How the Finnish Concept of 'Sisu' Can Help You Through Tough Times
October 2, 2018
There are so many words that embody the essence of something so much better than the English language.
Japanese terms like kintsugi or shikata ga nai help us convey concepts that don’t necessarily have an equivalent in any other language. Hygge, or the art of getting cozy, is another. In fact, there’s a whole project, The Positive Lexicography Project, dedicated to these untranslatable words.
One of these words belongs to Finland: sisu. It’s a small word with a lot of power behind it, and there’s plenty that we can learn from those four letters.
People have prescribed different meanings to the word sisu, which is just a testament to how the concept can be molded in various ways.
"It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win,” The New York Times explained in 1940. Some roughly translate it to “strength of will” while others, like the very unofficial Urban Dictionary, describe it as a word similar to Nike’s slogan, “just do it.” Lecturer André Noël Chaker describes sisu as “courage on steroids...that makes you do the impossible.”
But researcher and social activist Emilia Lahti describes sisu succinctly as a “way of life to actively transform the challenges that come our way into opportunities, and build a bridge toward our best possible future self.”
Essentially, think of your sisu like that extra engine or gas tank tucked away for emergencies. When you’re stalling or stuck, tapping into your sisu might be the key ingredient to getting through a breakup or a rough patch at work.
But what does that look like IRL, since, well, we don’t actually have extra brain power to whip out in hard situations? Katja Pantzar sums it up perfectly in her book The Finnish Way in her description of what sisu represents to her. To Pantzar, it’s a “courageous mindset that embraces challenges, small and big.”
“It’s also the ability to act in the face of adversity. It’s an approach to life that is open to trying new things and new experiences and going beyond what we think might be our limits—whether physical, mental, or emotional,” she writes in The Finnish Way. "It’s also about looking for practical solutions and ways to move forward, to build up fortitude and resilience.”
"It’s the ability to act in the face of adversity. It’s an approach to life that is open to trying new things and new experiences and going beyond what we think might be our limits—whether physical, mental, or emotional."- Katja Pantzar, "The Finnish Way"
While it was coined and embraced by the people of Finland, you don’t have to be Finnish to tap into your inner sisu. We all have the capacity to make it through the hard times with the same spirit that the good folks of Finland seem to cherish.
If you find yourself in the midst of an uphill battle, consider reflecting on these steps to help propel you forward with a bit more self-confidence and eventually sprinkle sisu into your life.
Accept What Makes You You
Building resilience looks like a lot of different things to different people, but what matters most in wearying situations? How you see yourself.
Practice self-acceptance by making a list—mental or written—about things that make you unique. Reflect on how you've overcome some serious obstacles in the past (remember those? They felt impossible at first!), and hold onto these for those moments when you forget your own strength.
Practice ‘Realistic Optimism’
It’s impossible to be happy and optimistic all the time, especially when staring straight into a hardship. But realistic optimism, or the practice of using your optimism to make things happen as opposed to just allowing things to just happen, can help.
To start, take stock of what’s ahead of you today. Maybe it’s accomplishing that one weekend task you’ve still got to get done, or juggling a big personal project alongside work. Think about any challenges you may come across while taking these on, but instead of throwing in the towel, see yourself working through them. Knowing that, yes, things will be hard, but you can endure, will help you reach that finish line.
Visualize Your Sisu in Action
If you’re not quite ready to dive head deep into something scary—whether that’s a tough conversation you need to have with a friend or a series of challenges you’re working through in your head—try visualizing where you want to be.
The same parts of your brain are working when you visualize and when you take action, according to the Huffington Post, which means there’s a lot of power behind just picturing before doing.
Find a Mantra You Can Own
In those moments where you're stuck and can’t quite even visualize where to begin, try crafting your own personal mantra fit for the situation.
Pretend you’re talking your friend through your same hurdles. What would you say to them—and what’s stopping you from saying that to yourself? Try compacting that advice into a sentence, and self-talk it out by inserting your first name in that statement.
Even if you feel like you've lost your strength, your sisu is still there. You just have to actively tap into it. Hopefully, it's the new resilience tool you never knew you needed—even though it's one you've always had.