By: Alan Nahle
For most people, life presents a wide array of experiences that can sometimes leave us without a sense of control. During trying times, it can be difficult to focus on the things within our control and even more difficult to find the confidence to act on what we can control. When we focus on the uncontrollable, it usually creates a large amount of frustration and can make us feel powerless. Throughout the years, people have attempted to develop an understanding and method for managing such situations. While there are many methods and beliefs about how best to manage situations out of our control, a philosophy by the name of stoicism offers an attempt at managing the distress various life events can create.
The terms “stoicism” and “stoic” have been around for many years and may sound familiar, however, they tend to have slightly different meanings or interpretations depending on the context. Traditionally, stoicism in a broad sense has been typically regarded as not showing emotion, not complaining about difficult situations, not asking for help, and maintaining a calm and unaffected presentation around others. If we go back to the original philosophical teachings of stoicism, however, it suggests a very different idea of what stoicism is and an idea that is much more beneficial to how we address our mental health.
A key pillar of stoicism is to plan and prepare for various experiences we can predict in our lives. A way to do this is to reflect on the day ahead after waking up and anticipating what we think will be “good” and “bad” about the day. An example of this would be, after waking up, reflecting that “Ok so I have to go to work today and I am going to be happy to see most of my co-workers but I know once I see John Doe that they will say something that will irritate me but I will handle it. I also know my son has a piano recital after school so getting him there on time might be stressful but I am going to try to stay calm and deal with it.” What this illustrates is that yes, while we may experience frustrations in our life, anticipating them before they occur can greatly reduce the impact they have on us when they actually do occur. Having a time earlier in the day to reference helps us feel like we already planned for the situations at hand and can help us remember how we want to best deal with it. Creating boundaries for ourselves when we reflect on these things is important, however, as it can be easy to get hung up on thinking of the negatives too much throughout the day. This is why it is important to set a dedicated time for reflection like that rather than doing it throughout the day.
Another key pillar of stoicism is understanding and identifying what is in our control as well as what is not in our control. Once we have identified and made those distinctions, stoicism suggests that while it is important to be mindful of the things not in our control, the real focus needs to be maintained on the things that are in our control. We know that investing time in the things we cannot control can result in distress and frustration, so focusing on the things we can control tends to keep us preoccupied in a healthy way while taking actionable steps to improve some facets of our lives even when we cannot control others.
So all that may sound great, but how is this actually applicable to real-life events? A common shared experience between most people is experiencing an illness with yourself or a close family member. Let’s say, for example, we get sick with a debilitating illness that forces us to miss work and other plans we had. In this scenario, it is easy to be mentally “in the dumps” and very difficult to have a positive attitude about the situation. Stoicism suggests that the more you think about your illness and how much of a negative impact it is having on your life, the worse you are going to feel throughout that time. Your physical symptoms are not going to change and neither are the loss of work or plans regardless of the attitude you have, so stoicism suggests that although it is easy to continue having a negative attitude about the situation, it is often more beneficial to instead engage in things that you can do while being sick at home. This can be in the form of self-care such as catching up on a show, reading a book, or just soaking in a hot bath. This can also be being productive in other ways such as completing any work you can remotely, learning a new skill that helps you professionally or recreationally, or catching up on any house chores if physically able. The key to what a person in this scenario does is their attitude, and stoicism suggests being mindful of your attitude and the focus on what you can control will yield a much better experience, albeit still not as great as not being ill at all, compared to giving up on the whole day or week because of the illness.
The ultimate summation of these principles is to help us understand how to effectively nurture control over our negative emotions. This is NOT to say that having negative emotions is bad. As human beings, it is healthy to experience and expresses a wide range of emotions, positive or negative. What it does mean, however, is how we act once we have recognized that we are experiencing a negative emotion to serve our best interests.
Some of these concepts may sound familiar if you have experience in mental health. The reason for this is that many concepts and principles of stoicism overlap heavily with the evidence-based mental health treatment of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), which focuses on addressing unhealthy ways someone may be thinking about themselves or their situation, which affects their behaviors and how they cope with their psychological symptoms. Developing competency in stoic philosophy as well as CBT techniques can help someone have a much better attitude as well as a stronger sense of control over their lives.