbit hole to explore; just not here, now. We just can’t wander too far into the woods.) We do plan on taking a deeper dive into this soon.
But the key idea:
Meditation has been around for thousands of years. It’s been experimented with and tested by millions of people. It’s been tested rigorously by scientists.
And there’s something to it.
It takes effort. But it can change your life.
And it’s a way to build inner strength.
Technique #2: “Story-Editing”
A few decades ago, some scientists noticed something really interesting.
When a person wrote about themselves and their experiences in a particular way, they often showed significant improvements in a number of ways.
Better grades. Lower dropout rates. Fewer missed days of work. Immune system improvements. In some cases, relief from anxiety, depression, and trauma. It was found “to improve people’s physical and mental health for weeks, months, and even years.” Overall, it’s a technique that was shown to provide a broad, far-reaching, system-wide boost to overall health and relieve for emotional pain.
It involved writing for about 15-20 minutes a day for three or four days.
So: 15-20 minutes a day for a few days, and somehow, and all kinds of things in your life improve noticeably across the board – stuff that can be measured precisely (leaving aside stuff that can’t be measured but could be just as real…?
I know what you’re thinking: this sounds too good to be true. Yet another hyped-up self-help technique with big promises and no real results?
Here’s the thing: it really doesn’t seem to be.
Some of the hardest noses of the hard-nosed scientists have endorsed it.
Timothy Wilson, psychology professor at University of Virginia, spends no small amount of time debunking entire movements.
We (taxpayers) spend millions/billions of dollars funding various programs – certain approaches aimed at drug prevention, for example. Most of the time, we don’t bother to take a real look at them to see whether they actually work or not; we just throw money at it and assume the best. But according to Wilson, many of them actually work. When we test them rigorously in a proper scientific setting – something that happens all too rarely – they are often proven to be ineffective. Sometimes they can even make things worse. (He describes several examples in his great book Redirect.)
But Wilson is a big fan of story-editing.
He has tested it to his satisfaction. And he recommends it.
Apparently, this is one approach that actually works.
So, what is “Story-Editing”?
Some basic instructions:
Write about the most upsetting, traumatic experience of your entire life.
Assume that nobody else will ever see what you’re writing about. Write only for yourself.
In your writing, really “let go.” Explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie what you write to other parts of your life – for example, to your childhood, to your relationship with your parents, your relationship with other people now,
Once you begin writing, write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar or punctuation. Don’t stop. Just write.
That’s really all you need to know to try it and potentially get some benefit from it.
Nobody seems to be completely clear about why, exactly, this works. There’s plenty of “maybe this, maybe that,” but basically, they’re still working it out. But knowing why it works, at the end of the day, isn’t necessary or even all that important. This can work without knowing why it works, and that’s the important part.
Obviously, doing this costs nothing aside from time and a few cents worth of paper and ink. It doesn’t require spending thousands of dollars on a therapist, joining a cult, adopting a bunch of weird beliefs, or any other potentially hazardous routes.
It’s just you and a piece of paper.
And your willingness to go for it.
If you want to dig deeper…
If you want to dig a little deeper into this, here is some basic information from James W. Pennebaker, PhD, the psychologist who discovered and championed this technique:
Here is another site with more info:
If you want to dig even deeper and don't mind spending a few bucks, you can buy a book or two. There are several good ones, but the one we’d recommend is Opening Up By Writing It Down by Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth PhD.
And if you want to work even further along these lines, there’s a slightly different approach called the “Self-Authoring” program that’s taught by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson.
Peterson’s approach broadens the subject matter to write about yourself and your the past, present and future, and includes specific questions and tests to evaluate yourself with. The entire suite is currently priced at $30 here: https://selfauthoring.com/
(Important note: we aren’t getting paid to promote these folks. We’re doing it because we believe in it. We’ve had enough of the hollow nonsense that gets a huge amount of hype while less flashy but truly effective methods like these get ignored.)
And one final note on this approach: we’re interested in hearing about your experiences with this. Have you tried it? Has it helped? How? What was your experience like? If you dive into these waters and are interested in sharing, we’re interested in hearing about it. This helps us do what we do.
Technique #3: “Walk Around the Block”
This technique might seem boring at first.
A lot of folks will probably ignore it for that reason.
Some oyster shells look boring on the outside, but the pearls are inside.
It also has less scientific rigor than the other two techniques. There haven’t been teams of scientists assigned to study this the way there has been with the other two.
But what it lacks in scientific rigor, it makes up for in, well, plain common sense. Maybe scientists haven’t studied this because it’s fairly self-evident. (Or, maybe they just haven’t thought of it.)
Either way…let’s take a look. Is there a “pearl” inside this technique? Maybe. Let’s see.
This came from American Zen teacher Richard Rose.
It goes something like this:
Make a decision that you’re going to do something. Then do it.
It can be as simple as walking around the block.
So, what is this about?
Let’s be blunt: some folks just aren’t in control of themselves or their own lives.
Sometimes, life happens to us.
Life acts, and we react. The picture can look like, as T.S. Eliot might say, “men and bits of paper” getting tossed around by circumstances. In sailing the stormy seas of life, sometimes we aren’t exactly Captain of the Ship, hands on the helm, eye fixed on the destination, barking orders to the crew. Instead, we might be scrambling around, swabbing decks, scrubbing galleys or perching in crow’s nests ourselves. Or huddling down in the cabin with the whiskey and biscuits.
We’ve all been there. (In the whiskey and biscuits.)
But then there’s the opposite condition.
This looks something more like, in the stirring words of William Ernest Henley, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
These are the two extremes.
At one extreme is the “captain of my soul.”
At the other is the whiskey/biscuit huddle.
We’ve all probably tasted moments of both.
And right now, at this moment, each of us is probably somewhere in between the two.
Let’s assume for now, just so we’re all on the same page, that we’re all starting from the whiskey/biscuit huddle: that we’re feeling mostly out of control of our life and ourselves.
How do we work ourselves up to the helm where we’re barking orders and they’re being followed – where we’ve assumed command as “captain” instead of hunched and huddled in the cabin?
Answer: one small step at a time.
One of Rose’s key ideas was his definition of character:
Character is the ability to make a decision and carry it out.
Folks often make various decisions, resolutions, declarations, etc…and then forget, get distracted, change their minds, encounter a bit of resistance and give up. Etc.
If that happens enough, eventually, some folks can even give up the idea of making resolutions completely. Life becomes a matter of figuring out the path of least resistance.
A generous read on this situation would be that, well, there’s a lot going on in life, and circumstances change quickly, and it’s hard to navigate the fog of war on the battlefield of life.
A less generous interpretation would be that, well, they just aren’t in control of their lives.
The idea here is assuming command.
It’s like a political revolution. Except that it’s happening inside us.
It’s like a mutiny aboard the ship, where we’re the mutineer – and the rightful captain of the ship who had been displaced at some point earlier. And the “imposter” captain needs and deserves to be overthrown.
Here’s how to get the mutiny started.
Three simple steps.
First, pick a small, achievable task.
Something as simple as walking around the block once a day.
Then make a decision that you’re going to do it.
Then do it.
If you fail, pick something smaller.
Make a decision to talk around the block once a week instead of once a day. If you forgot, write it down and post it on your mirror. If you miss it on the mirror, post it on your forehead, and don’t take it off until you do it.
As the wise-words-turned-cliché of Lao Tzu: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
A thousand miles is hard. But one step? That’s doable.
In modern psychology, this is the simple insight of “mini-habits” or “micro-habits.” (Yes, this idea was “discovered” thousands of years ago. But psychologists should take victories wherever they can.)
Make the act as small as you have to. Maybe it’s falling asleep with only one sock on instead of two. Maybe it’s drinking only fifteen beers instead of sixteen. Maybe it’s brushing your teeth while standing on one foot instead of two.
Just pick something small.
Then stop thinking about it. Close yourself off to reconsidering it. Go after it like a tiger. As if your life depended on it.
“Once the decision has been made, close your ear even to the best counter argument: sign of a strong character. Thus an occasional will to stupidity.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Once you do it, then you’ll have a success under your belt. It’s a victory. You will have made a decision, however small, and carried it out.
Now build on that.
Let that feeling of success sink down into you.
Use that as fuel. If you’ve achieved some success, you can achieve more.
Slowly, you get more hungry for bigger challenges.
Maybe walk around the block twice instead of just once.
Go slowly. Patience is key here.
Many folks take an opposite approach: they imagine something wildly ambitious and incredibly difficult. They take a run at it and don’t succeed immediately. (After all, what they’re trying to do is wildly ambitious and incredibly difficult.) Then they give up. Then they rationalize that they tried, but it just didn’t work out.
But there’s always something small you can do. There’s no excuses there.
Then you can build on that, like building a muscle.
The more you do, the more you can do.
In this domain, ambition can be your enemy. This isn’t the time to dream big and fantasize wildly. It’s the time to stay level-headed and sober. At this point, realism is key. The rest can come later.
So, if you start out walking around the block, eventually you can walk around the block twice. After doing that for a little while, maybe do a few pushups. Once you get good at that, you realize you can do a lot of pushups. Or call your mom. Or whatever.
The process is what’s important here. You build momentum. You develop a pride in your ability to make decisions and carry them out. This pride becomes a part of you, your identity, your character. Your habits are part of that. Now you make a decision and carry it out, because well, that’s what you do.
Then build, slowly, to bigger things.
This process works in building a link that might not have existed before: a link between your decision – an inner, subjective, private event – and your ability to act in the outside world. For some folks, that link is very strong; they drive themselves and impact the world around them. For others, the link is weak or even broken.
The simple idea here is to reconnect that link and make it stronger, over time, with practice.
It’s all a matter of time, patience, wanting it, and practice.
If you keep it all within reason, and just keep at it, eventually, you realize more deeply that you can truly do what you decide you want to do.
You’ve now built a kind vehicle – a “vehicle” inside yourself, so to speak. And then you’re able to steer that vehicle in whatever direction you want.
That is power.
So there you go.
Three concrete and effective techniques to develop “inner strength.”
One is more “ancient wisdom,” the other is more “modern science,” the other is more “common-sense.”
Each technique complements the others; no aspect of these contradict science, teachings of old, or common sense.
And the benefits? Mental clarity and emotional strength. They can reduce anxiety, improve concentration, ease depression, boost confidence, relieve the effects of trauma, help put your more control of your own life, and more.
Now comes the hard part.
Then the next big step:
You might not look any different from the outside.
(Although…there's a pretty good chance that you actually will, especially if you pick one (or all) of these and really work it.)
But these can help you feel stronger. On the inside.
And as a person with inner strength, you’re more armed and ready to handle whatever this crazy life is going to throw at you.
And throw it back.