Stoics care wisely. That means we don't allow strong negative emotions like anger, fear, and frustration to get the better of us. Instead, we change our perspective and the way we think about each situation. This enables us to reduce unhappiness and bad emotions, creating more space for positive emotions such as enjoyment, cheerfulness, and friendship.
Where Do Bad Emotions Come From?
The ancient Stoics believed that strong negative emotions are caused by a misunderstanding about what's important in life. For example, if your sense of worth depends on having other people's approval, then you will be unhappy whenever someone doesn't approve of you. Or if you get angry whenever something doesn't work out for you, you are allowing your happiness to depend on chance or on other people. And you will spend a lot of time angry!
Our happiness doesn't depend on other people or on the external circumstances of our lives, no matter how challenging. Instead, our happiness depends on the way we respond to those challenges.
How Do We Manage Emotions?
Do you feel yourself getting upset when something unpleasant happens? You don't have to. As the ancient Stoic teacher Epictetus once taught, it's not things themselves that upset us, but our opinions about things.
For example, if you've been working with a patient or a student who just doesn't respond to your efforts, you might start to feel frustrated or angry. And you might assume that in a frustrating situation, you have no choice but to get frustrated.
But if you stop and think about it for a moment, you can see that's not necessarily true. It's possible that someone else--perhaps someone very wise who has been practicing for a long time--might not get frustrated in the same situation. There are different possible responses, some of which do not involve frustration.
That means the situation doesn't have to be frustrating; it's only frustrating because of your knee-jerk emotional response. But what if you could change that response?
Between Stimulus and Response
Once you realize that you don't have to get upset when something upsetting happens, you gain a new sense of control over your emotions. The Austrian neurologist Viktor Frankl survived concentration camps during the Holocaust and later became a renowned psychotherapist. Frankl used Stoic-like techniques with his patients to help them cope with adversity. For example, he said:
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
Can you find the space between stimulus (situation) and response (your reaction) in your own life? Stepping back and looking at our anger, frustration, and other negative emotions in this way can help us become aware of our opinions and emotional choices. We don't have to automatically react negatively to a negative stimulus. We can choose to do something else instead.
Modern Stoic and psychotherapist Donald Robertson, in Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, suggests four strategies for distancing ourselves from our knee-jerk emotional reactions:
postponement > take a "time out" until you can think about your problem more rationally
modelling > imagine what a wise person would do in your situation
coping > think about the resources you have for dealing with the problem
philosophical disputation > ask yourself whether this problem is really as bad as it seems
Remember, we're not talking here about suppressing or repressing our emotions. If you try to suppress your emotions by ignoring them or telling yourself they don't matter, you will eventually explode. That strategy never works in the long run, and it's not psychologically healthy. Instead, we want to acknowledge and identify our negative emotions, then manage them properly so that they fade away.
When you are able to separate your emotional reaction from the situation itself, you can begin to reduce your negative responses to even the most frustrating situation. It will certainly take some practice to get the hang of it. Be patient with yourself, and don't expect to become a brand new person overnight. But over time, you will create more space for those positive emotions like enjoyment, goodwill, and cherishing others. And those emotions are probably what led you to take up your caring position in the first place, right?
Feel free to reach out to us here at Stoicare if you have any questions about Stoicism and emotions. Remember, Stoicare means caring wisely. Get started today!