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.

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.

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