EPIC Journeys and Mental Toughness

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By Eric Redard, Director of Volunteers, Chaplaincy and Bereavement Services

As I drove into work the other day, the song “A Horse With No Name” by America played on the radio. It’s one of my favorites, not only because of its melodious guitar strumming, but also the vivid references to traveling to find solace and what that experience can be like. Songwriter Dewey Bunnell said the lyrics came from memories of his childhood travels through the Arizona and New Mexico desert with his family. The title is a metaphor for a vehicle to get away from life’s confusion and into a quiet, peaceful place.

I’ve never been to the deserts in Arizona or New Mexico, but I have ridden on a camel in the Abu Dhabi desert, surrounded by nothing but sand as far as the eye can see. No rocks, no plants, no shelter from the sun; just sand being blown around by the hot wind. Occasionally, mirages appeared from the blistering heat, but soon disappeared because they aren’t there in the first place. The longer one stays in the desert, the more alone and disconnected it can feel. Even glimpsing mountains on the horizon doesn’t give much hope since they are so distant.

In contrast to the desert experience, I have also visited a working dude ranch where I rode horses through the beautiful landscapes of Montana for seven days. Traveling along paths over mountains and through prairies on the ranch grounds was unforgettable. Each day was an adventure with new sights to behold. Seeing rabbits, deer, moose, grouse, running streams filled with fish, and even bears and their cubs during our rides reminded me that we are not alone, but intricately connected one to another.

Reflecting on both experiences, I have to say that these past two and a half years have been more of a desert than a dude ranch experience. Maybe you can identify with this feeling, too? There have been times when I have felt alone and didn’t know where to turn.  In other instances, the end I thought was in sight was revealed to be just a mirage. And just when I didn’t think I could take any more, something else happened. The longer I spend in the desert, the more of a toll it takes on my mental health.

Maintaining a strong mental attitude, toughness, and fortitude (or whatever you want to call it) through these stressful times has been important, and I’m always looking for new ideas or resources to draw from. A study published in Harvard Business Review talks about attributes that athletes focus on to maintain mental toughness and achieve excellence (not perfection) in their chosen sport. Similarly, I want to share some that I have found helpful and transfer well into my professional and personal life.

Concentrate on excellence. “Nobody is perfect.” How many times have we heard that, yet never really integrated it into our work? Excellence is an attempt to perform a task in the best way possible, whereas perfection is the definitive 100 percent right way of doing anything correctly every time. In striving for excellence, there’s an openness to being wrong. Perfection is having to be right… period. Striving for excellence is a realistic goal, while perfection is an unrealistic demand.

Shrug off your own failures and rebound from defeat. This is not easy to do, I know, but we need to learn how to shake off our losses and defeats easily. What would happen if tennis champion Rafael Nadal agonized over every point he lost? He probably wouldn’t have won a single Grand Slam championship, let alone 22. This is not to suggest forgetting about setbacks; just don’t dwell, because there will be time to review and learn from them.

Never overly punish yourself with negative self-talk. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy because the most influential person in your life lives in your head… and boy, are they chatty. Negative self-talk is something that most of us experience and can cause excessive amounts of stress. Strategies for combatting the defeatist tendency include changing perspective, counting to five, and saying things out loud to get them out of your head. Other techniques to curb negative self-talk may work for you as well.

Celebrate wins. It’s a best practice to stop and analyze the who, what, when, how, and why we are doing what we are doing. This not only lets us know where we can change and grow, but it can also point out our victories while reinforcing what we have done well. It is, in fact, important to celebrate our wins and our successes. Celebrations can bring an emotional release and mark in time the growth and achievement that was made. Without it, work can become monotonous and tedious.

No matter what EPIC journey you are on right now, I hope you can find your “horse with no name” that will bring you comfort, wholeness, and a stable, healthy, balanced mind.

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