Stoicism has gotten a bad rap.
These days, when people think “stoic,” they think “emotionless.” “Indifferent to pleasure and pain” is now literally a definition of the word “stoic.”
That’s not what the Stoics were going for.
For the Stoics, the goal is not to avoid all emotion. It is to minimize negative emotion. I can see where people get confused, though.
I am often accused (usually jokingly, but often enough to take the hint) of being emotionless.
I disagree with this assessment. I feel plenty of emotions. I just try not to dwell on negative emotions.
And I try not to act on them, either.
No Upside to Negativity
Dwelling on negative emotions is all downside.
Nobody enjoys feeling frustrated or angry. We’d rather feel happy and calm. We don’t aspire to negativity.
Generally, doing things we don’t like comes with a positive trade-off. People work jobs they hate because they want the income. We do things that we don’t enjoy in order to make other people happy. We sacrifice of ourselves for our family and friends.
This all makes sense.
With negative emotions, though, there is often no benefit. In fact, it can make things worse.
Not Solving the Problem
Your frustration with traffic is not going to get you to work any faster. It’s just going to raise your blood pressure.
Yelling at a waiter is not going to cook your food any faster. Depending on the waiter, it may result in some culinary sabotage instead.
Getting angry at my wife is not going to solve a disagreement. It’s more likely to lead me to say something that makes everything worse.
Getting the best results in any situation requires you to know how to handle negative emotions.
Things We Can’t Control
You can’t stop feeling negative emotions. At least as far as I can tell.
I can’t force myself never to feel anger or frustration.
And that’s fine. Emotions are not bad. But they are often bad at coaching our actions.
One of the cornerstones of Stoicism is understanding and discerning the difference between things you can control and things you can’t.
The emotions that you feel are outside of your control. The way you act after feeling those emotions is within your control.
Don’t beat yourself up for feeling negative emotions. But work to let go of them quickly.
Two Steps to a Better Life
There are really only two steps to making good decisions in spite of negative emotions.
The first is to recognize when you are feeling one. Learn to identify in yourself when you are angry. Recognize when your heart starts racing. Notice when you start feeling a need to lash out.
When we feel these negative emotions we are more likely to act impulsively. Work to catch yourself and pause before acting. “Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue,” as the Stoic Zeno said.
Next, keep the end goal in mind.
Our instinct is to lash out and push our negativity onto others. Often this is in the form of blame, but sometimes we just feel the urge to express our frustration or other emotions.
Think about the result you want.
Will expressing your anger help reach that result? Sometimes, but be honest with yourself.
Will blaming someone else help? Probably not.
Instead, take a deep breath and think about what next action will actually push you towards the goal you want to reach.
It Gets Better
This gets easier over time.
At first it is very difficult to think clearly through negative emotions. When I was angry, all I wanted to do was express that anger. I could not think through a positive action to take.
I used to have to walk away from situations and come back later or close my eyes and breathe deeply for 30 seconds. (In my personal experience I have found that the key is to get your heart rate back down a bit. It is hard to think rationally when your body is in fight or flight mode.)
Now it is usually instinctual and instantaneous. Sometimes I still close my eyes and take one deep breath.
Feel the frustration. Pause. Think of a next step.
It’s not necessarily easy to master, but once you do life becomes a lot easier to manage.
What about you? How do you manage negative emotions? Do you have any tricks that you’ve learned?