Are You Mentally Tough Enough?

When you're faced with a real, "not sure I have it in me," kind of challenge at work how do you respond? You know those moments when you feel like you've already given something your very best shot, but for one reason or another it just doesn't seem to be working.

Do you get busy doing something else that's "really" important"? Do you put it in the "too hard" basket and move on? Or do you take a deep breath, square your shoulders, and start doing what really needs to be done?

Finding the psychological strength to face our challenges with courage and determination and to keep showing up even in the face of extreme adversity -- to truly demonstrate "guts" -- is something most of us struggle with in our jobs. Let's be honest, when it feels like we've reached the end of our psychological and physical resources, most of us are willing to believe that the "sensible" thing to do is give up.

But is this always true? You see studies suggest that being able to withstand the discomfort and negative emotions -- like fear, anxiety, anger, frustration or guilt -- that come from facing into difficult challenges is what actually allows us to become stronger, wiser, more mentally agile, and eventually happier.

This is why I coach my clients to imagine their unwelcome moments of adversity at work with a big red bow on top of them. It might be an overly demanding boss or client, hitting a seemingly impossible target or a high-risk innovation that's never been pulled off. These are the gifts we rarely ask for, but often the development opportunities we need most.

So what can we do to find the guts to conquer uncomfortable challenges?

Researcher and social activist Emilia Lahti suggests that while grit is helpful when it comes to long-term perseverance and resilience which can help us bounce back from our troubles, when it feels like you're at the end of your psychological and physical capacities what you need most is these moments is "sisu."

A 500-year-old Finnish construct, sisu is the ability to endure significant stress while taking action against seemingly impossible odds and extreme adversity. It's the conviction that we'll be all right even in the face of uncertain challenges that enables us to take the necessary actions to shape these outcomes so that we can endure, persevere and grow. It's how the Finnish explain their ability to hold off the might Soviet Army during the 1939 Winter War.

"Sisu is an action mindset," explains Emilia. "It's a consistent and courageous approach toward challenges that enables us to see beyond our present limitations and into what might be. It encourages 'what could be' thinking that enables us against all odds, against all logic, to keep going."

"Sisu isn't so much about achievement, but more about immersing yourself in an experience with every fiber of your being and not giving up. It's about equanimity, rationality and a kind of stoically silent, relentless action that allows you to face into your challenges with valor and determination," she says.

But if you weren't born in Finland where sisu is part of the national culture, what can you do to cultivate more sisu when it comes to your work?

While the research on sisu is still in the early stages, 83 percent of Finns surveyed believe that it is a psychological quality that can be developed through conscious effort.

"It appears that in cultivating sisu, you have to first determine the beliefs you hold about yourself and your abilities to handle challenges and adversities. Then, if needed, work toward establishing a new narrative that recognizes the power you have to make this happen," explains Emilia.

She suggests ways you might develop you sisu include:

  • Celebrate your past sisu - Finding the evidence of your own ability to overcome long odds, will help to give you confidence next time you have to take on an uncomfortable challenge. Take some time to reflect and savour your memories of using your sisu to show up and how it has provided you with a 'second wind' when you've most needed it at work.
  • Seek out opportunities to build your sisu - practice getting comfortable being uncomfortable. Look for opportunities to push beyond what you would normally do - run that extra mile, take on something that scares you, have that difficult conversation you've been putting off. What you experience in one situation translates into other parts of your life. As the father of modern psychology, William James once suggested: "Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they've got a second".
  • Recognize the sisu in others - you are deeply interconnected with others, so when you see someone really struggling try to help them tap into their sisu so they can find a way to push through. Acknowledge the strength in them, let them know that you've seen their ability to overcome the difficulties and encourage them to dig a little deeper as they face into their current challenge.

And then reach for your sisu in the moments when you most need it.

Of course like any psychological skill, it's important to be aware of the situation you're in and the outcome you're seeking when it comes to applying sisu. Too much sisu in some situations may lead to inflexible thinking, ineffective risk taking, burn out or physical harm. For this reason I suggest applying sisu mindfully.

Currently completing her PhD, you can learn more about Emilia's research and ways to apply sisu at work at www.emilialahti.com

Where might you benefit from practicing sisu in you work?