How Mental Toughness Can Help You Thrive

December 15th, 2013 by LaRae Quy

As an FBI agent, I raided brothels that masked as massage parlors. They were filled with women from foreign countries, most of them brought to the U.S. illegally and then forced into prostitution. These women were victims, lured to the U.S. under the pretense of a better life. Then they found themselves trapped into an undesirable lifestyle by their circumstances.

Inspite - Strength-in-hard-timesThe FBI established a Victim Assistance Program (VAP) to help these women, and others, receive the assistance they needed. They were given tools on how to cope.

Like these women forced into prostitution, when we’re trapped by our circumstances, survival is all we think about. Survival is linked to victimhood—we need to overcome obstacles or adversity that leaves us injured.

Mental toughness is not content with survival. Like the purpose of the VAP, it empowers victims to take control and grow. Fate does not always give a fair shake to people. But people who thrive do not put bandages on wounds. Instead, they they allow themselves to heal so they don’t suffer like victims. People who thrive will bloom where they are planted.

Mental toughness is the ability to prevail over out struggles and carve out a tranquil existence in the midst of life’s turbulence. To thrive often requires a transformation. Here are 3 critical steps to trigger that transformation:

1. Reframe Adversity 

As an FBI agent, I approached my obstacles as unsolved mysteries to be investigated.

A mystery requires us to look at a situation from many different angles, or through a larger frame. A mystery calls for us to change sides, back and forth, so we can see it from every aspect. No one solves a mystery if they decide on the conclusion from the outset and then force-feed the facts so they fit their image of a successful outcome.

If we reframe our adversity to look more like mysteries to be solved by careful analysis, then we can pick away at suppositions and judgments. Some of them may be accurate but others may not. We remain open-minded about how to solve the problem and overcome the obstacle.

2. Lead with Game Plans, not Goals

When I worked an FBI counterintelligence investigation, the game plan was to recruit foreign spies to work for the U.S. government. If recruitment was my overall game plan, then my job was to set short and long-term goals that would move my investigation in the right direction.

Often, goals needed to change as new information became available. So while my approach would shift from time to time, the game plan never did.

Goals are essential if progress is to be made in life, but we are tempted to let them take the place of the bigger picture. Once they do, it’s hard to pivot and move in a new direction when events take an unexpected turn.

Goals are a measure of where we will be and when we will make it there. We try to predict how quickly we can make progress, even though we have no idea what circumstances or situations will arise along the way.

To thrive, use goals to plan your progress but rely on a game plan to actually make progress.

3. Search for Meaning

No one knows more about how to suffer and heal than Victor Frankl. An Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust, he thrived by writing the 1946 best selling psychological memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

Frankl wrote how Auschwitz taught him about the primary purpose of life: the quest for meaning, which sustained those who survived. His wife was eventually killed in the prison camp, and he himself struggled to find a reason for his suffering and slow dying.

According to Frankl, everything can be taken from a person except one thing: the most important human freedom—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way of thinking about their life.

When we choose our attitude, we are free to focus on the things that are important and give us meaning in life: our dedication to a cause greater than ourself.

Whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a woman rescued from an illegal prostitution ring, it’s impossible to thrive without the mental toughness needed to prevail over your struggles so you can take control and live a life of purpose.

© 2013 LaRaeQuy. All rights reserved.

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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths” and “Secrets of a Strong Mind.” 

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18 Responses to “How Mental Toughness Can Help You Thrive”

  1. LaRae,

    You continue to bring such an important gift to our world by painting a vision of how we can navigate really terrible seasons of our lives and still be healthy and happy. As my awareness of this subject grows I’ve been sharing your stories with friends and family ~ they are inspired and anxious to learn more too!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      As our awareness grows, we can see where our own life is full of lessons…the key is to excavate the significance of our own stories and experiences.

      Thanks so much for your kind words.

      Mental toughness is finding the diamond at the center of intense pressure.

  2. Dan Black says:

    This is a powerful statement: “To thrive, use goals to plan your progress but rely on a game plan to actually make progress.” It’s important to remember that goals change but our vision remains the same. The courage to persevere through the challenging times is crucial for our success. Thank you for such a great post!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Thanks, Dan. I agree…too often we get wedded to our goals and let them dictate our direction. I love having goals but changing them as our circumstances change is always a good idea.

      Thanks for the kind words!

  3. Sebastian says:

    Everything can be taken from a person except one thing: the most important human freedom—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way of thinking about their life.

    I’m writing this down. This is so true.

  4. Lolly Daskal says:

    You have mentioned my mentor, my guru, my guide, my inspiration
    – Victor Frankl has guided me throughout my life – I keep his book by my nightstand.

    and this quote is so true!

    When we choose our attitude, we are free to focus on the things that are important and give us meaning in life: our dedication to a cause greater than our self.

    your stories, your mental toughness, your heart are all beautiful. Just like you.


    • LaRae Quy says:

      Thanks, Lolly. I, too, am inspired by Victor Frankl…a man who was never afraid to look adversity in the face and call it by name. That takes bravery and courage, the kind that it takes to live every day to the fullest.

  5. Jon Mertz says:

    LaRae, These insights are so important to living and leading with meaning. Reframing to game plans to attitude, each plays a key role in keeping refreshed, gaining momentum, and focusing on what really matters most. Appreciate how you take your experiences and share them as ways to use them in everyday leadership practices. Jon

  6. Alli Polin says:


    I’m always blown away when I think about what your professional life must have been like day-to-day and I’m grateful that you choose to share your lessons learned on mental toughness. It’s interesting, in the face of adversity, when I take that 10,000 foot view not only is the way I see my circumstances transformed but I am as well. Been a tool in my personal arsenal that has served me well.

    So important to realize that we get to choose to be a survivor or a thriver.

    Great post, LaRae!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Alli.

      Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself and my circumstances, I am reminded of those I have met in my life who chose to raise themselves out of situations far worse than mine will ever be. They had mental mental toughness without even knowing how to define it. One of the greatest privileges of my life is being able to help put words and actions behind the thinking of those I have admired for so long.

  7. Bill says:

    Hi LaRae,

    Your statement, “People who thrive do not put bandages on wounds; instead, they allow deep healing so they do not suffer like victims” reminds me of something I once read about being three stages we go through in life transitions: Beginning, Middle and End.

    If we don’t allow ourselves the ability to finish an ending, it’s hard to start a new beginning.

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Wise words, Bill.

      We must go through the entire healing process before we can truly move ahead…and that takes time and a deep understanding of lessons learned so we can move on.

  8. Terri Klass says:

    Your stories and lessons are so powerful, LaRae! I learn so much from all your teachings.

    I agree that survival only gets people so far; we do need to find meaning and purpose to lead a fulfilled life. This goes for leaders too. Leaders can spend too much time just performing their tasks and getting caught up in their routines. It is only when we lead with specific intention and passion that we can grow our leadership.

    Thanks LaRae!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Thanks for your feedback regarding my stories! I appreciate that…

      You make a great point about the need for leaders to move beyond just performing their tasks and sticking with routines. To grow our leadership, we really do need to move forward with intention!

      Have a great week.

  9. Dan Forbes says:

    LaRae, thanks for reminding us that we all have a choice. Your selection of Victor Frankl to illustrate that point was powerful.

    No matter how dark the night, we have the power of choice. And, what power that is.

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Life boils down to the choices we make, doesn’t it? Too often, we take the path of least resistance, never thinking about how that will affect other life choices down the road.

      The key is make the choice that will have the most meaning for you…Victor Frankl is an amazing example of this.

  10. Karin Hurt says:

    I’m always amazed at survivor stories… Ithe ability to be so strongly grounded in your own spirit and worth that you can roll with what’s happening AND pave a path forward. The ability to step back and at the same time draw strength from the journey is so important.

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