Knowing what people to associate yourself with and who to keep at a distance, can have a big impact on your growth as a person. As we grow up we go from being forced into relationships to having a choice on who to spend time with. From our family and friends in school, during childhood, we are limited, due to our mobility, to seek out other associations. We can’t move around on our own to find new groups of people that might suit us better. First, we don’t feel the need to do so, we are not focused on self-growth at that time. And second, we are stuck to the surroundings our living situation finds itself in. This early connection often builds a sense of loyalty to these childhood friends that can prove difficult to break later on.

As human beings, we have a strong pull to be part of a social group or community. We require friends to confide in or to use as an example. It can happen that, at a young age, our parents don’t approve of our friends. But because we have built a certain bond, we can’t see why they say that, at the time. Once we start to grow up and create a better idea of ourselves, we are able to reflect on what direction we want to go in.

Evaluate who you associate with

This is also the time to evaluate the people we associate with. Whether they are the ones that lift us up or pull us down. We will look at the important factors to be able to decide which way they lean. And why we should then take certain actions. Some of these steps can sound selfish, but we need to keep in mind what the goal is: to be a better person and live in accordance with Nature. If we can achieve that to the best of our abilities then we can also have a better impact on the world around us.

“This is a point you must attend to before all others: not to be so attached to any one of your former acquaintances or friends as to descend to the same ways as his, otherwise you will destroy yourself.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 4, Chapter 2.1

In his discourse on the same topic called ‘On Association with Others’, Epictetus put the risk even higher. He says that we can destroy ourselves if we remain attached to those whose ways are below us or are going downhill. There is a sense of urgency when we look at the people who we associate with. But to understand better who the right people are for us to relate with, we need to look at what that means. We can form bad habits as we grow up and they are of no fault but our own.

Take responsibility for your habits

Breaking bad habits, such as drinking alcohol.
Photo by Yutacar on Unsplash

Our first step is to take responsibility for them and acknowledge that we need to take it upon ourselves to make the changes. Once we have identified those bad habits and are working towards improving them, we need to examine what is disturbing that improvement. This is where we need to look at the people around us. Breaking a bad habit is difficult enough. So let’s make it easier by removing those around us who don’t support the changes that we are making. We can think of examples like not drinking anymore, spending too much money, or overindulging in food. There are many bad habits we can picture, and it’s important for you to figure out which ones are yours.

One way of doing that is by examining yourself and looking at the parts of life that don’t feel like you. The activities or things you do that aren’t giving you peace. And we’re not talking about short-term feelings, for some bad things can give us a quick artificial buzz. But we need to look at where we can be virtuous and follow what we know we should follow. It could also be a job that is not giving us a sense of purpose or where we have to overstep our ethical boundaries. These decisions aren’t easy to make, even when we know it’s the right thing to do. So why is it not easy? It should be if it is the right thing to do.

We who are in training

For the sage, the Stoic example, it would be. She wouldn’t even have accepted the job. But for us, who are still in training, these decisions are difficult. We can be too attached to the life we lead or we have people around us who express their strong opinions against the moves that we have in mind.

“Choose, then, whether you want to be a drunkard and pleasing to those people, or sober and unpleasing to them.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 4, Chapter 2.7

Those that we associate with who want the best for us, our virtuous friends, will be supporting us. Whether they continue with the habit or not, they will respect and cheer us on. Then there are those who won’t take such a stance. Which makes it up to us to ask ourselves the questions Epictetus asks. Do we want to be drunk and liked, or sober and not liked? Are these the associations we want to have to like us? Ask yourself what price you pay if you continue your bad habit. And can these friends make up for it?

The opinions started coming

Take the example of drinking alcohol. In some other posts, I’ve talked about it as well. When I quit drinking, the opinions started coming. I knew it was a bad thing for me, so I had no other choice but to stop drinking. I know myself well enough that it’s either zero or all the way. The impact alcohol has had on my life made me decide to go for zero. And I have to say that most of my friends and family are supportive of me. Some don’t like it. They might not completely understand why I decided to go dry, but they don’t need to know. If they wish to do so in good faith, then I’ll be glad to explain it to them. It’s even better if they have your back while they don’t fully understand why you are doing this.

So why must we rid ourselves of those who we associate with and who keep up with these habits that we wish to break? For that, we revert back to Epictetus.

“Remembering that it is impossible to rub up against a person who is covered in soot without getting some of the soot on oneself.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 3, chapter 16.3

Damaging behavior

Quitting a habit is not only the habit itself but it’s also distancing oneself from the behavior that is associated with these activities. If a certain action only had virtuous consequences or resulted in good behavior, then why would it be deemed bad? Even if we stopped drinking, or eating without control, and we kept spending time with those who do, we can still be tempted to display similar actions. Imagine going to a sporting event where the crowd yells bad things about the other team. You could get swept away and do the same or have similar thoughts towards a human being who is wearing a different color jersey and is playing against you. This would undermine your moral living and would interrupt your progress.

To some of the people you associate with, it may feel like treason. And to them, this might seem selfish. Choosing for your own well-being can be a form of abandonment to them. And in a way it is. This is where you need to make a decision to see where your priorities are. What will happen is that you will start to recognize who your true friends are. Some of them will tell you that they wished they could do the same, and others cheer for you while lifting the glass.

Us as the example

As we continue on our path of improving our lives, we can start to see the impact we have on others. Some will, even by a little bit, change some of their habits. Now tell me how can this be selfish? You are now adding to the common good, by setting the right example. No need to teach or preach to people. By living well and in accordance with nature, you can guide others to the path you’ve set yourself on.

In the beginning, we should distance ourselves completely from those who continue with the habits we wish to eliminate. First, we need to improve our mental strength to break the habit and stay away from it for a consistent time. Then we can start to test our resolve. It’s easier not to drink or quit the habits when we are not around them.

“Remaining dry and sober takes a good deal more strength of will when everyone about one is puking drunk.”

Seneca, Letters of a Stoic, Letter XIII

The real test

The real test of will comes when we can be among those who, for example, drink. If we can, first of all, stay away from the bottle, then that is a massive step. Next, we should be able to enjoy ourselves at the party. But taking extreme care not to fall into the behaviors that others may display. We can use our controlled state of mind to make sure the rest will stay within the boundaries of virtuous living. Insofar as that’s still possible. But once we notice that we are starting to adopt their ways, then it’s time to distance and protect ourselves.

Who to associate with. "Remembering that it is impossible to rub against a person who is covered in soot without getting some of the soot on oneself." Epictetus
Image created with Midjourney AI Art

Learning who to associate with depends a lot on who you wish to be as a person. Once we are able to examine our own actions and thoughts, we can look for a purpose or way of life. Then we can evaluate the people around us and decide who is beneficial and who isn’t. We can either decide to let them exit the stage of our life, or they will decide that it is no longer theirs to walk beside us.

Identify the good associations

Whichever one it is, we will be going toward our purpose and improving our lives. The good thing is that you can start right now. Identify the areas of your life that you struggle with. Then look at ways to improve them. Perhaps you need to see help or the right example. One thing is certain, is that it’s not easy, but many have preceded you. If they can do it, then so can you.

Who to Associate with: A Stoic View
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