How to deal with your emotions like a stoic? That is what we will look into in this post. Many refer to the popular interpretation of this question when it relates to Stoicism. They will say that being stoic means not feeling anything. Making comparisons with robots. But if you step away from those misconceptions and look a bit deeper, you’ll see that there is a strong connection between emotions and Stoicism. It can guide you to a better understanding of your emotions and teach you how to deal with them in a healthy way.
What are emotions and how do they affect us? If we want to know them better, what steps we should follow? Stoicism gives us some good guidelines on how to deal with emotions. It also shows us how we can use them to become better people. Our path to self-growth will require us to address our emotions and examine them. This will give us better insights into who we are. The stoics don’t tell us to ignore or fight them, they teach us to study them and accept them. From there we can then apply reason as we chose the proper reaction on how to deal with these emotions.
How to deal with these emotions
“Practise, then, from the start to say to every harsh impression, ‘You are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by these rules which you have, and firstly, and chiefly, by this: Whether the impression has to do with things which are up to us, or those which are not; and, if it has to do with the things that are not up to us, be ready to reply. ‘It is nothing to me.’”Epictetus, The handbook, 1
This quote comes from the handbook of Epictetus, where he discusses the dichotomy of control. Showing us what is up to us and what isn’t. Up to us are our opinions, desires, impulses, and aversions, to sum up, our actions. Anything else is not up to us. Our impressions of the events that happen to us are manifested often in emotions. And when we do have them we must learn how to interpret them and choose how to act properly. The mind and the body work together when it comes to showing emotions. As our mind forms the way we judge a situation, it gives signals about whether it is bad or good for us. This can help us in our survival and has done so throughout our history. One example is the fight-or-flight reaction.
The body then reacts, for example, by removing itself from the source or by becoming paralyzed. We can start to shake, sweat, turn red, and many more bodily reactions can appear. Our mind can either start working in overdrive or shut down. Imagine being told to give a presentation in front of a large crowd. Many of us will react to such a notification. Even if it’s the slightest change in the heartbeat. That initial reaction is there and it is almost impossible, if not impossible to prevent. These reactions occur with what we consider as bad or good events. That is part of us and something we must learn to accept and recognize.
Learn to pause
The more we practice recognizing these initial reactions, the better we become at pausing them. This might be the moment when others can label you a stoic. Because you have trained yourself to pause and apply reason to the situation. That would determine your action and improve your state of mind. But that reaction isn’t what others see as normal. They think that you’ve shut down and ignored the emotions. But in the meantime, you’ve done the exact opposite. The more you practice and keep your philosophy at hand, the better your reaction will be. That same presentation will then become just that; a presentation. And as long as you do your best, then nothing bad can happen to you. And your peace of mind will stay intact.
Taking that pause is where we want to start. It could be as simple as taking a deep breath, or you need some more time. But before we move to an action, we should make sure that we are not being ruled by that same emotion. If so, we will give back what we have received. This will not allow us to be a better person and will cause harm to ourselves and others. Reducing the time we need for that pause is all about practice. Finding the best way that works for you.
Going for a walk, or listening to some music can help you. But it’s better to remove ourselves from the source of the emotion for a second. For both negative and positive emotions we should apply this pause. Winning the lottery can send us into a world of hurt if we don’t examine what this means to us and our lives.
The emotion’s real origin
Now that we are in a more logical and reasonable state of mind, we can start our examination. How do we start this examination? Let’s start by looking at what is causing this impression we have. The first step, as Epictetus shows us, is to determine whether it is within our control or isn’t. It could be a twofold answer. The trigger could be external, but what creates an opinion about it is our mind. Both aspects need to be looked at. We will start with the external. This is what happens to us. Events or interactions with others. Whether these events are good or bad, that’s what we decide. Our opinions, which are up to us, will create a judgment. This will then trigger an emotion. The combination of the two can give us valuable information.
This is the moment when the questions should arise. Not questions as to why this is happening to me. That doesn’t help. We should ask ourselves why this is affecting us the way it does. My boss didn’t give me the promotion I wanted and thought I deserved. She picked someone else instead. Why did I want this step up? Is it because of money, prestige, or something else? This again will cascade into more questions. Why do I need more money? What is the need for status? If we are honest enough with ourselves we can then ask question after question to try to figure out what the real origin is.
An emotion yielded to reason is laid to rest
It’s thus far from true that Stoics don’t want to deal with emotions or that they block them. How they deal with anger, fear, happiness, love, etc. is by examining them and then applying reason to them. If we discard them or fight them, then we give them more power over us. But if we learn to accept them as part of us and find out what they are made of, then we can regain control.
“For this reason it is better to conquer our sadness than to deceive it; for once it has departed, seduced by pleasures or engrossing pursuits, it rises up again and gathers fresh momentum for its fury from its very rest; but any grief that has yielded to reason is laid to rest for ever.”Seneca, Dialogues and essays,Consolation to Helvia, 17
“To be free of passion and yet full of love.”
Examining these emotions can be a difficult and confronting journey. But it is a necessary one. Only when you know and accept yourself, can you create a solid foundation of self-growth. We must be honest with ourselves and make sure our actions resemble what we discover as we move on. Finding peace starts within. This exploration needs to come from a point of self-love. We are doing this to lessen the impact our emotions have on us. Which will lead to a more consistent and peaceful life. The difficult encounters with ourselves need to be met from this view. From the idea that this will make us become a better person. For ourselves and then also for society. Remember what Marcus Aurelius learned from Sextus, when you find yourself in a difficult moment.
“To investigate and analyse, with understanding and logic, the principles we ought to live by. Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of passion and yet full of love.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 1.9
Embrace your emotions
It is our duty to ourselves to be curious about who we are. We need to learn to embrace these questions and findings. Only when we truly know who we are and why certain things affect us, can we learn to be at peace with ourselves. Those are the first principles from which to act. If we want to set the right example and contribute to society in the proper way.
Action from reason and logic will guide us. If we let our emotions take control, then we are lost to them. We shouldn’t fight them either. They are part of us and shaped throughout our childhood up to now. We need to learn to accept them as such. They will make us stronger this way and will prepare us for future events that might disrupt our peace. Accept and work on your emotions because they are who you are.