Most people still like to believe that they are very rational beings, making decisions based on careful deliberation. But if I told you that every decision you make is and will always be emotional, would you believe me? Well, this is actually the case, humans are extremely irrational creatures. Even though we'd like to think of ourselves as very rational and logical beings, we aren't. But should we just give up our pursuit of logic and settle for being emotionally volatile creatures? No, we don't have to, because some people in ancient Rome found the answer to controlling our irrationality: the Stoics. They believed even then that we were very irrational, but that we could learn to be aware of this, and channel the emotions and impulses we feel into something productive.
The philosophy of stoicism is that emotions are energy, and you can choose what you do with this energy once you control it. But what is stoicism really, and why does society need it? Most important of all, how can you become more stoic yourself, develop more self-control, and become more rational? Continue reading to find out.
What is stoicism?
A lot of people tend to have the wrong perception of stoicism. They may believe that the premise of stoicism is burying your emotions and not feeling anything anymore, and they tend to see people who are stoic as cold and emotionless.
Emotions are energy, and the stoics knew this. They simply found out that you don’t have to be a slave to this energy, but that you can use it in a positive way. The emotional aspect of stoicism is actually about controlling the energy emotions bring you and using them to achieve positive results. The energy these emotions produce can destroy you if you let it, with depression, anxiety, stress, etc. But if you can control and harness this energy, whether from a positive or a negative emotion, you can use it to propel you forward, instead of it setting you back. You can choose where this energy will be used once you control it.
Stoicism also contains the ability to delay gratification, another aspect of controlling your emotions. Instant gratification is the result of emotional impulses, you decide to act out some urge you feel that stems from an emotion. This will ruin you in the long term because what is pleasurable right now, is often detrimental to you in the long term, so you’re saving the problems that instant gratification causes for your future self. Once you control your emotions, you can control the impulses you get when wanting to do something pleasurable, that means you can delay that gratification, and make sure you get a bigger reward at the end of the road, you only have to wait a little longer and sometimes do what seems uncomfortable at the moment for the greater good.
The rider and the horse.
The best way to illustrate this concept of emotional control, harnessing the energy of your emotions, and steering them in the right direction, is through a metaphor of the rider and the horse. Picture a man riding on a horse, the rider is the person who controls the horse, he makes the horse do what he wants him to do: jump over hurdles, run, carry, etc. The horse in this story is the sheer power, he is the energy. This metaphor applies perfectly to the concept of stoicism. You are the rider, controlling your emotions and able to direct them to achieve positive results, like controlling the horse and making it jump over a hurdle. The horse is the power and energy that your emotions have, without which you can’t achieve the result you want. Now if you let the horse do whatever it wants to do and you don’t control it, it is a loose cannon and will probably destroy everything in it’s path. This is the same with your untamed emotions, they can produce more harm than good when they’re not reigned in.
The rider is your rational thought and self-control. It uses the energy of the horse and steers it in the correct direction. It makes the horse complete tasks and do things that are productive to the rider. When the rider has no control over the horse, the energy will be used for destruction or in the best case, wasted. But when the rider tries to control the horse too much, the horse will be too tame and lose all of its power, decreasing the results he will bring.
The premise of the rider and horse metaphor is that you need balance. You need control and you need energy, but one should not overpower the other. When you can’t control your emotions, you’ll destroy yourself from within, because the energy has to go somewhere. If you don’t decide where it goes, it will decide for itself.
When your control is too tight, and you’re too cold, then there’ll be no energy. Without this energy, you can’t achieve the results you want to achieve. With too much control you also tend to become passive, this is something you’ll definitely want to avoid, you always want to keep moving forward.
So it’s important that the rider and the horse are in perfect unison, combining the enormous energy of the horse with the reasoning powers of the rider to achieve incredible results.
Why society needs more stoicism.
If you just look around today, you see the result of people constantly reacting with their emotions instead of their minds. Obesity rates are going through the roof, this is mostly a result of people not being able to control themselves, and letting their emotions get the better of them. Bad food makes people feel good in the movement, so they eat it, not paying attention to the long-term effects. Another point is going along with trends, not being able to control the emotion of fear by not going along with them, or wanting to be accepted by others so just doing what everyone else is doing.
Emotional decisions tend to be the worst decisions we make. What we need to avoid making these disastrous decisions, is self-control. Controlling our emotional reactions, and not simply committing to an action because you feel like it. This takes self-discipline and control, which most people lack today, but stoicism seems like the solution to this issue. It’s about controlling your emotions, having self-control, and doing what is right for you in the long term, instead of doing what feels pleasurable in the short term.
We see a lot of short-sightedness within our society when it comes to people making decisions. Companies make decisions based on what number their quarterly revenue will be, not what the long-term plan is for the company. Governments make decisions that increase their popularity at the moment, fixing surface issues that are prevalent right now, and not doing anything to fix issues in the long term and getting at the root causes of those issues.
Because of this, society could use a little more stoicism. We need to think more about what consequences our actions will have in the long term and base our decisions on that, not on what is good, or what feels good for us in the short term but will have disastrous effects in the long term.
When people decide to look stoically at their decisions, controlling their emotions and making a decision based on deep thinking, instead of emotional impulses, then people are going to make a lot better and wiser decisions, with better results in the long term.
And for the average guy who has to make no big decisions, even he could use stoicism very well. It’s controlling your emotions and using the energy they contain to get positive results. Whether it's a positive or a negative emotion, they contain energy. With these energies, especially with negative emotions, you have a choice. Or you can just act on your impulses and be sad or afraid, and let them destroy you, or you can use this energy, and channel it into something productive. Use your sadness to make your life better by realizing that you need to do better. Once you control this energy, you can achieve anything you want, the sky is the limit.
How to become more stoic. (4 Tricks)
Now that the benefits of stoicism are clear and you’ve realized how important it is for yourself and society, you need to know how you can become more stoic. Stoicism is just like any other skill you’re ever going to acquire in life. In the beginning, you’ll suck at it, then you become a little better one step at a time, and eventually, if you persist you can become really good. You can’t just decide to flip a switch and become the perfect stoic, it simply doesn’t work like that. However, there are a few tricks I can give you that will enormously speed up the process and make becoming more stoic much easier. Here are four tricks to practicing stoicism:
- Discipline is destiny. (delay gratification)
The most important attribute of a stoic is self-control. Self-control is doing what you’re supposed to do, or doing what is rationally wise, instead of doing what feels good in the moment. This is realized by the quality of discipline. It is doing what you’re supposed to do even if you don’t feel like doing it, only doing it because it simply has to be done. Practice this by making promises to yourself that require discipline. The things you don’t really like to do but have a very positive effect on your life. This could be working, writing, going to the gym, or doing something consistently that you don’t really want to do but is extremely beneficial. Like with all skills, this too has to be practiced on a consistent basis. You need to train your discipline muscle, making it stronger and stronger. What you’ll notice then too, is that practicing discipline will become much easier the more you use it. They say you have a limited amount of willpower throughout the day, which is true, but once you get used to using discipline in situations, willpower is not necessary anymore, making it easy to exercise discipline. Like the stoics say: Discipline is destiny.
- Redirect energy.
The emotions you have every single day contain energy and you can choose to direct this energy in any way you want to, you only have to control it. Once you’ve improved on the aspect of self-control, you can choose where you want to direct your emotions. Instead of the emotions such as anxiety making you stagnant, use them to make you better able to confront a fearful situation. Redirect this energy into something purposeful, put it towards doing some task that helps you go forward. When you’re sad, that’s exactly when you should go to the gym. With all of that energy inside of you, you can decide to not move your ass and let it destroy you from the inside (because that energy has to go somewhere), or you can choose to put it to good use. You can decide what you’ll do with this energy, so choose wisely.
- Label your physiological responses with a different emotion.
Another little trick you can use which has to do with controlling your emotions, is labeling your physiological responses differently. Your emotions and your body are inextricably linked, one can’t exist without the other. It has also been proven that your physiological responses come before the emotion, not after. This means that how you interpret your physiological responses has a massive effect on what emotion you will feel. So by seeing a physiological response differently, you can decide to feel another emotion with it. For example, the physiological responses from nerves can be interpreted as anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions. But they are physically the same responses you get from excitement and enthusiasm, they are only often labeled as negative emotions. What you can do is label these physical responses with a positive emotion in your mind. When you do this, you’ll notice that the bad feeling of the negative emotion vanishes and is replaced by a positive one like enthusiasm.
So the next time you have to walk in front of a crowd of people to give a presentation and you feel nervous, interpret that as you being excited and wanting to perform as best you can. This will change the entire experience.
- Make it a habit.
With every skill, the most important thing is practicing it on a consistent basis. When you do something consistently every day you tend to become a little better day by day. All of these small improvements compound on each other, and after a while make you master a skill. The same goes for stoicism. Trying to be more stoic every day will make you better and better at controlling your emotions. Simply pay attention to when you can apply the principles of stoicism and try to apply them in certain situations every day. This doesn’t have to be perfect, nobody expects you to master stoicism instantly. You’ll go through a lot of trial and error, eventually coming to the magical point where you’ve perfected the art of stoicism. Good luck practicing.