Are You Tougher Than You Think?

An interview with Emilia Lahti.

Posted Jan 10, 2018

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Source: istock

Do you wonder what might happen if your life was suddenly turned upside down? Unfortunately, life can sometimes take a turn for the worse. Sometimes it happens in the blink of an eyelid—the loss of a loved one, an unexpected redundancy, a serious injury or illness, or a community tragedy that touches you deeply. Or it can happen much more slowly, such as a destructive relationship that undermines your confidence and well-being. Are you confident enough to navigate your way through these challenges?

“We are all capable of exceeding ourselves during times of significant stress or adversity by tapping into the deep resources and energy that we may not have realized even existed," said researcher and social activist Emilia Lahti when I recently interviewed her.

Lahti calls this phenomenon Sisu. Sisu is a 500-year-old Finnish construct, relating to mental toughness and the ability to endure significant stress while taking action against seemingly impossible odds. It doesn’t apply to the everyday hassles you may experience, but rather helps you deal with significant adversity and tough challenges. It’s about finding that extra source of energy to help you keep going even though you feel exhausted and depleted.   

Different from grit and resilience, William James, the father of modern American psychology, likened this latent source of power to your second wind.

While grit is maintaining your passion and perseverance over a period of time to pursue your long-term goals, Sisu is more about short intense bursts of extraordinary strength and courage to stretch yourself beyond your capacities and help you overcome tough obstacles or breach difficult gaps. And whereas resilience is being able to bounce back from adversity or stress, sometimes you need Sisu to keep fighting the undercurrents before you get to this moment.   

Lahti acknowledges that getting through adversity isn’t an easy process. You may need time to heal and access to good resources and social support. “When you are taking action against the odds and stretching yourself to your limits, it may seem like there’s no progress at times,” she says. “But as long as you keep taking one step at a time, however small, eventually you can reach your destination.” And research suggests it is possible to experience post-traumatic growth, through which you grow and become stronger, not despite your adversities, but because of them.

Lahti offers five suggestions for developing your capacity to tap into Sisu at work:

  • Build psychological safety. The belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake is critical for fostering Sisu in the workplace. Psychological safety can give you the space to speak your mind and stand up for what is important, to be innovative, and to take action despite the risk of failing or making mistakes.

  • Adopt an action mindset. Rather than shying away from challenges, when you demonstrate Sisu, you have a consistent and courageous approach of taking action in the face of stress or adversity, despite your fears and uncertainties. It involves having a growth mindset where you see potential failure as an opportunity to learn, grow, and continually improve.

  • Recall moments of Sisu. The negativity bias we all have means that it’s easier to recall the times when you haven’t coped or things haven’t gone well. Overcome your inner critic by taking the time to consider a tough time in your past when you exceeded your expectations to get through. Write this down and use it when you need to remind yourself that you have a good track record of overcoming adversity.

  • Reach out to others. Sometimes when you’re struggling in a dark place you may find it difficult to ask for help. However, it’s not always possible to do it alone, and by reaching out to others you can gain power by having your strength and courage reflected back to you from someone else’s eyes.

  • Create space for Sisu in others. In this way, they can also tap into their inner energy and power to reach their best potential. Use genuine compassion when your colleagues are going through tough times to recognize their suffering as part of what we all share to be human, and respond in ways to understand or alleviate their pain.

Learn more about Emilia Lahti's work here.