Why Building Mental Strength Is Different For Women

Research shows women face some clear disadvantages when it comes to building mental muscle.

Koron/Getty Images
Koron/Getty Images

As soon as my book, 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do, hit the shelves, questions about why I’d write a book for women began rolling in. After all, don’t men and women build mental strength the same way?

Well, yes the same exercises that build mental muscle for men also work for women. But, what I learned through my experiences as a therapist and my own personal journey through grief is that it only takes one bad habit to hold you back.

You could have all the good habits in the world, but if you are still holding onto one or two bad habits, you won’t reach your greatest potential. And that’s where gender comes in. Women are more likely to engage in a certain set of counterproductive bad habits.

That’s not to say women are weak–that’s definitely not the case. But, there are some factors that encourage women to engage in unhealthy habits that threaten to rob them of the mental strength they need to be the strongest and best versions of themselves.

Girls Are Treated Differently Than Boys

There are some subtle differences in the way girls are raised. And those minor differences can have a big influence on the core beliefs girls develop–and those beliefs last into adulthood. There are plenty of research studies that back up the notion.

In one study, children were shown photos of men and women and asked to choose which individual they thought was brilliant. At age 5, almost every child picked out a brilliant individual who matched their gender. Boys picked men and girls chose women.

By age 7, however, both girls and boys were more likely to identify men as brilliant. What happens between the ages of 5 and 7 that may lead to such a shift? Well, that’s the timeframe when kids start school.

And as children go to school, they’re exposed to “brilliant” people-;astronauts, engineers, and historical figures. It’s likely that most of the examples they’re given are men. Of course, that’s just one possible reason why little girls might begin believing men are more likely than women to be brilliant.

A multitude of studies have found that boys are given unfair advantages in school. For example, teachers call on boys and encourage them to speak up in the classroom.

The list of subtle but important ways girls are discriminated against could go on and on. But, all of the subtle messages girls are getting imply that they’re not as capable, competent, or worthy as boys.  

So even though girls are told, “You can be anything you want,” there’s a good chance they’re not believing that message. Consequently, they may be more likely to engage in certain bad habits, like avoiding tough challenges or allowing self-doubt to stop them from reaching their goals.

Cultural Expectations and Gender Norms

Beliefs about gender norms and how women should behave can also stifle women’s self-growth. Take for example, the way people often respond to women when they show emotions.

Studies show male leaders who express anger often gain respect. Female leaders who express anger are frequently called “overly emotional” or “unstable.”

Another example is our idea of who makes a good leader. Similarly, when asked to draw a picture of a leader, most people draw a man–even women tend to do this.

There are many other gender stereotypes and expectations that lead women to engage in mental strength robbing habits, like staying silent and downplaying their success. Breaking the mold comes with risks–and sometimes women are punished for stepping outside their gender roles.

Societal Pressures

You don’t have to look very far to see some examples of the pressures women face. One big pressure is the pressure to look beautiful.

Look at any magazine or website geared toward women and you’re likely to discover fashion advice, make-up tips, and strategies for looking more youthful.

The pressure to look attractive (and act as though looking good doesn’t require any effort) takes a toll on women. Surveys show that on average, women spend an hour each day working on their appearance. And that’s just the normal day-to-day routine of doing their hair and putting on make-up.

Add in how much time women spend doing other grooming tasks–like getting their nails done and their hair dyed–and those numbers would likely skyrocket.  

On top of the added strain of time spent getting ready, there’s also the pressure to “have it all.” Working women with families are often given productivity tips so they can develop a better work/life balance–implying that they’re defective for not being able to get enough done (as opposed to acknowledging that they simply have too much to do).

The pressures women feel often fuel unhealthy habits, like drawing social comparisons and putting others down in an attempt to move up the social hierarchy. But those habits drag women down–not just as individuals but also as a group.

How Women Can Build Mental Strength

There are already enough books, magazines, and gurus out there telling women that they need to do more, be more, and work more. So I won’t add to the notion that women need more self-improvement tasks.

Instead of adding more to your life, the key to growing stronger can be found in subtracting. Work smarter not just harder by getting rid of your worst habit. 

Acknowledge the unhealthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are holding you back. When you break free from your worst habit, your good habits will become much more effective.

Originally published on Inc.

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