13 Subtle Signs of a Mentally Tough Woman, According to Psychologists

The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter, a symbol of strength and resilience, powerfully represented the women who held down the fort (and the U.S. workforce) during World War II. Her image, flexing her muscles beside the empowering "We can do it" text, continues to inspire and represent the idea of a strong, competent woman. However, strength isn't limited to biceps.

"Mental toughness is a personality trait that means someone can handle stress and pressure with a resilient and focused attitude," says Dr. Beth Pausic, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at Kooth Digital Health. "An example may be setting a long-term goal and that, despite setbacks along the way, there is still determination to keep moving forward."

Cultivating this trait can offer significant benefits for women.

"Women with mental toughness are more likely to take on leadership roles, set a positive example for others and inspire those around them to overcome obstacles and achieve success," says Dr. Nicole Andreoli, Ph.D, of Pathways Psychological Services

Dr. Andreoli adds that mentally tough women may sleep better, have lower levels of anxiety and depression and have a stronger sense of self. How do you know if you or a woman in your life fits this bill? Experts shared subtle signs of mentally tough women, how to build this trait and why vulnerability is not a sign of weakness.  

Related: 13 Phrases People With High-Level Thinking Often Say, According to Psychologists

What Are the 4 C's of Mental Toughness?

Dr. Peter Clough and Doug Strycharczyk co-authored the book Developing Mental Toughness: Improving Performance, Wellbeing and Positive Behaviour in Others and popularized the 4C model for mental toughness. "Control, challenge, commitment and confidence," shares Dr. Andreoli. She offers a quick primer:

  • Control. Your sense of autonomy and ability to control outcomes in your life. "If you are high in control, you believe that you have the power to shape your circumstances and are proactive in taking charge of your situations," Dr. Andreoli says.

  • Challenge. This C measures how you view setbacks and obstacles. High scorers view and embrace them as opportunities.

  • Commitment. How focused and dedicated are you to achieving your goals, even in the face of obstacles?

  • Confidence. Confidence measures your belief in your abilities and capacity to succeed.

Related: 10 Things Confident People *Always* Do in a Conversation

13 Subtle Signs of Mental Toughness in Women

1. Adaptability

You may think of "toughness" as "standing firm." Sometimes, it means holding firm in your boundaries and beliefs, especially when encountering adversity. Other times, adaptability is a sign of toughness.

"Mentally tough women are flexible and adaptable in the face of change," Dr. Andreoli says. "They are willing to adjust their plans, strategies, and goals as needed, without becoming overwhelmed or giving up."

2. Buoyancy

"Buoyancy" is a psychological term referring to one's ability to manage daily stresses and setbacks. Don't confuse it with "resilience." 

"While this is a factor within the psychological trait of resilience, it has a narrower description because it is short-term resiliency instead of more long-term resiliency," says Dr. Erisa M. Preston, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and the regional psychotherapy director at Mindpath Health. "Women with high buoyancy can cope with ordinary stressors without letting them build up, which is important to overall stress management and a necessary mental toughness factor."

These women come off as "unflappable" and "non-reactive" when challenges arise, like a quick-turn deadline at work.

Related: 50 Positive Affirmations To Boost Your Confidence (And Change Your Life)

3. Resilience

Resilience is a term that gets thrown around a good deal. What does it really mean?

"Resilience is the psychological term, as defined by the American Psychological Association, to describe 'the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress,'" Dr. Preston explains. "Resilience is about a person’s ability to cope over a long period."

What does that look like outside of a therapy room or research lab?

"Women with high resilience are capable of coping with extraordinary stressors and finding ways to adapt to their new life circumstances, which is a necessary element of mental toughness," Dr. Preston says. "This can be seen in the women who figure out how to manage their and their family’s lives when seismic shifts occur around them."

For instance, a woman who honors the loss of a spouse while moving forward.

4. Accountability

Mental toughness doesn't mean perfection. Mentally tough women can admit when they're wrong. 

"Women who are mentally tough take responsibility for their actions," says Dr. Emily Guarnotta, Psy.D., a psychologist and the co-founder of Phoenix Health, an online maternal mental health practice. "If they make a mistake, they admit it and try their best to repair the relationship."

5. Delayed gratification

In an era when you can swipe and tap your way to find your next meal, ride home and even date, it can be challenging to see value in delayed gratification. However, mentally tough women find a way, especially when faced with new opportunities and requests.

"Mentally tough women are able to say no to things that are not good for them or could lead them away from their values and goals," Dr. Guarnotta says. "They recognize when they have an urge and think through the pros and cons before deciding how to move forward."

6. Assertiveness

Dr. Pausic says mentally tough women advocate for themselves and others.

"In a world where everyone prefers to talk and not listen, it can be hard to feel heard," Dr. Pausic says. "It can mean voicing your opinions and insights and feeling secure in your position."

7. Self-discipline

Mentally tough women don't need constant external nagging to stay on track. 

"Women with mental toughness are able to control their impulses, stay motivated and maintain a disciplined approach to achieving their objectives," Dr. Andreoli says. "They set clear goals, establish routines and follow through with their commitments."

8. Lifelong learners

Class is always in session, even after you've turned a tassel for the last time.

"As women progress throughout stages of their lives, having a desire to be open to new things is crucial," Dr. Pausic says. "Remain curious and open to new ideas and opportunities. None of us know it all and learning allows us to grow."

9. Ask for help

Sometimes, toughness means asking for help—seriously.

"It’s wrong to assume that people who are mentally tough can do everything on their own," Dr. Guarnotta says. "Women with mental toughness understand that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness."

Related: 7 Phrases To Ask for Support, According to a Therapist

10. Cope with emotions

Mentally tough women don't avoid emotions, including sadness and fear.

"We all experience negative feelings from time to time," Dr. Guarnotta says. "Women who are mentally tough rely on both emotion-focused and problem-focused coping strategies."

What's the difference? 

"Emotion-focused strategies help you manage your emotional response to stressors such as by journaling or meditating," Dr. Guarnotta says. "Problem-focused strategies, on the other hand, involve facing the stressor head on in. Examples include setting boundaries or making a to-do list."

11. Problem-solving skills

Let's double-tap on problem-solving.

"Women with mental toughness are adept problem solvers who approach challenges with a solution-oriented mindset," Dr. Andreoli says. "They can analyze situations, identify key issues and develop effective strategies to address problems effectively."

12. Self-efficacy

Dr. Preston says the psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura introduced the concept of self-efficacy.

"Self-efficacy is the belief that a person can control their motivation, behavior, level of effort and engagement with a particular set of variables to produce the desired outcome," Dr. Preston says.

For example, a mentally tough woman with self-awareness may know she lacks the talent to complete and outsource a specific task. Nope, that's not a sign of weakness. Here's what happens next.

"She spends more time and effort on these tasks because she believes this input will result in positive outcomes," Dr. Preston says.

13. Failure is inspiring

Mentally tough women may be high-achievers, but they totally fail and know that's OK.

"For many people, failure is the end of the road, but for mentally tough women, failure means that you need to go back to the drawing board and pivot," Dr. Guarnotta says. "Mentally tough women are inspired, not defeated, by failure."

Related: 40 Quotes About Success That Will Help You Accomplish Your Dreams

3 Steps to Build Mental Toughness

1. Take inventory

This step has two parts. Start from within.

"Take a personal inventory of your inner world—your innate skills, your innate struggles, your desires, your interests, what you want to devote your resources to and what you do not want to make space for," Dr. Preston says.

From there, you can envision how you want your outer world to look. This world includes who you surround yourself with most often and make space for, your current and ideal boundaries and goals for different aspects of your life.

"Look at your pillars to determine short-term, medium-term and longer-term goals," Dr. Preston recommends.

Related: 10 Simple Tips To Have Your Biggest Glow-Up in 2024, According to Life Coaches

2. Reframe how you think about rejection and failure

The 13th sign of mental toughness is vital.

"Women who are mentally tough take rejection and failure in stride," Dr. Guarnotta explains. "Examine your own beliefs about rejection and failure and shift them to be more empowering."

Dr. Guarnotta suggests repeating statements like, "Everyone gets rejected at times" and "Failure is just an obstacle." Then?

"They get back up," Dr. Guarnotta says.

Related: 35 Phrases To Disarm Your Inner-Critic, According to Therapists

3. Use various coping skills

There aren't magic bullets to building toughness.

"Try to learn a new coping skill each week," Dr. Guarnotta says. "For example, listen to the meditation video you’ve been wanting to try or join a book club to meet new people."

Related: This Shockingly Simply Habit Could Make a Huge Difference in Your Self-Esteem, According to a Life Coach

When Mental Toughness Goes Too Far

"Mental toughness is a great thing until it isn’t," Dr. Preston says. "Mental toughness is often experienced as a 'what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger' or 'I can get through anything' mentality. While this is admirable, there are times when mentally tough people take on the world—more than is reasonable or advisable—because of that kind of perspective."

That Rosie the Riveter meme may not be helpful to send a mom in the thick of postpartum depression. Speaking of which, Dr. Guarnotta says that mental toughness can become harmful if someone uses it to mask their emotions.

"A large part of coping involves being vulnerable and acknowledging and expressing your emotions," she says. "Vulnerability helps you to be more self-aware and strengthens your connections with other people."

Dr. Preston agrees and advises even the mentally toughest women to extend themselves hefty helpings of grace.

"Well-managed mental toughness is important, and it includes exercising self-compassion so you can persist when the challenge is difficult," she says.

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