We hear it all the time. Motivational and inspirational coaches charge our souls, spark hope, and boost self-determination. They often speak of an “inner strength” living inside available for that extra push when discouragement descends and depresses. Is there a hidden reservoir power buried in our psyche that raises to challenges, giving a supporting hand when life outmatches our capabilities? Or, perhaps, a spark of divinity that rescues the defeated soul?
Many have succeeded when loud clamoring fears screamed they could not. These successes stand as a witness for the existence of an inner strength—a power to stand against the wind, and survive the storm. I believe inner strength exists, not as a mysterious power, but as a pool of resources, carefully developed and stored that we can draw upon during extreme moments, requiring more than ordinary response.
Psychology and Inner Strength
For psychology to continue to claim itself as a branch of science, the field must not draw upon vague and mystical definitions. Science demands universal acceptance of definitions. In the case of inner strength, psychologists use the term to refer loosely to a wide range of mental and emotional resources, such as: regulating behaviors, valuable skills and motivating attitudes). Inner strength, according to psychologists, then, is a compilation of behaviors, proficiencies, and thoughts that keep us stable enough to adapt to the taxing demands of life.
“No matter what kind of challenges or difficulties or painful situations you go through in your life, we all have something deep within us that we can reach down and find the inner strength to get through them.”Alana Stewart
Rick Hansen wrote in a wonderful Psychology Today article that “inner strengths are the supplies you’ve got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life. They include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. Researchers have identified other strengths as well, such as self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response, self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive functions” (2014).
Finding Our Inner Strength
It would be nice to be able to predict how we will react under extreme circumstances. Often, those predictions fail. We learn about ourselves by observing our response when beleaguered and stressed. The Dalai Lama explains that “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways – either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.” During the distressing moments, we not only discover how strong we are but where we derive that strength.
“Faith gives you an inner strength and a sense of balance and perspective in life.”Gregory Peck
We find different sources at different times. The Dalai Lama relies on calm mind for inner strength, Gregory Peck found inner strength through faith, and Kathy Bates stated her inner strength was derived from her friends. Angela Duckworth PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the best seller Grit, refers to inner strength as “a sort of psychological capital” (2018).
One of the favorite words in the Finland is “sisu“. To be a real Finn, they say, you must have sisu. The Finish sisu is psychological capital. A word that symbolizes the psychological trait 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. Sisu, or inner-strength, amps up the energy when we feel like we have nothing left to give. In those frightening and desperate moments, we silence our fears just enough to take one more step forward.
“When we are positive, possess self-confidence, and have a clear goal, we approach our goals with energy and are willing to persist even in the face of difficulties.”Dan Garro
Developing Inner Strength
We develop inner strength through attending to multiple disciplines. The professional carpenter doesn’t expand his trade by getting a continuously larger hammer. The carpenter expands his expertise by acquiring skill in a diverse selection of tools. Inner strength is much the same way. We need a variety of tools in our box. As we refine our skills in multiple areas, we find that we have an answer during those frightening moments that require more. We have a variety skilled responses for taking one more step.
Here are a few of the tools we should practice, sharpen, and have at our disposal:
Acting in the moment of emotional upheaval requires the ability to regulate emotions. A set of skills to up and down regulate arousal so that emotions contribute to healthy pursuit of goals. Overwhelming emotions interfere with goals and motivate maladaptive reactions that invite chaos and disrupt development.
Leslie Greenberg explains, “problems in fragile personalities arise most from deficits in the more implicit forms of regulation of emotion and emotional intensity” (2015). Greenberg describes implicit forms of regulation are the self regulating soothing that we automatically and unconsciously employ. The ideal reaction to emotional affect is referred to as emotional productivity, that is, our emotion motivates effective action. We develop emotional regulatory skills through a number of practices, most notably is through regular mindfulness exercises, using our observing ego to examine ourselves and our reaction to surrounding environments.
Eugene Gendlin outlined a mindfulness program he calls “focusing“. Focusing is a multistep practice for identifying and reacting to feeling affects.
Other mindfulness practices may include:
Relationships, at first glance, appear to be an outer resource rather than inner capital—and they are. However, the skills of relating are a significant inner resource that can rescue us during the most trying circumstances. If social anxieties reign, we will suffer alone. Consequently, learning the intricate skills of interaction, embracing humility, sincerity, and vulnerabilities can save us in moments of emotional distress. We can’t learn these critical skills when overly distressed.
Diana Fosha explains that relationships are key for developing emotional regulation skills. She explains that “optimally, affects develop in the transitional space between self and other, where they can unfold, evolve, and resonate, acquiring meaning and enrichment as they are reflected by the other. By seeing one’s affects outside oneself, so to speak, in the countenance of the other, they become more real. The experience of affects becomes more alive, textured, and differentiated with layers of associations; affects thus shared are integrated into the individual’s repertoire to contribute to inner resourcefulness” (2000, location 884).
Habits of Action
Responding to stress with action is a habit. If we habitually act instead of withdraw, it becomes automatic. I’m not suggesting blindly react in fierce defense–this can be maladaptive. Basically, the goal is responding to emotion productively and effectively. Jennifer Maanavi, Owner, CEO and Co-Founder of Physique 57 has experienced her share of difficulty. She counsels “being strong relies on the efficient use of energy,” she continues “indecision saps energy and promotes the failure to act, so learn to be decisive. I consider that a gift you give to yourself and others” (Daum, 2017).
I found that after the the initial shock of tragedy, its the first action that appears formidable. If we can make just one decisive action at the beginning, the next action is not so terrifying.
An maladaptive response to stress is self criticism. A habit we often inherit from care givers. Research suggests that extreme self criticism suppresses action. Instead of responding productively we sulk over our stupidity for not correctly predicting and avoiding the disaster. Perhaps, we could have avoided the event, however, it is done. The unpleasant has happened and must be dealt with, not mourned over. While self-criticism may be the cause, research identifies self compassion as the remedy.
We can embrace our imperfections with kindness and forgiveness. Accordingly, we must warmly accept our humanness.
A realistic optimism is a tremendous source of strength. Markedly, overly pessimistic outlooks paint a bleak picture of possibility. When reality is already dark, adding an extra layer of doom depresses. We need to be enlivened with hope. Corrective action must seem possible. We must believe in ourselves, others and the opportunity for betterment. We can examine our outlook on life and work to implement a cheerier view, full of possibility.
We can never prepare for every contingency but neglecting to prepare for the possibility of life interruptions will leave us stunned when they arrive—and they eventually do arrive. Contingency planning keeps an emergency stash of responses readily available. The person in recovery can have a set of prepared resources in place for the event of a lapse. The preplanned may prevent a full blown relapse.
Waiting for the emergency to plan is a surefire recipe for failure. Under extreme arousal our minds ability to think constricts, losing perspective on long range goals. Markedly, contingency planning provides a set of of actions to get us moving forward while waiting for the fog to clear.
Books on Inner Strength
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
Building resources by increasing our emotional and psychological capital is necessary to succeed on our flourishing journey of wellness. Each of us have different balances in the many possible sources of strength. In conclusion, a growth mindset prepares for the future, developing strength and collecting resources. In conclusion, these purposeful preparations can be called upon in those times of need.
Daum, K. (2017) 9 Ways to Build Your Inner Strength. Inc. Published 1-13-2017. Accessed 9-28-2021.
Duckworth, Angela (2018). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner; Illustrated edition.
Ensslin, Sophia, O. (2018). What is Inner-strength and how do we cultivate it? Reflection Pond. Published 2-2-2018. Accessed 9-28-2021.
Fosha, Diana (2000). The Transforming Power Of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books; 0 edition.
Greenberg, Leslie S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association; 2nd edition.
Griggs, U. (2021). How to Find Your Inner Strength and Let It Shine. Lifehack. com. Published 1-12-2021. Accessed 9-28-2021.
Hanson, R. (2014). Grow Inner Strengths. Psychology Today. Published 10-6-2014. Accessed 9-28-2021.
Robbins, T. (2019). Finding the inner strength. Tonyrobbins.com. Accessed 9-28-2021.