Seething inside me is a dark image. A picture of myself that I'd like to change. Part of my journey into Stoicism is about how to gain a more balanced interior world. That begins with taking a step back to acknowledging how I got here.
For me, much of it boils own to the simple idea that I grew up with, reinforced by countless teachers, people all around me, and our culture's preoccupation with "perfect girls." The basic concept: "You should act smart because you are smart.” And more than that: "Be perfect."
This approach implies that being/acting intelligent and competent defines your self-worth. Supporting this line of thinking, the next logical step is to believe that the highest grades, scholastic achievement, degrees, and prestigious careers are marks of your worthiness as a human being. Praise is what matters, and getting something wrong is shameful.
For me, this kind of mentality led to a trap of constant self-doubt about and negativity around my own sense of value, wholeness, and, ultimately, happiness. For years, I’d often tell myself how “stupid” or “idiotic” I was for making what I perceived to be a "dumb" mistake. I’d even say “I am worthless" or "I hate myself.”
I internalized the idea that I had to be perfect, that I couldn’t make a simple error without demonstrating that, in reality, I wasn’t smart or valuable, but in fact, I was incompetent and a failure.
Why did I persist in believing this in the face of so much evidence that I was indeed, in most people's eyes, a capable, intelligent, and strong individual?
I have a theory. Over the years, I used this thinking as a protective shield in some twisted way. In 12-step programs, people look at how their addiction “served” served them in a sense. Perhaps that has been true here too. If I could preventatively say, “What an idiot I am!” then I knew deep down I would feel it less when someone else said it (or when I thought someone might say it under their breath). I’d be somehow immune when other people pointed out my flaws or shortcomings. My horrible self-talk formed a series of pre-emptive strikes.
I’d also force myself to work harder that way: “If I’m not prepared for this test, the teacher will think I’m a dunderhead, I’ll get a bad grade, and I’ll never be successful.” “If I don’t ace this interview, I must be truly incompetent, and I won't really deserve a good job. What a failure I am.” And so on.
Weird and absurd, right? Yet that’s how messed up I’ve been on the inside. That’s the kind of treatment of my own psyche that I used to propel myself forward through very competitive schools and tough work environments.
It has also taken a tremendous toll.
I have had a Dorian Gray-like picture of myself hidden away inside me, eating away at everything good.
You likely recall the Oscar Wilde story: a handsome young man hides away a painting of himself, one that ages and decays and sours and becomes monstrous as he commits bad acts. Meanwhile, his real body remains beautiful (on the outside).
My self-portrait carries the marks of emotional wounds, often self-inflicted, but dangerous nonetheless.
The acid effect of internal damage finally became too great when I found myself trying to drive my own children using the same mentality. Of course, I want them to know I have high expectations because they can live up to them and be their best selves. But I don’t want to plant a Dorian within their young, vulnerable hearts.
That is why I began, a couple years back, to work on my negativity and lack of self-compassion. I took classes on meditation and on mindfulness, I studied compassion and Buddhism, I met with counselors, I did self-assessments of who I am and how I got here, and where to go next to get over this mentality and be healthier.
I learned to care about my own suffering more. The very first step was to actually notice it, to be aware of how I talked to myself. I began slowly to try to focus on satisfying moments rather than fears.
This is a work in progress that still needs a lot of effort. But at least now I can break down why I feel this way in a more granular understanding.
Among all these efforts, my studies of Stoicism and of recovery from addictive behavior have had the most lasting and helpful effect. I am trying now to give my darker thoughts up to the universe and to the force for good instilled in humanity, that “divine spark” that Marcus Aurelius and others refer to.
I have to remember to protect my own spark. Even from myself.
A quote to meditate on:
“The duration of a person’s life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to unravel. Her soul is a restless vortex, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; in a word, as a rushing stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as smoke, so are all that belong to the soul. Life is a warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land. Fame after life is nothing more than oblivion.
What is it then that will guide us? One thing alone: philosophy. And philosophy consists in this, for a woman to preserve that inner genius or divine spark which is within her, from violence and injuries, and above all pains or pleasures; never to do anything either without purpose, or falsely, or hypocritically: wholly to depend from herself and her own proper actions: all things that happen to her to embrace contentedly, as coming from the Eternal from whom she also came...”
A woman-centric version of Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, Book II, Section 15
I promised I’d post about how the 8 and 9-year-olds responded to my mindfulness and contemplation training for a small group of girls at a local elementary school. My daughter participated, which gave me a good sense for how things were going (she can be brutally honest about her opinions!). The program was more successful than I’d imagined and motivated me to keep thinking about how to share these ideas locally and beyond.
I wanted the kids to understand the context for why this matters—and how we can influence how our brains work. We all began by thinking back to the time when the human brain first evolved. What was the world like? The students chimed in with a lot of reasons why humans would be afraid of things like lightning and wooly mammoths and running out of food. (Although one girl’s claim that people were fearful that they would be eaten by dinosaurs had to be quickly discounted!) The students grasped how hard life must have been.
I asked them to try to understand that nowadays, we view the small annoyances and setbacks of modern Western existence as if they were equally life-threatening dangers. And that we can develop bad habits of the mind as a result. I used the example of my response to someone not replying to my email – was my message stupid? Will that person tell other folks that I’m an idiot? Could I be fired from my job because I’m not smart enough? Will I then starve? This kind of thinking is sometimes called catastrophizing. It’s common in my brain and seems to happen to a lot of us.
(If you’ve seen the short film called Inner Workings that is now showing before the movie Moana, you’ll understand that it is a perfect example of what I mean. The main character, a guy whose body we can peer into like in an anatomy textbook, is pulled by the lure of fun things like eating a big delicious breakfast and going swimming or surfing in the ocean. But his brain keeps pointing out all the threatening, dangerous things that could happen to him if he chases fun. These possibilities always lead to an illustration of an early grave in his mind’s eye.)
Next, I explained to the students how to do a personal weather report about how they feel. I liked this idea because it’s such a neutral, non-judgmental way to think about our own emotions. In the same way that you can’t change or control the weather, you can’t always change your feelings—but you can notice them and be aware. I had all the students close their eyes and ask themselves quietly if they felt stormy, rainy, snowy, sunny, cloudy, tropical, etc., in their own minds. My daughter thought this was a useful exercise.
I included a few other metaphors that didn’t register as well with the third graders. For instance, the notion of “surfing your emotions” turned out to be pretty abstract to them. I got a few vacant stares and quickly moved on.
We did a five-minute guided meditation using a recording from the UCLA online center. It focuses on calming the mind and gently breathing, but not much else—just a very simple pause. Most of the girls engaged with it. A few kept giggling, and one said she thought it was creepy. I asked that girl afterwards to explain what she meant, but she wouldn't respond. Possibly it was the recorded voice—which was a sort of monotone. I found it soothing, but kids might not all agree. Next time, I would try to bring in a bell or a block to strike when the meditation time is over. The students would pay attention to an intriguing sound, I think, and I could use my own voice rather than a recording.
At the session’s end, I briefly explained that we could use meditation to develop compassion and loving-kindness towards others and ourselves. The girls closed their eyes and thought of a friend or family member, repeating to themselves, “May she/he find joy and peace.” They did the same with themselves: “May I find joy and peace.”
Feedback on this session has been positive. I’d like to pursue more testing of this teaching soon. More to do in 2017!
I talked to my 11-year-old daughter this weekend about ancient philosophy and how Stoic "slogans" can help us keep things in perspective. (My previous post offered up quite a few of these brief maxims.) She focused in on the biggie in Stoicism: "Some things are under my control and other things are not." And then, "What is beyond my control is indifferent to me."
The question she asked is a very valid one: What is really indifferent? Why shouldn’t you care about things you can't control? Even simple things like weather?
This is one of the biggest hurdles that we face as modern Stoic thinkers. How should we relate to those things that we can’t control, but that do affect us?
Just take weather. If it’s stormy and lightning fills the sky, we can’t realistically go out and swim in an outdoor pool. If the temperature is 105 degrees, maybe we shouldn’t run that marathon.
Or I could ask just as easily, how can I not care when one of my children starts screaming, ratcheting up emotional pressure on me? Or when another driver cuts me off in traffic, endangering us both? Or when a financial investment I made loses a ton of money, because of unpredictable market “corrections,” and now I can’t afford to move to a bigger home or even take a vacation?
For ancient Roman Stoics, the stakes were even higher. Rome was not exactly known for the stability of its leadership, despite its political and military strengths. Ancient men and women were subject to capricious banishment and summary executions. In the very first section of his Discourses, Stoic thinker (and ex-slave) Epictetus writes about men being sent to be beheaded, and how they face their end. (Literally sticking out their necks.)
Thankfully, most people today aren’t being sent to live on a rock in the Mediterranean, and the majority of governments don’t kill execute folks on a whim. Certainly, there are many perilous life circumstances out there. But even our regular old "first world" problems create plenty of situations where we are horribly disappointed and confused—when life doesn’t turn out like we expect it to.
That’s when we can try to fall back on the most basic principle of Stoic philosophy: Some things are in my control, and some are not. Whatever I can’t change, I have to accept and that means it is separate from me, indifferent.
Ideally, when things happen outside my control that seem pretty unfavorable, I could work to find ways to change my own behavior--and my own thought process--to make my situation better. So if it’s 105 degrees, no marathon, but maybe I can find an indoor gym with a treadmill. If my child is screaming, I could give her a pillow to punch and scream at, and go into another room. (I seem to recall that when one of my babies was colicky and hollering, someone told me I could put on noise-cancelling headphones to block out the constant sound of crying!) If my investment turns sour, maybe I could try a stay-cation this year and find a new source for investment advice, postponing the house move for a year. Not ideal, I realize, but these are just a few of the ways that we can adjust our actions.
Often, it's the emotional reactions we experience that are much tougher on us than the changed behavior itself.
That's because of a simple concept. It’s when our circumstances don’t match our expectations that we suffer. I’ve learned about this in my Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford, where we focus on how to bring compassion to the suffering of others and of ourselves. (More on that in an upcoming post.)
Perhaps the most important lesson of Stoicism is that we ought to adjust our expectations. We can try not be so quick to compare our situations to others' that we assume are more advantageous. Our endless wishes for money (and what it can buy), status, and power—so deeply infused in our competitive culture—can cause us pain when they don’t come true.
And even when they do come true it can result in problems for us, which the Stoics clearly recognized when they professed a mistake for fame, fortune, and prestige. Sadly, we are not "entitled" to perfect children, high-paying investments, pristine houses, and dream vacations. We’ll sure be lucky if we get them, but that won’t necessarily satisfy us--and, after all, we could lose them. It’s learning to be happy with what we have in front of us that is the real dream we all can strive for. (Myself included!)
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.