Stoicism: Cautionary Advice

Sto­icism, or life strate­gies in that sphere, are some­thing that of­ten gets pos­i­tive at­ten­tion. I’m refer­ring to the wide va­ri­ety of ad­vice that is along the lines of “look for the silver lin­ing” and “laugh off the small things”. At the core, the stoic mind­set is the recog­ni­tion that we have con­trol over our emo­tional re­sponses to things through the way we frame them, and that we can get qual­ity of life im­prove­ments “for free” by bet­ter man­ag­ing our own emo­tions.

I’ll say up front that I think most peo­ple would benefit from giv­ing their emo­tions less con­trol over their lives and that in gen­eral the toolset pro­vided by a stoic mind­set is a helpful one. I’ve held a pretty stoic view of my emo­tional life for a long time, and I think it has benefited me more than its harmed me. How­ever, I think it’s worth point­ing out sev­eral pit­falls of this think­ing pat­tern to be aware of.

Send­ing the Wrong So­cial Signals

When some­thing bad hap­pens, other peo­ple ex­pect you to ex­press cer­tain emo­tions. If you make a mis­take at work, you are ex­pected to feel bad and ex­press that through your body lan­guage and speech. If how­ever, you’ve de­vel­oped more stoic think­ing pat­terns and ask your­self “I made a mis­take, but that’s already hap­pened so in­stead of re­gret­ting I’m go­ing to fo­cus on what I can do to avoid that mis­take in the fu­ture”, you’ll also likely have body lan­guage and speech that doesn’t com­mu­ni­cate re­gret in the same way. Some­times peo­ple will rec­og­nize that you are still aware of your mis­take but are ap­proach­ing it from a differ­ent an­gle, es­pe­cially if they already know you, but don’t count on it.

Be aware of what you’re ex­pected to ex­press, par­tic­u­larly if the per­son doesn’t know you well, and ei­ther try and com­mu­ni­cate that body lan­guage or be clear about why you aren’t.

The Danger of In­suffi­cient Risk Aver­sion

The nega­tive emo­tions as­so­ci­ated with failure ex­ist for a rea­son. Often times the value of a stoic mind­set is that you ex­pe­rience the nega­tive emo­tions for an event that you couldn’t have done any­thing about any­way, and so ad­di­tional mo­ti­va­tion to avoid the event isn’t helpful. How­ever it can be easy to over-cor­rect and take a stoic mind­set to­wards the nega­tive emo­tions as­so­ci­ated with avoid­able failures. This may even still be okay, a care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of how to avoid failure in the fu­ture can be more effec­tive than the re­in­force­ment learn­ing ap­proach of nega­tive emo­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, it’s easy to be over op­ti­mistic about the de­gree to which a ar­gu­ment you made to your­self months ago will af­fect your be­hav­ior when en­coun­ter­ing that situ­a­tion again.

Nega­tive emo­tion is a lot more salient when it comes to be­ing a dis­in­cen­tive, and so if you have a stoic mind­set it’s nec­es­sary to be ex­tra care­ful and take the les­sons taught by your mis­takes to heart. Take the time to carry out a ret­ro­spec­tive, and be es­pe­cially cau­tious to not breeze over the pro­cess. A part of that is con­sid­er­ing if you’ve made the same mis­take be­fore, and car­ried out the same ret­ro­spec­tive. If the an­swer is yes, then you need to take ac­tion to break the loop, or at least keep a men­tal tally so you can re­al­ize in that some­thing isn’t work­ing.

Avoid­ing Pitfalls

The stoic mind­set can be con­sid­ered as a thresh­old­ing func­tion. In a low stress/​dan­ger en­vi­ron­ment, it is easy to blow the ev­ery­day has­sles of life out of pro­por­tion and end up sac­ri­fic­ing po­ten­tial well be­ing for no rea­son. A proper stoic mind­set can help smooth out these ev­ery­day an­noy­ances and re­sult in im­me­di­ate qual­ity of life im­prove­ments. Turn up the dial too far, and you’ll find your­self with­out mo­ti­va­tion to solve the prob­lems in your life that you could and should be ad­dress­ing. Ad­just the dial by pe­ri­od­i­cally ask­ing your­self if you’ve been act­ing more risky than you should be or not spend­ing enough time solv­ing is­sues in your life.

Like most life ad­vice, this falls into All De­bates are Brav­ery De­bates ter­ri­tory. I’m writ­ing this be­cause I’ve seen blog posts around ad­vo­cat­ing a mind­set along the lines of what I’m de­scribing as stoic, and want to provide some ad­vice from the other side of the scale. If you are a per­son that feels con­stantly sad or anx­ious about daily events, this post is prob­a­bly not for you. If you are a per­son that finds them­selves nat­u­rally ex­pe­rienc­ing less salient nega­tive emo­tions than what seems nor­mal for the peo­ple around you, then I hope this ad­vice is helpful to you.

Appendix

This post was in­spired by read­ing Laugh­ing Away the Lit­tle Miseries by Rossin. I highly recom­mend his post as a short ex­plo­ra­tion of what I’m de­scribing as a stoic mind­set.

I have found that a stoic mind­set is some­thing you can cul­ti­vate, but also seems to have cer­tain her­i­ta­ble as­pects. In con­ver­sa­tions with my father he’s ex­pressed that he ex­pe­riences an ease with which he can get over nega­tive emo­tion, and has de­scribed his father similarly. Whether it’s ge­net­ics or child rear­ing strate­gies, it does seem to be some­thing that can be shared within a fam­ily. His ad­vice to be cau­tious of ig­nor­ing prob­lems in your life be­cause of this ten­dency was a big in­fluence in my tak­ing the time to think more deeply about the prob­lem while grow­ing up.