Stoicism and Emotion

In my previous post we looked at Stoicism and how its teachings about Control can be used to reduce overthinking. In this post, I want to look at how this can be taken a step further. Our current actions are within our control. Stoic philosophy describes how we can use this to our advantage to control our emotions.

This might seem odd at first. The obvious thought that may spring to mind goes along the lines of: “If someone does something (or something happens) which is out of my control, and that affects my emotions, how can that be in my control?”

Thing that happens (not in my control) > Emotion (not in my control)

However, Stoicism highlights that the above model of a situation is not entirely accurate. Specifically, it says that there is an additional step in the middle of the above process. That step is the thought and judgement we apply to the “thing that happens” which in turns leads to the emotion we feel. Since our thoughts and judgements are within our control, then so are our emotions.

Thing that happens (not in my control) > Thoughts and judgements (in my control) > Emotion (in my control)

Real world example

This may not seem immediately convincing, but there are observations of real world behaviour we can analyse to see this in practice.

Suppose a cyclist is riding down a road, when a car driver cuts them up. We can imagine a scenario where the cyclist gets incredibly angry, and shouts and gestures at the driver.

Now imagine the exact sequence of events plays out, but with a different cyclist who takes it in their stride, doesn’t get angry, and doesn’t shout or gesture at the driver.

Both of these are plausible scenarios. The “thing that happens” is the same in both scenarios, yet the emotions of the cyclists are entirely different. So it can’t be the case that the “thing that happens” has caused the emotion. Instead, the different thoughts of the two cyclists (which was within each of their control) has led them to have different emotional responses.

Controlling our thoughts

The next question is: how can we control our thoughts such that they result in a neutral, or maybe even a positive emotion? Let’s consider again the example of the driver and the cyclists, and look at the potential thought processes we could go through.

Thought process 1: The driver has deliberately tried to cut me up and cause an accident. I am angry that he has tried to injure me.

Thought process 2: The driver has not noticed me – it’s probably human error. So I have no reason to be angry. Even if it was deliberate, I can choose to not allow it to affect my emotions.

Thought process 3: It is very fortunate that there was no accident caused as a result of that. I am very happy and grateful for that.

Each of these three thought processes leads to a completely different emotional state for the cyclist, based on the thoughts and judgements which are applied to having been cut up by the driver.

Clearly, the above is a simplification as the exact thought processes you could go through depend entirely on the specifics of the particular situation.

Undoubtedly this will take a lot of practice to do consistently, especially as many of us have not been brought up to think about emotions or respond to situations in this way, and to some extent we may not be naturally wired to control our emotions in this way.

In some instances, the nature of the “thing that happens” may even be so “negative” by usual human standards, that it is not practical to do this (even if Stoicism would argue that it is theoretically possible).

However, in most day-to-day cases, it is possible, and it can be extremely beneficial.

I’ll leave you with a quotation from the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius which summarises this nicely:

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations


How to stop overthinking: Stoicism and Control

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher living between 50-135 AD. He was a follower and practitioner of a philosophical school of thought called Stoicism. The term Stoicism today conjures up thoughts of somebody who is strong-willed or emotionally resilient. To an extent, these are useful descriptors for someone who follows the principles of Stoicism. But these don’t tell the whole story.

So I think it is helpful to unpick the term a little bit, dig a bit deeper into the Stoic philosophy, and think about how it may be useful in our everyday modern lives. In this post, there is one particular pillar of Stoicism that I want to talk about which I think can reduce overthinking: Control.


Stoicism teaches that we should only concern ourselves with things that are within our control. By doing so, we should be able to free our minds and reduce overthinking. This sounds easy enough, but unfortunately it is easy to implement this incorrectly.

One of the reasons for this is that it can be surprisingly easy to mis-classify things, and mistakenly think that something is within our control, when in fact, it isn’t.

Alternatively, it may be the case that performing the classification is easy if we were to think about it, but our brains have become so hard-wired to automatically worry about certain situations, that we don’t even apply this logic.

Clearly, either one of these is problematic, as we may then end up (over)thinking about something which we don’t need to think about.

“We should always be asking ourselves: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?

– Epictetus

Let’s look at two key types of occasions where we might find ourselves incorrectly worrying about something out of our control:

  1. Dwelling about the past: things which have happened.

This is a classic example. Something which has already happened is obviously not in our control (assuming no time machines). Intuitively we all know this, but in reality our minds often wander down the path of worrying about the past. Next time you find your mind making that journey, try invoking Stoicism – just having this logical pillar to revert back to can make this easier.

Caveat: We all know that it is good to “learn from our mistakes”. However this passes the test of the Stoic principle of Control, so it is fine (actually, advisable).

Why? By learning from the past, we may be able to improve the way we do something that we can can control, or avoid doing something in our control next time. This may lead to a better outcome later (note the use of the word may, not will – this is because of the next point).

2. Worrying about the future: outcomes or things that might happen.

It’s less obvious why this is problematic, as intuitively, it seems like we should be able to control at least aspects of the future through our actions. Actually, whilst we may be able to influence the future, perhaps by doing things within our control which make a particular outcome more or less likely, we still can’t control the actual outcome itself.

This might all seem a bit abstract, so let’s look at a concrete example:

Suppose you get in late, put a pizza in the oven, turn the oven on, fall asleep, and the pizza burns to a crisp. Here’s a breakdown of things that would and wouldn’t be in your control.

Past events (not in your control – don’t worry)Current events (in your control)Future events (not in your control – don’t worry)
– The fact that the pizza has burned to a crisp.

– The fact that the smoke alarm has gone off and woken up the neighbours.
– Turning off the smoke alarm.

– Putting another pizza in the oven and (learning from your mistake), setting an alarm on your phone to wake you up in in time to turn the oven off, in case you fall asleep again.

– Apologising to your neighbours in the morning.
– Your phone inexplicably breaks without you noticing – you fall asleep – no alarm goes off – your second pizza burns to a crisp.

– Your neighbours are still annoyed with you after you apologise.

I think the “Future events” here are the most interesting. Even when we have learned from our mistakes and taken actions within our control to improve the outcome next time round, we still can’t necessarily stop the second pizza from burning or prevent our neighbours from still being angry after we have apologised.

So once we are comfortable that we have done whatever is our control, we shouldn’t actually worry about whether that will lead to a good outcome, because that isn’t actually within our control. The outcome or future event is affected by things within our control, but it is not entirely determined by them. This is a subtle, but important, distinction which crops up all the time in real life, and I find is easy to forget or get wrong.

So next time you find yourself overthinking about something, take a leaf out of Epictetus’s book, and ask yourself if whatever you are worrying about is truly in your control. I’ll leave you with a final quote from the man himself:

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

I’m not sure if that really is the only way to happiness, but maybe that’s a mulling for a different day.

How to stop overthinking about work: probability-impact analysis

The Problem

I’m a natural overthinker. If a thought or potential issue pops into my mind, usually related to work, my instinct is to spend time thinking about what to do about it. Even if I get the thought out of my mind, it has a tendency to re-appear, usually at an annoying and inconvenient time. Often when I am busy doing something completely unrelated, rudely demanding my attention again.

This can be a huge distraction, sapping time and energy away from being able to focus on other important things. “Just don’t worry about it” or “Just don’t allow yourself to think about work when you’re not at work” are seemingly simple pieces of advice that are commonly offered.

However if you are naturally inclined to mull over solutions to problems or have an inherently analytical nature, this is much easier said than done. In fact, heeding this advice may sometimes even be detrimental, as having an analytical and detail-oriented mind is often a strength, especially in a lot of work-related scenarios.

So what’s the solution? There must be a way to both reduce the time spent overthinking about work-related issues, whilst simultaneously, and ideally quickly, satisfying yourself that it is reasonable to stop thinking about a particular problem.

Over a number of years, I’ve experimented with a number of techniques. One of the most effective methods that works for me is described in this post: the probability-impact model. If you’re like me and have a natural tendency to overthink things, or even if you are only an occasional overthinker, I hope this helps.

How to solve it

A technique sometimes used in business to analyse potential problems is to perform a probability-impact analysis. Essentially, it is a way of thinking about two key factors associated with potential problems:

  1. How likely is it that this thing actually happens? (“probability”)
  2. What will be the outcome if this thing happens? (“impact”)

These two factors together can be used to determine what to do about the potential problem. I find it helpful to think about this using a table.

High probability
Don’t worryThink about this moreThink about this more
Medium probability
Don’t worryThink about this moreThink about this more
Low probability
Don’t worryDon’t worryThink about this more
Probability / ImpactLow impact
(“Doesn’t matter”)
Medium impact
(“Not good”)
High impact

I have found performing a risk analysis like this when a problem enters my head, helps the vast majority of the time, as it mostly allows me to stop thinking about the problem, whilst having the satisfaction of having analysed the problem and determined that it is okay to do so.

You will note that if something is “Low impact”, this model says you never need to worry about it (regardless of probability). And if something is “Low probability”, you don’t need to worry about it unless it is “High impact”.

You may be reading this thinking:

“This seems over-engineered; now not only do I have the problem I started with in my head, but I have to perform a risk analysis as well!”

Let me address this. On face value, I agree, it seems overkill. However, in practice (and with practice) this can be done in your head very quickly. In most cases, I am able to do this analysis within a few seconds.

You may also be thinking:

But what if I do the analysis and it says I need to think more?”

Again, on face value, I agree. And in fact this is trickier to address. In reality, I have found that in the vast majority of cases (I’d estimate over 95% of the time), performing the above analysis leads me to a “Don’t worry” conclusion.

In fact, most of the time, the problem is both low probability and low impact. Over time, you come to learn this and your brain almost does this analysis without actively thinking. Maybe this is similar to what is automatically going on in people’s heads who are naturally able to not overthink things.

In the remaining 5% of time where the model says you need to think more (which admittedly, may be higher depending on your job role and the nature of potential problems which pop into your head), you’re right, the above model will need some extra steps. In those cases, I’ve got some other ideas, to follow in another post.

The final step

Once you have performed the analysis, at some point in the future the problem thought will inevitably pop back into your mind. You can’t stop this from happening. But you can stop yourself from thinking about it further past this point. This takes discipline. The gremlin in your mind might be saying “But what if I performed the analysis wrong?” or “What if I do need to think about it more to prevent a disaster?”.

The analogy I think of here is the legal system (or my layman’s understanding of it). Once a judgement has been served, you can’t have an appeal unless there is some significant change in circumstances, for example, new material evidence comes to light.

We can apply that logic here. Once you have performed your analysis, if the gremlin appears, tell him to do one. You can do this safe in the knowledge that his request is invalid unless he has some new information for you to consider (which usually, he doesn’t).