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


2 thoughts on “Stoicism and Emotion

  1. I find your posts on Stoicism very helpful as I suffer from overthinking about things that are totally out of my control (past and future events).
    I like the probability-impact analysis.
    Had I been exposed to Stoicism earlier, there is a lot of things which I would have handled differently.

    Liked by 1 person

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