“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.” 

― Marcus Aurelius

The world we live in has never been more connected, our cities house millions of people, we have phones that connect us to our loved ones at the push of a button, and social media has us a few clicks away from the unfiltered, and sometimes questionable opinions of billions of strangers.

This connection we all share is now part of life, and as a part of life it means that we’re inevitably going to cross paths with people we don’t get along with, agree with, or even like. And this is OK, it’s part of life, and the nature of our society.

This connectivity starts to become less OK when we allow it to destabilise our peace of mind.

Today we’re going to explore how Stoic philosophy can help us deal with difficult people, and we’ll learn some tools to not only reduce the impact that other people have on our peace of mind, but also shift our perception of people so that their behaviour and their actions no longer cause us to react impulsively and more importantly cause us to react negatively.

For this subject I’m going to break our approach into 4 key areas:

  1. The Concept Control

  2. Compassion

  3. Choice and our ability to decide our response

  4. Reflection

Along the way we’ll be drawing on the wisdom of the Stoics like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca to act as guides as we navigate the material.

Stoic Control:

Epictetus lectured in ancient Greece, teaching that:

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

― Epictetus

The behaviour of other people is beyond the power of our will – it is outside our control, the chance of you bumping into people you dislike is outside your control – what you can control is how you respond to people when you encounter them.

This concept is the foundation to our interactions with other people. Whether we agree with it or not everyone has their nature, and their values, judgements, biases and beliefs will reflect that nature, and by extension these things will direct their behaviours, what they say and what they do.

No amount of anger or frustration on your part will change a person acting in accordance with their nature. Expecting people to put aside their own values to align with yours is a very naive way of interacting with the world, because as much as you want others to change, they may well want you to change.

So Epictetus quite rightly tells us that the behaviour of other people is outside the reach of our control; he goes on to tell us that trying to control this will lead to our suffering. He said:

“Outside our power are our physical characteristics, the class into which we were born, our reputation in the eyes of others, and honours and offices that may be bestowed on us. 

Working within our sphere of control, we are naturally free, independent, and strong. Beyond that sphere, we are weak, limited, and dependent. If you pin your hopes on things outside your control, taking upon yourself things which rightfully belong to others, you are liable to stumble, fall, suffer, and blame both gods and men. But if you focus your attention only on what is truly your own concern, and leave to others what concerns them, then you will be in charge of your interior life.”

To avoid unnecessary suffering; if we can’t control it, we have to learn to accept it. Here acceptance doesn’t mean to lie down and let people do what they want, regardless of whether you agree with it or not. It simply means that we look at other people for what they are, accept that they will behave in alignment with their own nature. From there we can decide how we respond.

Compassion & understanding:

Moving on we have compassion and understanding. Whenever we come across a person who irritates us, or does something we don’t agree with, it’s very easy to follow our instant gut reaction and get annoyed, or even angry, and begin to judge the person.

However every action we do, everything we say, every belief we hold and bias we have has a reason for being there. We build up all of these things over the course of our life through our experiences, our interactions with other people, our wins and losses, hardships and suffering. Unfortunately it is often the most destructive people who have lived the most challenging lives. They project their pain onto the world around them, they treat others like they have been treated, and when we don’t have the tools to cope with what we’re going through, or what we’ve been through, it boils over into our life and the lives around us.

Treating people with compassion involves understanding why they’re doing what they’re doing, and deliberately looking to the source of their behaviour, rather than just getting annoyed at them or worse treating them poorly, which could well help solidify some of the beliefs causing the behaviour in the first place.

If you were in their shoes you may very well have ended up on the same path, with the same world view, doing the same things.

The quote at the beginning of this subject had Marcus Aurelius saying:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own

He recognised that as we go through life we will experience behaviour from people that we don’t agree with, and that this behaviour is due to those people being unable to navigate themselves through good and evil.

Marcus also made the observation that the nature of the wrongdoer is similar to his own, that we’re all people, and we all share a common nature.

Don’t let other people determine your behaviour for you:

Our next concept is not allowing the behaviours of other people to determine how you act.

You and I both have our own values, opinions on what’s right and wrong, and ideas of who we would like to be and how we should behave.

Unfortunately these things are often thrown aside when someone comes in contact with a person they disagree with, get into conflict with, dislike or even hate. The behaviours of another person are often used to validate our own crappy behaviour. And instead of staying true to our values, we descend into tit for tat childishness, and when questioned why we are doing what we’re doing we use language like “they did this so I did that”, or “they started it”. The only thing this shows us is that we have allowed the actions of another person to dictate our own behaviour….we have allowed them to control us.

Marcus Aurelius said:

“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”

Take the high road, stick to your values and under no circumstances allow the actions of another person control how you behave. Let your reaction be a deliberate choice. Don’t be dragged into the dirt, it’s a very easy thing to meet other people there, it’s a difficult thing to say no.

“To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.”

Marcus Aurelius


“If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, ‘He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would have not mentioned these alone.’” — Epictetus

Finally we have reflection. While it is not a good idea to dwell on everything everyone says about us, it’s often helpful to look to see if there are patterns in the way people respond and interact with us.

We often think we know how we come across, but it’s likely that we have blind spots, and behaviours we’re not aware of. Sometimes these behaviours can be detrimental to our relationships and interactions with other people. So, if we find ourselves getting a negative response from someone it’s not unreasonable to think that it could be a one off, that that particular person was having a bad day, or that they’re just not a good person. However, if we get a similar response from multiple people across different areas of our life, there’s a chance that you’re presenting yourself in a way that could be damaging the way you interact with others.

This isn’t necessarily an indicator to chance, it’s simply something to think about, an indicator that we might need to reflect on what we’re doing, on whether we have a blind spot or something we can work on to help us in our relationships with people in the future.

Similarly, if we’ve been given open criticism, look at it objectively. While it’s not helpful to accept every criticism and believe it to be true, it’s also not necessarily helpful to reject all criticism and carry on as we are. There’s a balance to be had between these two, where we look at what’s been said objectively and try to understand whether or not there is any truth to it.


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