Want a meaningful holiday gift you can give to yourself? Try self-compassion.
You may ask yourself: Why do I need to focus on self-compassion? Take this 10 second quiz. How many times in the last few weeks have said to yourself something like: “That was so stupid, why did I do that?” Or: "I wish I hadn't said that silly comment... It sounded dumb.” Or: “Why do I always make these ridiculous mistakes? Can’t I do anything right?”
If you’re like me, you hear that voice in your head far too frequently. And it’s a tough thing.
How did I get so hyper-self-critical? My theory is that I have used these voices to drive myself forward and to cope, however incompetently, with my worries about my performance and my mistakes.
Somehow, in the depths of my consciousness, being my own harshest critic seemed preferable to waiting for other people to notice a mistake and criticize me. And it gave me a dark momentum. The more I berated myself internally, the more I pushed myself to do challenging things. “It’s not good enough” simply meant I had to try harder and be even more critical of myself or my work.
I’ve learned from studying Stoic life philosophy, and from working with ideas from cognitive behavioral therapy, that this is NOT a healthy way to achieve motivation or to “protect” myself from outside criticism. It’s just a bad idea, and it is one that I try to help short-circuit in my daughters' thinking. (I am doing OK in that department: In fact, if my kids hear my self-critical narration out loud, they now tell me: “Mom, that's not true! That wasn't stupid!”)
Fortunately, I’ve found some better approaches: Self-compassion, and a less judgmental perspective on myself and my world based on Stoic ideas. Now, when I hear that harsh voice, I try to remember these words from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations:
“I am not justified in causing myself pain, for I have never deliberately caused pain to another.”
This thought shifted my whole perspective on the emotional harm I’m doing to myself when I let my inner critic go wild. Why cause internal pain to myself, when I’d never choose to do that to someone else?
Let’s put Marcus’ quote to work when I think about the inner monologue that started this post. Would I say the same nasty things to a friend, calling her stupid, dumb, essentially worthless? No! Of course not. I love my friends. Plus, we wouldn’t stay friends for long if I were so unkind. Would I say these things to one of my kids? No! It would be considered verbally abusive, and it would cause shame and hurt their morale going forward.
I knew my approach had to change a few years ago when I started reading the work of Kristin Neff, an academic researcher in psychology who has focused on self-compassion who also teaches and writes for the general public. I’ve learned a lot about how to cause less inner pain to myself by following her approaches. I’ll share here a glimpse into Neff’s work, and you’ll see how well it resonates with Stoic ideas.
Neff explains that self-compassion consists of three components: self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity.
Self-kindness is the conscious decision to view yourself with kindness and affection, rather than ignoring internal pain or being harshly self-critical. When their expectations are not met (however unrealistic), people tend to feel increased stress and frustration, and may launch into self-criticism. But when we accept the reality of our situation, with less judgment and with more equanimity, level-headedness is possible. (This is a very Stoic concept.) In truth, all people are imperfect, make mistakes, and deal with difficulties in life. It is inevitable. Our choice to be kind to ourselves rather than express negative emotions is a choice we can all make.
Mindfulness focuses on noticing your thoughts, emotional reactions, and sensations in the present moment without judgment. Common humanity means that we understand that all humans share vulnerabilities, deal with frustrations and disappointments, and are less than perfect. It’s a recognition that we are all in the same boat—which helps us gain more compassion towards ourselves and others, as well as a pro-social connection.
Which leads me to an important point: It’s not like my inner monologue is doing any good. Neff cites research about motivation showing that people who are kind to themselves about their mistakes and failures—people who have self-compassion—are more likely to set new goals for themselves rather than ruminating about their disappointments and frustrations. They also have been shown to demonstrate healthier behaviors and stick to their health-related goals, such as quitting smoking, exercising, working towards weight loss. Self-critics are more likely to be anxious and depressed, and they harbor a fear of failure because they view mistakes as unacceptable, Neff says.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, gives kids and adults the “emotional resources” they need to pick themselves up and try again. The self-compassionate people Neff has studied find a way to accept past mistakes and acknowledge them with equanimity, while moving on.
In other words: Motivation doesn't have to rely on stark self-criticism. Instead, it can spring from the recognition that no one is perfect and we’re doing our best, and that we always have the opportunity to improve (even in small ways).
The gift of self-compassion doesn’t end after we make a decision to treat ourselves this more kindness, mindfulness, and awareness of common humanity. Like other life philosophy practices, it may take constant reminders and a long period of time to train ourselves to think differently. But what a gift if we can do so.
Times are tough in the sixth month of the pandemic. Gut-wrenching losses have set in: Friends and acquaintances have experienced the loss of loved ones from Covid-19; others are being laid off from jobs due to the economic impact of the virus. My children are bracing for months of online school and a continued lack of close contact with teachers and peers, as well as the disappearance of many school-based activities (sports, arts) that made their schooldays more palatable. On top of that, the fight for equal justice carries on in our communities in the US. And here in Northern California, enormous forest fires sparked by lightning have consumed towns and hillsides, and the smoke has made local air unhealthy to breath.
It is difficult, at times, to feel optimism. But carry on we must. As a friend recently pointed out, “If my grandmother could survive a genocide in Europe, I can survive this.”
True. Things could be worse. And for many of us, a refresher course in basic Stoic principles for self-improvement could help us bear up through this. Who knows, maybe we’ll even make a little personal progress in handling adversity in this awful time?
Lessons from Epictetus: How to Make Progress
This brings us to Epictetus. In Discourses III.2, he explores “What a person must train himself in if he is to make progress, and that we neglect what is most important.” Let’s take a moment to dig into this text, and to see if it can help us gain perspective on our current situation.
Epictetus discusses “three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained.” Those three are the study of:
Epictetus says that most philosophers have focused on the third element, while neglecting the first two. So it’s to the first two that we must bring our attention. Let’s begin:
Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions, for these arise in no other way than through our being frustrated in our desires and falling into what we want to avoid. This is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason. (III.2.3)
Starting with how to handle negative emotions: During this pandemic, we are constantly assaulted by our passions and our “desires and aversions.”
Social Humans Face an Inner Conflict
As we live in quarantines and lockdowns, we face a difficult inner conflict. Throughout human history, as Stoics and other ancient philosophers acknowledged, we have been a social species. Humans have banded together since prehistoric times to fend off threats. Humans have thrived on contact with each other, and on the essential social supports that parents and grandparents provide children, teachers provide students, friends provide peers, employers provide staff, generals provide soldiers. Cutting off our human contact—or turning it completely “virtual” on artificial screens—will inevitably have an impact on our inner life.
Put another way: We humans have a strong (and very natural) desire to congregate with our families and friends; we have a longing to go out and enjoy the restaurants, theaters, concerts, gyms, sports, and salons we know and love from the past; we enjoy travel, experiencing new things, and celebrating personal milestones out in the world with our peers and colleagues.
Here’s where the conflict comes in. On the aversion side, we wish to avoid disease and our loved ones falling ill. Clearly, we want to stay away from people and places that may spread infection. So our wish to be together and to support one another in our many roles clashes with the new imperative to “social distance.”
Let’s also acknowledge that many people have no choice but to live in this conflicted space: they need to avoid losing their livelihood in an essential or service job, and to do so, they have to expose themselves to situations that may harbor the virus. Or they are parents whose school is opening up: they want their children to learn, and to do so may require a risk of exposure.
All of these wishes create a huge battle in our minds, one that often overwhelms people and drives them to self-destructive behaviors. For instance, huge house parties have popped up in the Hamptons and in Los Angeles, despite the warnings of doctors and scientists that this can spread disease. And some people are making a political issue out of the imperative to protect ourselves and others, refusing to do one of the few things that could prevent the spread of Covid: wear masks in public.
Stoicism reminds us of the essential moral duty to master our passions. Rather than be led by our knee-jerk impulses or our stubborn desires, we have an obligation to look at the bigger picture and draw upon our sense of reason to develop a clear idea of the best path forward. We have to work to question each impression and each decision, to ensure that we have seen the whole truth of the matter. This takes both energy and discipline—both of which are in short supply in a suffering world.
It’s not straightforward, either. It’s about weighing risk, too, and unfortunately we still don’t know how much risk is involved in many activities today. For example, a local summer camp asked my daughter to attend in person, having gained permission for smaller groups to participate, with counselors wearing masks. Ultimately, we decided there would be an unknown amount of risk, and since we had little control over how the health policies would be enforced at the camp, we decided to keep our daughter home. Extra YouTube and Netflix time over the summer seemed a small price to pay for more certainty. On the other hand, my daughters have both been allowed to visit friends at the park, or on bike rides, in a socially-distant setting, where they have some control of the situation.
But the length of time of our pandemic restrictions is wearing on all of us. I’ve noticed that this is a time when many of us feel we are losing the motivation to do the kinds of things (get exercise, eat right, work hard in remote situations) that could benefit us in the long run. There’s a kind of fatigue that sets in dealing with the isolation, uncertainty, lack of knowledge, financial hardships, and, in some cases, medical issues, of the pandemic.
What Could Help Most: Preserving Our Relationships
So we can already see how difficult this situation is for our rational brains, and we need to think about our desires and aversions in a new light during a pandemic. Now moving on to the second “study” of Epictetus, I’ll quote him here:
The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honors the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen. (III.2.4)
This passage makes clear that we need not become the kind of Stoic that Star Trek’s “Mr. Spock” represents—distant, unemotional, and stony. We are not statues, nor are we robots. I admire the way Epictetus weaves in personal relationships here, because I believe that’s what could help us the most during this difficult time.
Most of us have a relationship with someone: A parent, spouse or partner, child, close friend. Or perhaps you have a relationship with a spiritual element or God. Or with a country, company, university, or other institution. Do you feel interconnected with that relationship? If so, could you spend a few moments considering how your behaviors during this pandemic affect those relationships?
For instance, let's consider a set of actions during the pandemic: Not being consistent with mask wearing and practicing hygiene and social distancing. This action can affect not just you, but also the people in your relationships: you child, your husband or wife, and especially your elderly relative. And it can hurt your whole community—and ultimately your country.
The US has experienced a massive upswing in Covid cases, so our behavior as Americans matters deeply. There’s a not we are not getting right on behalf of our families and communities, according to the statistics.
For ancient Stoics, friendship was considered an inherently good thing (it may not be necessary for being a good person, but nevertheless it was seen as something we should all pursue—see Seneca on Stoic friendship). Honoring our relationships with our friends and companions is critical to our sense of virtue. And a core belief in our common humanity—the interrelatedness of all humans—is central to Stoic thinking. They can also help us remember why we’re living a life of purpose to begin with: To be that role model and that pillar of strength that our friends and families can lean on.
And now, despite our more typical ways of celebrating our fellow humans as social creatures, we must actually distance ourselves from each other as a way of helping one another through a disease-ridden world—a way of protecting each other.
Achieving Constancy: A Worthy Goal
As we move forward through this pandemic and however many months it lasts, we will do well to keep these Stoic values at the forefronts of our minds. Recalling and rehearsing how to make progress as a person will lead us to the consistency that Epictetus spells out in his third point:
“The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.5)
We may indeed find ourselves depressed (or even drunk, as per Epictetus…and the recently rising statistics on alcohol sales in the US!) during this lengthy pandemic. Many of us wish we could sleep through it, and wake up in a better place. It is tough to deal with the chaos in our brains as we try to survive personal and societal crisis.
But maintaining our moral vigilance and cultivating good decision-making in a consistent way should be our goal, along with the sustaining our rational mind, as the Stoics promoted. Our inner geniuses may feel confused by a lack of information and uncertainty, but if we keep ourselves informed as best we can, and engaged in the support of our communities and relationships in a distant way—online, by phone, and text—we can hope these sparks of reason within us will serve us well.
As we examine our impressions Stoic-style, the twin weights of scientific facts and the needs of our common humanity should be our guides, despite the conflicts we face today. I won’t say I’m capable of that each day, each hour, as we are confronted with new challenges and difficult news on a personal, national, and international level. But it is a worthy aim.
Many of us feel under stress, facing competition to “succeed” in a society increasingly divided into winners and losers in terms of economics and social status. To me, much of Stoic practice is about unwinding this deeply-rooted impulse to compete and prove ourselves superior, and to cope the emotions we feel about status.
The work of Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist and Stanford professor, helps to explain how very important this issue is. Understanding what he has uncovered about stress and society can help us find a new path forward both as individuals and as a culture—one that strongly resonates with Stoic practices.
Sapolsky has spent much of his career studying baboons in Africa. Baboons have a strict social hierarchy. Sapolsky discovered that male baboons with low social status, who were picked on and attacked by other males, were suffering from high levels of stress hormones. These biological molecules have a terrible impact, causing a higher rate of a disease.
This linkage extends to other primates, including humans, Sapolsky indicates. Humans, too, crave high social status, and those who lack it, suffer stress and, potentially, disease. Here’s how a WIRED magazine article on Sapolsky summarized this connection:
"The power of this new view of stress — that our physical health is strongly linked to our emotional state — is that it connects a wide range of scientific observations, from the sociological to the molecular… And now we can see, with scary precision, the devastating cascade unleashed by these [stress] chemicals. The end result is that stress is finally being recognized as a critical risk factor, predicting an ever larger percentage of health outcomes."
There is a silver lining to this knowledge: once we understand it, we are motivated to find new approaches. It’s hard to change, however, because our evolution primes us to climb social hierarchies based on strict forms of judgment about each other. We need retraining to practice respect for others, to see the human being behind surface appearances, to respond with reason, and to ignore insults to our egos.
For me, the key is Stoic practice. This approach is an antidote, if we are able to internalize its ideas no matter the consequences. (We should be aware that the consequences of not striving for/conforming to social status can be vicious, as the ancients knew.)
Stoicism offers guidance. A core principle is that we should not jump to value judgments, about ourselves or others. We can pause and question our impression. Recall Epictetus’ way of talking back to our initial reactions: “You are but an impression, and not what you appear to be.” We turn to our ruling center.
Epictetus explained how to handle with insults this way:
"What does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to an insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?" (Discourses, 1:25:28)
Interestingly, certain baboons have also found a way to manage stress—and improve their situation. And it’s remarkably similar to what Epictetus advised.
From WIRED: "Sapolsky found there was a set of personality traits linked reliably with lower levels of stress hormones. One of these was the ability to walk away from provocations that might send a normal baboon into a snarling hissy fit. Interestingly, this less aggressive personality turned out to be exceedingly effective: The nice baboons remained near the top of the troop hierarchy about three times longer than the baboons who were easily provoked into a fight."
If we can conquer our ego-driven and status-motivated reactions, if we can learn to respond to insults “like a rock,” if we can find peace in our ruling center, we too can combat stress and the risks that go along with it. Stoic ideas offer an antidote if we can remind ourselves of their power and benefits, rather than being sucked into the endless competition and status jockeying all around us.
This post first appeared in The STOIC magazine. Learn about it here and see an archive of issues here.
Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child, or have met with some material loss, be careful lest the impression move you to believe that their circumstances are truly bad. Have ready the reflection that they are not upset by what happened—because other people are no upset when the same thing happens to them—but by their own view of the matter. Nevertheless, you should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.
– Epictetus, Handbook, Chapter 16
I am committed to Stoic principles, but this passage from Epictetus has always been very difficult for me. As a mother, I think of losing one of my children as the worstpossible thing, worse than losing my own life. These “circumstances” would leave me eviscerated.
I know I’ll never be a “Stoic sage” able to handle that kind of loss with equanimity, and in a way, I don’t want to be. Some people in my life are just too important to me—I wouldn’t be the same human being if I truly reached that state of mental discipline. I can’t image the sage-me.
Yet the second portion of this passage is even more important to me and holds a valuable key. “You should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” Indeed. We should all be there for the people in our lives going through pain and loss. Yet Epictetus is very wise to add this: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.”
What does this mean? It sounds rather heartless and cold at first, but I don’t think so. It gets at the heart of a thorny issue that I’ve wrestled with before: the difference between empathy and compassion.
A little history here. In 2016, at the same time as a I adopted Stoic ideas, I also became fascinated with the nature of compassion and the role it can play in making us better people. I took a course called Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University, part of a program combining science (from the Stanford School of Medicine) and meditation/contemplation (with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama).
One of my major takeaways was that while it is possible drain yourself psychologically through an excess of empathy, compassion--when cultivated with care-- is bottomless and, potentially, healing.
Here’s how my compassion training instructor described it. With empathy, you try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If that person is taken over by grief, loss, and sorrow, or other very powerful emotions, you begin to experience those same feelings yourself. You overidentify, to the point where you feel overwhelmed, almost as much as that person feels.
That is sustainable for a short period, say when coping with a colleague’s funeral or listening to a friend describe a divorce or a partner announce a job loss. But when that person is in a very close relationship with you, and is given over to sadness, grief, anger, or other suffering over a long period of time, their suffering can become your own suffering. You eventually find yourself exhausted by it, as it is shared over and over—with one of two outcomes. You might begin to experience the same emotion, wallowing in a pool of difficult feelings that you have no way to solve, or you might decide shut yourself off from that person and feeling after a time, just to survive psychologically.
Either path is not ideal, and it can lead to more suffering. The problem with empathetic pain at one remove is that you don’t even have the tools to help relieve the other person’s pain in any tangible way. It’s up to that person to cope. You can’t handle that for him or her. (This is reflected clearly in the Stoic dichotomy of control.)
On the other hand, if you cut off that suffering person from your life, you’ll miss out on a valuable relationship. And you’ll be hardening your own protective shell in ways that separate you from your common humanity.
Compassion, by contrast, is about accepting that people do experience pain. It emphasizes our ability to be near it, sit with it, and be a comfort and support to that person (or to yourself), without trying to solve it.
When we struggle, we feel alone. This practice combats that in a meaningful way. That's how it can be a source for healing and strength.
With loved ones who are going through grief or depression, it’s a constant balancing act to maintain compassion without falling into the same depths of negative emotion. We can picture ourselves as a loving flame. Those in pain can come close and can hold their hands up to the fiery warmth. In time this may help, or it may not, but it’s the best we can do under difficult circumstances.
With children who are struggling, it can be very hard because we want to help and heal them. Parents tend to think this way: wouldn’t it be better if we could just solve our kids’ problems for them, and thereby make them happy and whole again?
But that’s not the way it works, and as Stoics we can recognize that we have no control over how bullies or “frenemies” treat our children at school, how their teachers reprimand them (fairly or unfairly), what decisions they make on the playground, and what corrosive ideas they pick up from their friends, their classmates, and whatever they see online.
For a long time, one of my daughters was terrified of the movie “It.” I couldn’t figure out why, since we’d never let her watch a horror film about a vicious clown attacking kids. Then one day she admitted she’d seen imagery from the film in an online ad while watching an otherwise-harmless YouTube video aimed at tweens.
There was very little that we, her parents, could do. We tried to explain that no evil clown would come and kidnap her. We tried to explain it was all make-believe, intended for people who like to be scared around Halloween. In spite of all that, she cowered in bed, unable to sleep, images returning over and over again. Sometimes she’d run to our room, saying quickly, “I’m scared.”
I would sit at the edge of her bed, saying, “You’re OK. Everything is fine. I’m right here. We’re with you. We love you. We’ll do whatever we can to protect you.” That was the best I could do. I gave her a hug. And asked her to try to be strong. After months passed, she slowly conquered her fear and slept better.
Try compassion. The combination of knowing you can’t solve other’s problems with a loving heart is a powerful approach, and a solid support for our kids and our families—one not dependent on judging them or needing to repair them—can go a very long way.
Compassion is a muscle we can exercise. If you are like me, at first, it will feel really odd not trying to fix other people. But after a while, it feels even more loving and supportive to simply be there and to care.
This post summarizes three classic compassion-based meditations. The last one, Tonglen, is considered an advanced, challenging Tibetan Buddhist visualization practice—you breathe in darkness and suffering, and breathe out compassionate light.
Perhaps we could all work up to expressing this kind of compassion by allowing ourselves to sit with those going through hardship and pain. The goal: to just be with other people, sharing a sense of common humanity, offering steady support and a touchstone of tranquility. I will aim to do that. And I hope others could do so for me, too.
Imagine living this way:
Nothing—and I mean nothing—truly matters except your intention to do the right thing.
Not your wealth
Your level of education
Your profession or job title
Your relatives or loved ones
Not even your health status.
None of those things are truly important in comparison with following the spark inside you, the ruling center, that guides you to act in the name of justice, wisdom, self-control, and courage.
That’s the core of Stoicism. And it forms the basis of the tension between ancient philosophy inspired by Socrates and Zeno, and the values, goals, and beliefs of most of today’s Western world.
Let me say this another way. Many Americans believe that 1) we control—or should control—our own level of wealth, status, job, our relationships, health, and even our manner/time of death… and 2) that these are the things necessary for a good life.
Certainly, these things go enormously far in living a comfortable, serene, and pleasant life. But they are not what is truly critical. They are “preferred indifferents” for Stoics. That is because the only real necessity to be good for followers of Stoicism is to have the right moral intentions and to commit to persevering, as much as possible, in order to fulfill those intentions.
All the other things are, as they say, gravy.
Ideally, if you follow this principle, your life “flows” easily because you are in accord with the best elements of humanity (and the universe). In other words, you are living “in accord with nature,” as the Stoics called it since the day of Zeno.
Followers of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy have been reminding themselves of this for centuries. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, wrote about it in his Meditations, a private journal. Pierre Hadot, the French philosopher who delved deeply into Marcus Aurelius' work in his book The Inner Citadel, explains it this way:
“We encounter the same fundamental principle again and again: the only absolute value is moral intention, and it alone depends entirely on us. It is not the result that counts—for this does not depend on us, but on Destiny—but rather the intention one has when seeking the result… If our activity is animated by the perfectly pure intention of wishing only for the good, it attains its goal at every instant, and has no need to wait for its achievement and result to come from the future.” (The Inner Citadel, Michael Chase transl., p. 195).
It’s difficult to keep this at the forefront of our minds as we proceed through a world bent on judging us and molding us to pursue its outward goals. Yet it is ultimately reassuring in the extreme. It proves that we all have the capacity for great goodness and intrinsic value, if we choose to act for good, and if we can prevent ourselves from being caught up in the many rat races that surround us in the modern world.
When my daughters are upset about a small reversal at school—a test grade below their expectation, a friend ignoring them, a teacher responding negatively—this lesson about our intentions is a good reminder of what matters most. And of the true wellspring of our worth as humans.
A modern interpretation of this way of thinking might say: "Yes, you can be good, if you stay focused on making good choices. In fact, you are already good! Your intentions and wishes show it. Keep going!"
I hope this thinking could give any of us a sense of perspective on our numerous small annoyances, as well as our genuine grievances and serious troubles.
Given all that we are juggling these days, it is easy to spiral into a cascade of worries, which I’ve heard my older daughter voice this way: “If I don’t do well on this test, I won’t do well in this class, then I won’t get into the advanced math class next year, and if I don’t get into that class, then I won’t be able to take an even more advanced course in high school, and then I won’t be a top student in math and science, and then I won’t get into a good college, and then I won’t have a good degree, and then I won’t get a good job, and then I won’t have a good life.”
Notice the use of “good” in this spiral of negativity. It's not exactly the moral sense, is it? Of course, there’s a kernel of something valuable in this fatalistic line of thinking. We do owe it to ourselves to try to do well and to learn and to achieve what we can in our time on earth. Certainly sitting on our hands because we are afraid of / uninterested in trying would be a bad idea. But thinking that a grade or a college or a job offer or house size or vacation defines our value is far from the truth. I did do well in school, got what I considered a good degree, work at a job I like (after a meandering career path), and have lots of outward things to be thankful for—most of all my two children. Yet I don’t believe these outward things make me a “good person” or ensure that I live a “good life.”
And that’s why I’ll keep chipping away at this Stoicism thing, tapping into mindfulness and compassion studies too, to build my own sense of how to choose that all-important moral intention carefully, and how to not be weighed down by negative emotion or psychological baggage in making that decision. I'll keep following this guiding star as a wellspring of human value and meaning in our chaotic, often superficial world.
Do you ever feel so angry you could scream, and then suddenly realize that this feeling goes against all you believe? All you try to achieve as a person, parent, and Stoic?
As promised, my third installment of my conversation with Stoicism teacher and writer Donald Robertson focuses on anger. I am not the most patient of people, and I often wonder how I could avoid becoming upset too quickly and speaking out in anger, especially to my children. I also would like to do a better job of helping my kids manage their own anger (depicted here!).
I asked Donald: What does Stoic thinking teach us about how to cope with anger?
You want to begin by spotting yourself becoming angry. As a therapist, I’ve dealt with anger management. The first stage of therapy is that you have to spot it to stop it.
There are different levels of self-awareness. Everyone knows when someone turns red. But the hard part is noticing anger before you are truly aware of it. There are early warning signs. Earlier than normal, try to notice it. It becomes harder to control passions the longer they go on.
The same thing is true if you are a runner—when you’re going fast, and someone says stop, it’s hard to stop because things have escalated. But stopping when you’re walking, it isn’t as tough. That’s anger. It’s less and less voluntary the longer it continues. Catch it early, and you have more voluntary control.
It’s possible that you are getting annoyed, and you are not aware you are angry. One answer to that is that another person could observe you. Stoic mentors, in ancient times, would follow you and notice your responses, like Rusticus did with Marcus Aurelius. It can be more obvious to others.
Learn to notice internal signs like tense shoulders. Like the specific thoughts you have, such as blaming thoughts. Or maybe it’s the tone of voice I’m using, or I’m frowning – that’s mindfulness training, as well as self-monitoring and self-observation.
Anger is temporary madness. Evidence shows that it creates cognitive distortion. Anger narrows our scope of attention and amplifies our response. We are prone to generalization and can’t problem solve. We have ‘gone crazy and can’t think clearly.’ Awareness of other stimuli will dilute that response—so the more I notice about my body, the more I will be forced to expand scope. That way I can give my mind a bunch of things to do.
As a side note: Seneca wrote a book about anger. He said anger is unnatural and unnecessary. It’s ugly and bad. He says, “Look at people’s faces when they are angry, don’t they look twisted and horrible?”
Are there other specific Stoic-based approaches to calming anger, once we become aware of it happening?
They did cognitive distancing. The ancient Stoics talk a lot about when a thought pops through your mind, you should see it as an arbitrary value judgment. All the thoughts we have are projections. All judgments are fundamentally indifferent. Nothing external is that bad. The only thing we should care that strongly about is our own character. That value doesn’t exist in external world. It’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgments about things. I’m externalizing it – you are a jerk, this is awful, you are awful. This is catastrophizing. We need to learn to roll that back.
Epictetus said if you have an angry thought, you can tell it, “you’re just an impression. You’re not the thing you claim to represent.” He is talking to the thought, as if another person, as if it is an outside object. This is creating cognitive distance. “You again, you are my angry judgment that comes up.”
It’s like catastrophe-tinted glasses – there’s a difference between looking through the glasses and taking the glasses off and look at the glasses.
We can try to take a step back and look at our beliefs, judgments, and impressions. Marcus believed in a catharsis—a separation—of our thoughts from external reality. Learning to notice that we are putting those glasses on and looking through them. It’s not a feature of reality. It’s a perspective, a projection. That weakens our emotional and behavioral response.
Having done that, Epictetus says, tell the thought to wait a while, and give us time to rest and respond. You could say to yourself: “Wait until I’ve calmed down and come back to this.” Then you can later be more rational, and ask yourself, what would Socrates do, what would Zeno do? What would the people I admire do?
Also, you could do a cost-benefit analysis of your angry response. Say you do what your anger was telling you to do. What would be the consequences? What would be another way of responding? When we have calmed down and removed ourselves from situation – time out strategies. The Platonists believed in that.
Counting to ten is not long enough. Augustus had a Stoic tutor, who told him to recite the Greek alphabet when angry. That’s longer than counting to ten!
Any other Stoic wisdom on anger, especially when working with kids?
The Stoics believed we are all like children in a way. They didn’t claim to be “wise”—no one was a true “sage.” They thought that we are all in the same boat, and none of us are perfect.
Seneca said of his philosophy, “Imagine this is a therapy, but I’m not a doctor. I’m the guy in the hospital bed beside you who has been undergoing treatment longer. I’ve made some progress.” It’s like peer support.
Getting back to anger: Marcus Aurelius had some strategies for anger management. One of them is to remind yourself that you are just as bad as the person making you angry. Humility could that be enough to stop the feeling. We are all foolish, we all have passions, and you have to figure this out for yourself.
Parents who get angry are child-like. Realizing that is humbling and helps to snap us out of it. “There’s a child within me, who is having a tantrum,” we might say to ourselves.
With kids, when they get angry, we should teach them not to ashamed of anger. But also to tolerate anger. What matters is what they do next, after the angry feeling happens.
Thanks for reading The Stoic Mom. If you have any suggestions or ideas for future 2018 posts or any questions, please write in the comments!
About The Stoic Mom
I'm 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.