There is a word in the Finnish language that is considered to be the core characteristic of Finns – Sisu. Sisu cannot be translated literally, but loosely paraphrased it is the combination of extraordinary endurance in the face of adversity, stoic determination, bravery, resilience, perseverance and willpower.
It is what most Finns would consider to be the essence of Finnish spirit; a remnant of that Viking tenacity.
I would call it strength. The extreme, Finnish kind. The kind that makes you push an extra kilometer or two on your run, keeps you going when everything around you is falling apart and the odds seem to be against you. It helps you display perseverance even when you think you have reached the end of your mental and physical capacities.
Having spent my formative years (childhood, adolescence and most of my twenties) in Finland – a culture where ‘sisu’ or ‘extreme strength’ was considered a characteristic to be proud of – it’s no wonder I’ve always proudly identified myself as a strong Scandinavian woman. I truly believe it is this inner capacity that has helped see me through the past 24 months and the end of my marriage and given me the courage to rebuild my life. In the initial months and aftermath of my relationship breakdown, it was sisu that helped me push through when I thought I’d reached the end of my resources (if you’d like to read more about my journey over the past two years, read my previous blog).
The type of inner strength I’m talking about here is such an amazing characteristic; whether innate, learned or developed. It’s something, like a true Finn, I’m proud of. But with all things along the equilibrium of life: where there is push, there needs to be pull. Strength, especially when taken to extremes (like, I admit, at times with me…) can also make you stubborn (hello, have you met me?) and inflexible in your thinking. It can also mean you build walls to keep people out and that you are less likely to show your emotions; even the difficult ones such as sadness, pain or hurt. You may even find it hard to admit to yourself that you have these feelings at all.
As a strong Scandinavian woman, my coping mechanism when life gets tough and these emotions start to surface, has traditionally been fighting against them. And I don’t mean only fighting against showing these feelings outwardly, but actually trying not to feel painful emotions at all. Because to me, showing your emotions or admitting to them is a sign of being soft and weak. The opposite of having strength and sisu. And being strong means being stoic, and just pushing through, right?
Well not quite, as I’ve come to realise. About 9 months ago I reached a point where this old strategy that I thought had always worked so well, wasn’t really doing it for me anymore. Nothing groundbreaking happened, I just came to the realisation that although I was dealing with all the practicalities in my life and sorting myself out on the surface level, by concentrating on ‘being strong’ and ‘having sisu’, I wasn’t properly dealing with my emotions. This is partly because I thought I was dealing with them (in my own way) and partly because I wasn’t ready to admit to myself that I was just too scared to deal with it head on (and that if I ignored it long enough it might eventually subside). But those painful feelings, no matter how much I tried to ignore and pretend they didn’t exist, kept on resurfacing and causing havoc in my life; which lead to bad decisions, procrastination and just making me feel unhappy.
It took a lot of late night conversations with some amazing women in my life, great advice from some beautiful souls, and some serious soul searching, before I slowly started to realise that strength, although a great quality and one to be celebrated, really needs to be combined with softness. And this combination – which is mastered only by a few – is where true courage, and strength, lies. During my heart to hearts with friends, soul searching and meditation in solitude, I stumbled across the jewel of knowledge: allowing yourself to be soft doesn’t make you weak, it just makes you, well soft. And that’s actually quite a beautiful thing. A Kurt Vonnegut quote I have come across since sums it up perfectly:
“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”
So slowly, I started to allow myself to soften, to sit and process my emotions, to pause with consciousness. As the months progressed, I deliberately allowed myself to feel my emotions, the beautiful ones yes, but also painful ones – hurt, anger, pain, loneliness, rejection and fear. Through this process, I started realising that feeling the emotions I was once so scared of, was quite liberating. In fact, it actually took more strength to experience them fully than to fight them.
This journey of balancing strength and softness is not just about emotions and feelings. Being soft has also meant listening more. Listening to my intuition and trusting it more, listening to how I’m feeling and also listening to others more.
And as I have started to soften, I have seen such positive impacts on both my career and my friendships. I have realised how many of the women around me – those strong and capable women with tons of sisu – struggle with the exact balancing act of mastering being both strong and soft at the same time.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m still not, and never will be a “Sugar and spice and everything nice” kind of a girl (I can actually hear those who know me laugh at the very thought of it). I still have tons of sisu. I am a Viking after all! But getting in touch with my softer side and slowly developing it has actually made me happier,and ironically, I’ve never felt stronger.
You should try it too.
Niina is our Lumi co-founder, a digital project manager for a not-for-profit and a lover of all things healthy. She is passiotne about global development, fitness+healthy living, entrepreneurship, strategy+ branding+good design & helping women reach their full potential. Niina grew up in Finland, but has been calling Australia home for the past 10 years.