Emotions are confusing, complex, and often misunderstood. Most of us think that we need to control our emotions in order to prevent them from rearing their disruptive heads when we don’t want them to, causing embarrassment, regret, and unnecessary suffering.

However, for the most part, our emotions are a natural and normal response to the stimulus we experience around us. Sometimes negative emotions come from loss, hardship, discomfort or failure. Other times negative emotions are the result of negative beliefs, perspectives and expectations.

“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”
– Marcus Aurelius

Regardless of the source of your negative emotions, they are a natural response to something in your life. An early warning sign that there may be something you need to address, whether that is a change to your environment or to your beliefs and your response to that environment.

I think it’s important to point out that it is very difficult to control our emotions. Your limbic system is much stronger than the rational part of your brain. It is far more effective to target the source of the negative emotion and find a solution there.

What do stoics think about emotions?

Stoic philosophy views emotion as a two stage process.

  1. The Involuntary Experience

  2. The Conscious Rationalisation

The Involuntary Experience:

Have you ever been standing in front of an audience of people and felt a flush of nerves hit you like a wave? Have you ever entered a sporting competition or combat sport and your heart rate quickened as adrenaline surged through your body? Have you ever felt pangs of guilt, anger or fear?

These are your involuntary responses. The body’s way of letting you know you may be at risk, whether that risk be physical, mental or social. The ancient Stoics saw these kinds of responses as indifferent, they were neither good or bad, simply the body’s natural way of responding to danger. They are part of being human, in our nature, and should be accepted.

Over the years films, books and TV programmes have shown the strength of brave men and women who march unflinchingly into conflict. In reality this doesn’t happen. Everyone will either feel fear or will have had enough training and exposure to the situation to lessen it.

Our body’s natural response happens to help us survive. We flinch to cover ourselves against a potential attack, our eyes widen to allow us to see more of our surroundings, and our heart rate increases to pump blood around our body in case we need to fight or flight.

You have little to no control over that initial response. Your limbic system has hijacked your body for your survival, and that’s OK. This same system has carried your ancestors through thousands of years of threats. Accept it for what it is.

The Stoics called these involuntary reactions propatheiai. They were viewed as an indifferent and natural response to potential danger. Nothing for you to be embarrassed about, and nothing to be fought.

The Conscious Rationalisation:

The second stage of emotion for the Stoics is one of examination.

Here you have the ability to decide how you respond to the initial involuntary reaction. You have the ability to accept it, examine the reason for its existence, and do something about it.

  1. Acceptance:

    The first step after experiencing a strong emotional response like fear or anger is to accept that you’re feeling this way. Accept that you’re feeling these negative emotions because of something. It’s your body’s way of telling you that there is something in your life to be addressed.

  2. Examination:

    The second step is to examine the negative emotion. Find the source of the emotion and think about what exactly has made you feel the way you do.

    Is it because something didn’t meet your expectations? Then examine your expectations and decide if they are realistic or unreasonable. Are you expecting the world to behave as you want it to, rather than accepting it as it is?

    Are you angry when someone disrespects you? Examine why you care about their opinion. Does their opinion of you change who you really are? Do you need their approval to satisfy your own well being?

  3. Do something:

The third step is deliberate action. After you’ve accepted how you feel and understand the source of the feeling, it’s not time to do something about it.

This is key. Too many people in our culture today look to blame something for their situation or make excuses for not doing something about it.

It’s true that in many cases people fall into hardship as a result of events outside their control, however blame and excuse do nothing to improve the situation longer term. These things only serve the short term by validating our negative feelings and keeping us in the slump.

Blame is an anchor, it prevents us from taking responsibility for our conditions and instead focuses on pointing out why we are where we are, rather than doing something to improve it.

The Stoic Virtue of Courage:

Sometimes our natural responses are not glamorous or heroic, as a result people sometimes put too much pressure on themselves because they were nervous, scared, jealous, angry or over excited.

In contrast to films, books, and cultural heroes it’s easy to think that we’re cowards for being scared, silly for being nervous in front of an audience, or

The Stoics think differently. One important part of Stoicism is the encouragement to examine our thoughts. We do this in order to prevent any unnecessary emotional distress or suffering that can be caused by limiting beliefs. Beliefs like “I can’t do X”, “People think I’m Y”, “The world has it in for me” etc.

These shadows in the mind are very real causes of unnecessary suffering. They need to be weeded out.

However another important aspect of Stoic philosophy is to live with virtue, and one of the core virtues of Stoic philosophy is courage.

Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to act in alignment with what you believe is good, despite your fear.

In my opinion this is how we realistically address strong emotion. Firstly we need to make sure that emotion is not being magnified by limiting belief. Secondly we need to develop courage, the ability to act constructively in the face of strong emotion.

Amor Fati.

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