What is Sisu?

Becky Banham
By Becky Banham,
updated on Jul 29, 2019

What is Sisu?

Never give up, keep fighting, always do the best you can. If you’ve ever had to dig deep and find a strength you never knew you had, you’re already embracing sisu

It’s a term that dates back hundreds of years in Finnish culture. But, like many Scandinavian words, sisu doesn’t have a direct translation in English – which means it’s quite problematic for me to try to explain. But it’s a trait you’ve undoubtedly experienced before at some point in your life...

To help, we can look to the origins of the word for a little more clarity. ‘Sisus’ literally means ‘internal’, which is why it is sometimes translated to ‘guts’ or ‘inner strength’, and is often used synonymously with grit, determination, and resilience.

But, perhaps better than these clumsy attempts at translation, there’s a popular song lyric that I think sums up sisu perfectly: ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’ – thank you, Billy Ocean. Basically, when life becomes difficult, your inner strength comes out to meet the challenge.

What is sisu?

The Finns believe that everyone has a certain amount of sisu within them; it just may sometimes lie dormant or be blocked by fears or uncertainty. Of course, we all face times or situations that are more difficult than others. But sisu is about facing a challenge head-on, despite any doubt or insecurity you may be feeling.

man with glasses smiling and look at the sun

In Scandinavian culture, sisu is viewed positively as the art of courage – in fact, for many, it’s a part of being Finnish. And it’s not only Finland that embraces a gritty element to their national character; the Japanese have their own version, ganbaru, which means to slog on tenaciously through rough times. And, if we look a little closer to home, there’s the concept of the British stiff upper lip.

But, is it just me, or do these concepts feel a little reminiscent of wartime resilience? Should we still strive for this level of resilience in the world we live in today?

In search of an answer, I spoke to Zeenat Noorani, a resilience and wellbeing coach.

“I believe that having balanced elements of perseverance, grit, and resilience allows us to achieve desired outcomes when facing adversity, without costing our mental health. The key to resilience, in order to achieve success, is having a positive and healthy balance in mindset, empathy, and compassion.”

Perhaps, then, it’s the element of compassion where modern-day resilience comes into its own.

The importance of self-compassion

Finnish mountaineer Veikka Gustafsson once said: “The biggest obstacles are between our ears; what we tell ourselves.” It’s often true that the biggest challenges we face are the ones in our own minds, which is why combining compassion alongside sisu is incredibly important.

Sisu isn’t about ignoring or suppressing emotional pain, and it’s certainly not about continually pushing yourself to the ends of your capabilities, day in, day out. It’s about acknowledging difficulties (whether they are coming from within your own mind or are imposed from the world around you) and doing what is needed to rise above them.

“It is our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours which will, or will not, enable us to reach desired goals. We each need to consider our own limitations and capabilities, and reflect on whether these bring us the results we truly want,” says Zeenat.

How can we embrace our sense of sisu?

The tricky part about mental strength, grit, resilience, sisu – or whatever you want to call it – is that we know little about how to build it. Although we can all recognise what these traits represent, the meanings and behaviours that accompany them can be personal to each of us.

Sisu isn’t about climbing the whole mountain, it’s about finding the strength to take the first step

Zeenat explains: “I assist my clients to foster their skills in resilience and grit through evaluating their own behavioural patterns, and exploring their strengths and weakness. By acknowledging their strengths and weakness, clients can implement resilience by breaking negative patterns, and replacing these with positive thought patterns.”

So, whenever you’re going through a tough time, take a moment to show yourself some kindness. Recall moments in your life when you embraced your inner strength. Overcome that critical inner voice by remembering past times when you exceeded your own expectations in order to get through.

It’s not all about what you can do yourself, or training your internal thoughts, though. One important factor in embracing sisu is that it requires an action-oriented mindset. Particularly when you’re struggling, one of the best ways to access support is to reach out to others. Having the courage to ask for help is perhaps one of the best indicators of strength.

Whatever struggle you’re facing, in whatever aspect of your life, you can embrace sisu. It isn’t about climbing the whole mountain, it’s just about finding the strength to take the first step.

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