In one of my daughter’s middle school classes, she was recently asked to examine her “self-esteem.” She had to take an online quiz that judged her self-esteem with each answer. A sample question: “When I compare myself with others, I feel: a) great; b) horrible; c) OK/not affected.”
“THIS IS WEIRD!” My daughter yelled out loud as she stared at her computer screen. “What the heck? Why do we have to answer these?” And also, after the test was done: “Apparently I have terrible self-esteem!” Well, not exactly “terrible”—the results read: “Your self-esteem needs work!” (There seemed some irony there: Studying self-esteem made her feel worse about herself.)
Next, she was asked to do an assignment: “What are five ways you could improve your self-esteem?” Part of this work involved writing down “affirmations” about herself meant to boost self-esteem. She asked for my help, and I did my best to tell her a lot of positive and true things. We talked about the things she likes to do, her relationships, and the choices she makes. For instance, I said, “Maybe you could write, ‘I try to be a good friend,’ because of all the things you do for your friends.”
This wasn’t an enjoyable experience for my child. “It felt like bragging about yourself, and not actually doing anything good,” she said.
The question is: Was this a beneficial exercise? Is there a better way?
In recent years, the concept of “self-esteem” has come under fire by researchers in psychology. And I think the quiz my daughter had to take indicates why.
In December on this blog, I touched on the work of researcher and writer Kristin Neff. She recommends that instead of focusing on self-esteem, we should pay attention to our self-compassion: That is, we can recognize that even though we make mistakes, we can still be fundamentally good people. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is often about comparing our own achievements, skills, and talents with other people’s and talking ourselves into believing that we are a lot better than they are. Then, if we falter—if we fail to make good on the story we’re telling ourselves about our achievements and skills—we may plummet into discouragement. “Also, telling yourself that you’re already great at something does not give you motivation to improve” My daughter said.
For example, you tell yourself: “I’m really good at science class, my favorite subject.” What if the next day, you get a low score on a science test? What does that do to your feeling of self-worth?
Stoic philosophy would say that it’s not about who is better or worse, but instead about who is making effort towards moral progress and putting ethics into practice. We’re all at various stages of building our character. In fact, though some of us have recognized that we are patients “in the same hospital” (as Seneca put it) just trying to help each other out. No one has a cure for the human condition. And no person living today has reached the status of perfection in human flourishing, what the ancients called a Stoic sage. But we should still keep aiming for it.
So instead of finding affirmations about how great we are, why not seek reassurance of our self-worth in our commitments and our values? In our choice to care for others and to help ourselves learn and grow? In our interests, and the effort we put in to improve into whatever we do, rather than our inborn talents/abilities?
Let’s find a better way—one that would promote a healthy growth mindset in our kids, and in ourselves.
“I don’t know how to take compliments, Mom,” one of my daughters said. When someone praises her—even one of her parents—she often looks distinctly uncomfortable. She says she doesn’t know what to do in response to our words. “It makes me feel embarrassed.”
I’ve asked her about this, and I discovered that part of her reaction comes from the fact that she does not want other people to feel less-than compared to herself. Also, she’s genuinely concerned that the praise might just come from others “being nice” to her, rather than making objectively true statements.
In this sense, she is quite unlike a lot of adults. Most of us love to hear “great job” or “you’re awesome” or “you’re better than the rest.” We don’t necessarily stop to question the praise.
Why are we so taken in by flattery? Why is it so easy to sway our minds with compliments? Perhaps as we get older—as we suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in our daily lives—we’re just happy for any kind words that come our way?
I’ve wondered about this question for quite a while. And my recent close reading of Stoic writer and Roman statesman Seneca has given me even more food for thought when it comes to flattery and what it can lead us to think—and do. This is particularly relevant in today’s political landscape.
In letter 59, Seneca focuses on “Why does stupidity have so firm a hold over us?” He goes on to say this about why we can’t shake free of “stupidity” (underlining below is my own):
“The chief obstacle is that we are quick to be satisfied with ourselves. If we find someone to call us good people, cautious and principled, we acknowledge him. We are not content with a moderate eulogy, but accept as our due whatever flattery has shamelessly heaped upon us. We agree with those who call us best and wisest, although we know they often utter many falsehoods; we indulge ourselves so greatly that we want to be praised for a virtue which is the opposite of our behavior. A man hears himself called ‘most merciful’ while he is inflicting torture, ‘most generous’ while he is plundering, and ‘most abstinent’ in the midst of drunkenness and lust. So it follows that we don’t want to change because we believe we are already excellent.”
This passage fascinates me, in part because it’s still so true today. We are happy to think we’re already top-notch and don’t need improvement. The Stoic project of “making progress” only appeals to those who feel they want to do and be better.
And taking an even closer look at Seneca’s words, they made me think back over the 2020 US presidential election, and the violence last week at the US Capitol. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of extreme behavior has been fostered by “shamelessly heaped” flattery, especially by those who “often utter many falsehoods.” The soon-to-be-former president knows how to use flattery as a tool expertly. The day of the storming of the Capitol, he said this to the assembled audience, some of whom soon became rioters: “But just remember this. You’re stronger, you’re smarter. You’ve got more going than anybody, and they try and demean everybody having to do with us, and you’re the real people. You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation.”
There is irony there, given what the crowd went on to do at the US Capitol right after this speech—tear down the fences guarding the Capitol building, attack police officers, break windows and doors, destroy and loot government property, and send Congress members (as well as the vice president) and their staffs into hiding to avoid the violence. My daughters and I watched it happening on TV in shock. Now teens, my children are old enough to grasp the importance of what happened. Across America, parents have been explaining these unheard-of events to their kids.
It was a day that Americans won’t soon forget, and rioters are now being tracked down by law enforcement and arrested for their illegal actions.
Congress members are now quoting the words of an American framer of the constitution, Alexander Hamilton, on his warning against would-be despots who use flattery and chaos to gain power. Hamilton wrote about his fears in a letter to George Washington. Here’s the full quote (note the passage using the word "flatter," in my underlining):
“When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits — despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
This description suits current situation well. Fortunately, many leaders have been quick to condemn the current devolution into violent “storm” as well as the person “directing the whirlwind.”
Since these events, I’ve done more reading on why flattery works—even if it is not based on the truth. Psychologists point out that when a person delivers a compliment, the automatic response of most individuals is to feel more positive towards the one delivering it. A 1978 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “The Extra Credit Effect in Interpersonal Attraction,” demonstrated that subjects liked the people who praised them more than other people, a phenomenon they called “return liking.” This was true even when the subjects realized that the flattery might be a means of getting something from them, and/or it was obviously inaccurate. A psychology professor, Bob Cialdini, put it this way in describing the research: “Positive comments produced just as much liking for the flatterer when they were untrue as when they were true. That’s how powerful praise and compliments and statements of liking [are] for us.”
So let’s take our cue from Seneca. Like my daughter, we should beware of compliments—and especially, beware the flatterer telling us what we’d like to hear, rather than what’s true. Remember: The person whispering in our ear might just be manipulating us into liking him or her, despite his or her own bad motives or flaws, and our own. We need to keep a clear-eyed, rational grounding in reality and combat being swayed by flattery.
“No justice – no peace!” This was the rallying cry as more than 1,000 demonstrators filled the streets in my suburban city this weekend. My teenage daughter and I were there, along with many other community members. The demonstration for Black Lives Matter was peaceful, purposeful, and filled with energy. Demonstrators held signs honoring and mourning George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other black people killed by police. Despite the pandemic, we’d decided to come together for this public act against racism, hatred, violence towards black people and other people of color—and to advocate for equal justice in America. As we marched through wide suburban roads, we saw people of all ages and backgrounds walking beside us, chanting the same words. The same image of protest was repeated all across the US and the world this week.
We know there’s a very, very long way to go. But it's time to do what’s in our power: to read, listen, reflect, learn, write, donate, speak out, protest, vote… to work to change ourselves... and to find new ways to act to support justice.*
In Stoic practice, the word justice carries great weight. It’s one of the four Stoic virtues: Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Self-Control. Right now, we need to employ all of these virtues to fight a system that is not living up to any of them. Justice, for Stoics, was rooted in the golden rule; it is represented by the reciprocal nature of "do unto others what you would have them do unto you" or, put in the negative, “don’t do something to another person that you wouldn’t want done to you.” That rule spans many belief systems, philosophies, and ideologies. But we need to make it a reality in the way our cities and towns are organized and run. We need to re-consider what justice means in a society where many feel threatened by, and are harmed by, those designated "officers of the peace."
This is a time of reflection, too. A time to learn about others' experiences. Even if I can't fully understand what people of color have lived through, I can listen, learn, and stand with them. I can see more and more how entrenched the problem is, and how I benefit from clear advantages in my society that others lack. Recognizing this is an initial step against racism.
One example: For a long time, I’ve been interested in cognitive behavioral therapy and other techniques for dealing with anxiety. One that I’ve learned is called “worry postponement.” Using this method, a person puts off the worries on her mind, choosing a limited time and place to allow her brain to focus on the anxious feelings. This type of approach was advocated by ancient Stoics, too. I have tried it and found it can be effective.
What I’ve realized is that worry postponement is a luxury and a privilege that many people do not have. My own worries can be confined to a small portion of the day, if I really concentrate. Much of the time I am not directly confronted by triggers of my anxieties or fears. But this week, I’ve been thinking of all the people who can’t do that, because dangerous threats confront them constantly.
The point was brought home by mothers. A black colleague wrote that she was concerned that her son, out for a hike, wouldn’t come home safely--not due to the dangers of the natural environment, but the dangers of other people. Many cannot wrap up their fears into a specific time and place. After all, we have seen that killings could happen in homes while people are sleeping, or playing video games with young relatives… or out jogging... or walking home... or paying at a convenience store.
We know, as the ancient Stoics pointed out, that we are living in a constantly changing universe. Yet the history of racism is so deeply embedded, it feels nearly impossible to uproot. Dare we hope that the actions we can take—those that are in our control—could actually make a difference?
From a Stoic perspective, three things tell me "yes":
The only constant is change, as I mentioned above. Change can be gradual or quick. The problems of racism and unequal treatment by law enforcement are deep and longstanding, they are structural, and they won’t be solved easily. I would not claim to know the answers and turn to communities of people of color for guidance and teaching. What's clear to me is that this kind of change that is both institutional and personal. Each person has to examine herself or himself, and find ways we can behave differently.
We’re starting to see remarkable shifts in response to protests. This morning, when I opened up the newspaper, I saw that the city council in Minneapolis—where George Floyd was killed by police—has publicly promised to disband the current police department, and to try another way of approaching public safety. There were other changes, too: Congressional Democrats introduced a new bill designed to curtail police misconduct and excessive force. New York City’s mayor said he’d cut the police budget and put more money into social services. Human rights groups are calling for a UN investigation into US racism and police brutality. More communities are considering adopting some of the "8 can't wait" recommendations for reforming public safety and policing from Campaign Zero (you can check where your own city's police department's policies stand on the linked site).
For those of us wondering what we could do, I learned from black colleagues of a short list of suggestions on being an ally in an Instagram post by Mireille Charper. Also recommended were videos posted on Instagram by Light Watkins, including “For White People Who Are Asking What You Can Do?” and “Acknowledging Racism: How to Do It and Where to Start.” I especially liked this quote: “…Thinking that racism is exclusively a black problem is like thinking that sexism is exclusively a female problem.” I am learning about many other excellent resources and books on anti-racism and racial justice. Those include: How to be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning, both by Ibram X. Kendi; Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad; White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo; Just Mercy (a book and recent film) by Bryan Stevenson; and many more. In addition, numerous organizations need contributions not just today but in the long run to further racial justice and fight inequality; Bryan Stevenson runs the Equal Justice Initiative, a remarkable nonprofit, to name just one group that deserves support.
These resources could help us to observe and question our own views and knowledge on race, and to pay attention to the part we are playing in racial issues. Recognizing the severity of the problems we face in this country is just the first stage; much more work will need to be done to change not just in how power is used to control, but also how access to influence and authority is granted, how voices are heard, and who has a seat at the table.
I'd like to add that my daughters’ generation inspires me. Many young people have developed a more nuanced and critical awareness of racism and bias, and of all the ills of our societies. My kids are growing up in a world of more diverse voices than I did, a world where these topics are being discussed more openly and honestly. I can only hope that they and their peers will be a part of the massive change we need.
* Note: If any readers would like to offer suggestions on how to explore these issues, how to learn more, or what kind of wording/language to use--especially from the perspective of people of color--please share your thoughts.
“If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VI, 21
Reading Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, I get the impression of a man unafraid to be proven wrong—and quick to root out misconceptions. A man eager to learn from the world around him, yet careful in his judgments. A man who adhered to reason above the opinions of others. That’s the essence of his appeal: he strikes a chord with modern readers who still value his honesty and humanity nearly 2,000 years later.
Marcus’ quote above about truth says a lot about both about his personality and his approach to living by his philosophy. As a boy, he was known at court as “Verissimus,” meaning “most truthful”—a word derived from his family name, “Verus,” meaning “true.” When he stepped up to become emperor, this nickname remained accurate.
This contrasts markedly with today’s politicians and so many government authorities over the centuries. Some leaders would do anything to show that they are never wrong, including doctoring evidence, firing staff, or even eliminating opponents and watchdogs. Now that it is 2020, a major election year, it's more important than ever to become aware of what's true, what's misleading, and what's downright false.
Politically-motivated twisting of the truth can happen in subtle, behind-the-scenes ways, as we are learning with patterns of online influence. Initiatives to sway people have recently tapped into research studies of basic human traits. For example, psychologists have defined a core set of “the big 5 personality traits.” One of these traits is openness, described as “the breadth, depth, originality, and complexity of an individuals’ mental and experiential life.” Other traits are conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism or emotional instability, and agreeableness.
These personality traits are not meaningless trivia. Understanding them could help predict what kinds of ideas or stories will motivate or frighten certain groups of people. Personality-profiling and data company Cambridge Analytica harvested just this kind of data from millions in an effort to influence voters during the 2016 US presidential election.
If we—voters, citizens, and Stoics alike—don’t take the time to search independently for truth and make our own decisions carefully, if we don’t exercise the virtues of wisdom, justice, self-control, and courage, and practice a careful assessment of our impressions, our inborn personality traits could be used against us. Bad actors may even attempt to shift our understanding of what’s true. And it is often more comfortable, and easier, to just avoid examining what's actually happening around us... especially if we feel that we benefit somehow from the status quo.
Fortunately, we are not powerless against these tactics. Like Marcus, we can focus on the truth. We can drill down on information sources, read the fine print, and look at what might be driving the agendas of those feeding us their ideas and arguments.
Stoic thought emphasizes that we can use our rational understanding and choice (something humans are uniquely endowed with) to shape our behavior in the world. From a Stoic perspective, we are not merely pawns of our personalities, of electoral politics, or of the entities designed to exploit our traits for their own gain. We are born with a sense of reason that allows us to choose the path of truth-seeking and moral character. We owe it to ourselves to exercise that sense wisely.
Undoubtedly, Marcus himself had an enormously “broad, deep, original and complex” personality, both inside and out. It’s a life that has inspired leaders and thoughtful people ever since. And to me, it’s something to aspire to.
Originally published in The STOIC magazine. Explore the current issue and subscribe here.
A friend who recently became interested in Stoic practice asked me this question: “I know that in Stoicism, you don’t rely on external things for happiness.... but if you stop waiting for—or counting on—those things to be happy, then is our default state to just be happy?”
Her question made me think.
So much of our conversation in the West today is about how to be happy. Can working more productively make us happy? What about buying really cool stuff? Meditating? Spending time in nature? Retiring early? How about having kids? Are parents more or less happy than non-parents? Every week another study comes out attempting to show what brings happiness to modern humans’ lives. A “happiness movement” has captured national attention in the US, followed, naturally, by a backlash against this quest, which asserts that actively looking for happiness may actually be making us LESS happy.
Here are a few reflections based on my study of Stoicism and my personal experiences.
In Stoic thought, our natural state isn’t necessarily happy. We actually need to use philosophy as a means to finding joy. The reason for this is that we may not instinctively know how to use our rational mind and listen to our ruling center—or that instinct may be distracted by everything else we’ve seen, heard, and been taught.
This may sound ironic because one of the key Stoic goals is to “live according to nature.” Shouldn’t we find happiness in our original, natural state? In fact, in my interpretation, Stoic thought suggests that we need to spend time figuring out what our true nature is, and what the nature of the world is, and then sync up the two as an ongoing practice.
We do that by using our ruling center, that “divine spark” that makes humans uniquely able to interpret their world in a reasonable way. Without that spark, and without actively cultivating it, we’d be tempted to follow our animal-like instincts. Or we might be influenced by the whims of whatever society or culture we are living in, which may not espouse good values or ethics. You need a philosophy to guide you.
I think that ancient Stoics would say that you have to actually DO some things to experience joy and the tranquility that comes with it.
First, you have to use your reason well. It means questioning impressions (first reactions/thoughts) and seeking to make reasonable decisions, rather than jumping to conclusions or hot-headed actions; it means learning to use wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control as guideposts in decision-making; it means letting go of blame, anger, and other negative “passions” or emotions; and it means focusing on our moral core, and our own “assent” to what's right.
It's completely internal, happening inside your own mind. That is why it's so confusing to a culture fixated on externally valued objects and possessions.
Here's a suggestion: Make a conscious effort to consider the value you’re adding to the world just by making good choices (or the best choices possible in your situation) and by being a proponent of virtue ethics. In Stoic thought, having a good moral intent and making reasonable judgments, no matter your circumstances, are all you need to be a good person. Many philosophies over time have emphasized this kind of moral cultivation. As 18th-century thinker Voltaire said, "cultivate your garden." (In this case, cultivate your ruling center!) Knowing you're doing what you can to be a good person can bring you a contented feeling.
Second, you need to make peace with yourself, and accept reality as it is, to be content. If you are constantly trying to change what is outside your control, you'll be frustrated, angry, and you’ll be likely to give in to bad passions. A Stoic goal is to elevate healthy emotions by thinking clearly, realistically, and acting with reason. That doesn't mean we will be cold robots. Instead, we can draw on compassion and the common humanity (more on that in the third point below).
We can recognize that in fact, struggles and difficulties are inevitable, and part of the human condition. Yet we can still be present in the moment, taking what joy is possible, without obsessing about the past or the future. That’s what I’d call Stoic mindfulness.
Third, because Stoics believed in the common humanity of all people, doing good with and for others in the world can and should also bring you joy. That is because you know that you're acting in an ethical way, and in accord with the social element of our nature, which is designed (by nature) to partner with other humans to accomplish things and make the human world better.
I interpret this "doing good" as including any kind of activity that brings some healing, hope, learning, or delight to others. Marcus Aurelius had a famous quote about humans working together like sets of teeth (a bit odd to picture but true. One tooth can't chew!).
All of these paths can unite into a Stoic-inspired life and can help ease anxiety about finding happiness, and about the value we add to this world. They can bring some measure of contentment and yield tranquility. And these are good reasons to continue pursuing a Stoic approach, even when the whole world tries to convince us not to.
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.
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.