I rarely read books that I cover with highlights on almost every page.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson is such a book. It’s not only thought-provoking but also recounts in a captivating way Marcus Aurelius’s life and how he practiced Stoic philosophy.
You may think that a Roman emperor isn’t a good role model for teaching how to deal with discomfort. After all, he had whatever he wanted and his life couldn’t have been easier. It’s a reasonable assumption.
Yet, it’s wrong.
Marcus Aurelius dealt with hardships his entire life.
His father died when he was three. Adopted by his uncle Antoninus who went on to become an emperor, Marcus became a part of the imperial family. Despite his preference for a simple philosophic life, he was later forced to take power when his adoptive father died.
During his early reign, Marcus Aurelius shared power with his undisciplined, self-indulgent brother Lucius who offered little help handling the burdens of emperorship.
At the time, the Roman Empire dealt with heavy military conflict. The Antonine Plague broke out a few years into Marcus’s reign and killed about 10% of Romans, possibly including his brother Lucius.
To make matters worse, Marcus suffered from poor health. He referred to himself as a weak old man. He was unable to eat without pain, sleep without disturbance, and suffered from chronic chest and stomach pains.
One of Marcus’s generals betrayed him and declared himself emperor (he was murdered by one of his centurions as Marcus was amassing an army to defeat him).
Yet, despite all the hardships, Marcus stayed true to his Stoic principles. His journals, published hundreds of years after his death as Meditations, are studied to this day as an example of mental resilience.
I hope that by now you’re convinced there’s a lot we can learn about discomfort and mental resilience from Marcus Aurelius.
Over the next four issues we’ll explore the lessons from Donald Robertson’s take on Marcus Aurelius and the Stoic philosophy.
In the first part we’ll learn how to stay in control when experiencing strong emotions like fear, anger, and desire. No philosophy provides better wisdom how to handle these overpowering feelings than Stoicism.
Seneca’s Three Stages of Responding to Strong Emotions
Seneca gives a more detailed account of the Stoic model of emotion in On Anger, which divides the process of experiencing a passion into three “movements,” or stages:
FIRST STAGE: Initial impressions automatically impose themselves on your mind, including thoughts and emerging feelings called propatheiai, or “proto-passions,” by the Stoics. For example, the impression “The boat is sinking” would quite naturally evoke some initial anxiety.
SECOND STAGE: The majority of people, like those on the boat, would agree with the original impression, go along with it, and add more value judgments, indulging in catastrophic thinking: “I might die a terrible death!” They would worry about it and continue to dwell on it long afterward. By contrast, Stoics, like the unnamed philosopher in the story, have learned to take a step back from their initial thoughts and feelings and withhold their assent from them. They might do this by saying to themselves, “You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent,” or “It is not things that upset us but our judgments about them.” The boat is sinking, but you might make it ashore; even if you don’t, panicking won’t help. Responding calmly and with courage is more important. That’s what you’d praise other people for doing if faced with the same situation.
THIRD STAGE: On the other hand, if you have assented to the impression that something is intrinsically bad or catastrophic, then a full-blown “passion” develops, which can quickly spiral out of control. This actually happened to Seneca during a storm when he grew seasick and panicked so much that he foolishly clambered overboard and tried to wade ashore through the waves and rocks when he would have been much safer remaining on the boat.
In other words, a certain amount of anxiety is natural. Indeed, the hearts of even the most experienced sailors might leap into their mouths when their ship looks like it’s about to be overturned. Bravery would consist in carrying on regardless and dealing with the situation rationally. The Stoic likewise tells himself that although the situation may appear frightening, the truly important thing in life is how he chooses to respond. So he reminds himself to view the storm with Stoic indifference and to respond with wisdom and courage while accepting his initial nervous reaction as harmless and inevitable. What he does not do, though, is make things worse for himself by continuing to worry.
It’s natural to feel anxiety, fear, anger, or any other strong emotion. What differentiates those who stay in control from those who fall victim to these emotions is what they do next.
A Stoic steps back from their emotions to regain control and respond calmly. A person unaccustomed to dealing with emotional discomfort lets these feelings run amok and makes a bad situation worse.
I was once on a ferry crossing from one island to another. To say it was a bad day to travel would be an understatement. Wind gusts achieved 34 knots (42-64 kph/26-40 mph) and waves reached 2.6 meters (8 feet). The seas were so rough that the ship tilted from side to side as if you were on a roller coaster.
My girlfriend got seasick soon after we boarded the ship and had to fight terrible nausea. As we entered the open ocean, some passengers threw up every few minutes.
(I was spared from this sensation. I had suffered from seasickness a couple of weeks earlier on a friend’s small yacht and my body must have had enough since then).
As I stood rooted to the ground for the next two hours, holding onto a railing for balance and supporting my girlfriend, I accepted the rough seas as they came. I knew there was nothing I could do but wait as the ship crossed the rough seas onto its way to the protected waters of the port.
What good would it do if I let my imagination fuel my fear?
How would it help if I obsessed about my own anxiety instead of taking the situation as it was: an unpleasant, but temporary experience?
Notice this part of the quote from the book:
Responding calmly and with courage is more important. That’s what you’d praise other people for doing if faced with the same situation.
Whenever you’re dealing with strong feelings, ask yourself what you’d praise other people for if faced with the same situation. Then do exactly what you’d admire. Stay in control and do your best to alleviate your own and other people’s anxiety.
How to Avoid Adding Fuel to Strong Feelings
The Stoics were certainly interested in how our words affect others. However, their priority was to change the way we affect ourselves, our own thoughts and feelings, through our choice of language. We exaggerate, overgeneralize, omit information, and use strong language and colorful metaphors: “She’s always being a bitch!” “That bastard shot me down in flames!” “This job is complete bullshit!” People tend to think that exclamations like these are a natural consequence of strong emotions like anger. But what if they’re also causing or perpetuating our emotions? If you think about it, rhetoric like this is designed to evoke strong feelings. By contrast, undoing the effects of emotional rhetoric by describing the same events more objectively forms the basis of the ancient Stoic therapy of the passions.
What do you receive in return when you bitch about your discomfort? Does it lessen the pain or intensify it? Does it fuel the anger or reduce it?
Imagine that you’re learning something difficult. Frustrated by your lack of progress, you may say something like, “This is so fucking hard even a rocket scientist wouldn’t understand it.” Does it help you understand the subject? Or does it work against you, implanting a self-sabotaging thought in your mind?
Imagine you’re running a long-distance race and you tell yourself, “I’m so tired I’m about to drop dead any moment.” Who’s more likely to faint: the guy who plants this thought in his head or the guy who judges his exhaustion in a less emotionally-charged way?
Imagine the alarm clock wakes you up at 6 am for a hard day ahead and you tell yourself, “Another fucking morning.” How is this strong language going to affect your outlook during the day? Will it help you face the hardships or make you even more reluctant to welcome challenges?
Be aware of your language and don’t let it add fuel to the fire as you face adversity.
How to Decatastrophize Adverse Events
Modern cognitive therapists advise their clients to describe events in more down-to-earth language, like the Stoics before them. They call it “decatastrophizing” when they help clients downgrade their perception of a situation from provoking anxiety to something more mundane and less frightening. For instance, Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, advised that clients suffering from anxiety should write “decatastrophizing scripts” in which they describe distressing events factually, without strong value judgments or emotive language: “I lost my job and now I’m looking for a new one” rather than “I lost my job and there’s nothing I can do about it—it’s just a total disaster!” Think about it: when you’re distressed, don’t you tend to exaggerate and use vivid, emotional language to describe things, both to yourself and other people? Decatastrophizing involves reevaluating the probability and severity of something bad happening and framing it in more realistic terms. Beck asks his clients, “Would it really be as terrible as you think?” Catastrophizing often seems to involve thinking, “What if?” What if the worst-case scenario happens? That would be unbearable. Decatastrophizing, on the other hand, has been described as going from “What if?” to “So what?”: So what if such-and-such happens? It’s not the end of the world; I can deal with it.
What starts out as a manageable problem can quickly morph into a crushing disaster. All it takes is to imagine the worst-case scenario and refuse to see anything else other than a catastrophe awaiting us. An adverse but survivable event like job loss can turn into a vicious cycle that, through the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy, may come true.
Our brains provide us with the answers to the questions we ask them. What if we replaced “What if?” with “So what?”
Sure, losing your job can generate serious problems. But so what? Can’t you figure out how to solve them? Wouldn’t your life get better sooner if you avoided exaggerating your misfortune and took action to remedy it?
Decatastrophizing doesn’t mean discounting your problems, let alone terrible personal disasters. Its aim is to regain control over our emotional state by seeing the problem in its real, unexaggerated state. This way, we can avoid mental turmoil and find a potential solution sooner.
Ask Yourself What’s Realistically Going to Happen Next
Another common method of decatastrophizing is for cognitive therapists to ask clients repeatedly, “What next?” Mental images of feared events often rapidly escalate to the worst, most anxiety-provoking part and then remain glued there as if the upsetting experience were somehow timeless. In reality, though, everything has a before, during, and after phase. Everything changes with time, and experiences come and go. Anxiety can often be reduced simply by moving the image past the worst point and imagining, in a realistic and noncatastrophic way, what’s most likely to happen in the hours, days, weeks, or months that follow. Reminding himself of the transience of events is one of Marcus’s favorite strategies, as we’ll see in later chapters. One way of doing that is to ask yourself, “What, realistically, will most likely happen next? And then what? And then what?” And so on.
As the Persian Sufi quote goes, “This too shall pass.” When we catastrophize a manageable problem into a never-ending disaster, there’s no way to ever handle it. It’s impossible to do so because if in our minds it has no end, there’s no solution.
Some time ago I fell sick and suffered from various unpleasant symptoms over the span of two weeks. Once I recovered from one issue and thought I would be soon feeling fine again, another problem emerged. For a couple of days, as I was dealing with never-ending digestive issues, I kept reminding myself that it would eventually end. It didn’t remove the pain but at least it didn’t worsen it as imagining no end to the discomfort would.
When you’re dealing with an uncomfortable situation remember that everything has an end.
Instead of asking yourself what will happen if a problem never goes away, ask yourself what will happen next.
Don’t let your brain obsess about the present moment as if it were frozen in time, never to change. Everything changes. Whatever you’re dealing with now will eventually belong to the past, too.
Use Distancing Techniques to Think More Clearly
Sometimes merely remembering the saying of Epictetus, that “it’s not things that upset us,” can help us gain cognitive distance from our thoughts, allowing us to view them as hypotheses rather than facts about the world. However, there are also many other cognitive distancing techniques used in modern CBT, such as these:
• Writing down your thoughts concisely when they occur and viewing them on paper
• Writing them on a whiteboard and looking at them “over there”—literally from a distance
• Prefixing them with a phrase like “Right now, I notice that I am thinking…”
• Referring to them in the third person, for example, “Donald is thinking…,” as if you’re studying the thoughts and beliefs of someone else
• Evaluating in a detached manner the pros and cons of holding a certain opinion
• Using a counter or a tally to monitor with detached curiosity the frequency of certain thoughts
• Shifting perspective and imagining a range of alternative ways of looking at the same situation so that your initial viewpoint becomes less fixed and rigid. For example, “How might I feel about crashing my car if I were like Marcus Aurelius?” “If this happened to my daughter, how would I advise her to cope?” “How will I think about this, looking back on events, ten or twenty years from now?”
Epictetus once said that it’s not things that upset us but our judgments about things. If we don’t deem our problems to be “good” or “bad” and instead look at them from a neutral point of view, we’ll gain distance and solve them more constructively. This is the fundamental outlook Stoics have on life.
Modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) draws from Stoic knowledge and offers other ways to distance ourselves from our emotions. The seven suggestions in the quote above can all help regain coolness and practice a Stoic approach to adversity.
As a writer, I regularly write down my thoughts. I find that when they appear on the screen in front of me, they become more organized and thus easier to manage. They also start to feel a little like the problems of another person, which is similar to the technique of writing the problem on a whiteboard.
Noticing the thoughts instead of immediately identifying yourself with them helps sever automatic, impulse actions.
Evaluating the pros and cons can help see different perspectives. So can imagining alternative ways of looking at the same situation. The more viewpoints we have, the less attached we become to the original, emotionally-charged one we have.
Seeing your problems from distance clears your mind and helps you solve them through logic instead of emotions.
How to Avoid Exciting Your Desires
People often talk about the things they crave in language that’s bound to excite their own desire, even when they realize they’re fostering unhealthy habits: “I’m dying for some chocolate. Why is it so good? It tastes like heaven! This is better than sex.” (It’s mainly vegetable fat, some cacao, and a load of refined sugar.) That’s another example of rhetoric working against you. On the other hand, when you describe food, or anything else you crave, in down-to-earth language, you can feel detached from it. Hadrian, who is thought to have died from a heart attack, greatly admired an extravagant dish jokingly called the tetrapharmacum, or “fourfold remedy,” reputedly invented by Lucius Verus’s father. It consisted of pheasant, wild boar, ham, and a sow’s udder, all wrapped in pastry. By contrast, Marcus would sometimes look at roasted meats and other delicacies and murmur to himself, “This is a dead bird, a dead fish, a dead pig.” An exquisite wine is just fermented grape juice, and so on. Viewed from a different perspective, in other words, the things people crave are often nothing to get excited about.
Just as we can use negative strong language to make our problems worse, we can also excite our desires through exaggeration.
Imagine that you’re about to go for a run but you’re feeling lazy and would rather watch another episode of your favorite TV show. If you’re telling yourself “I can’t wait to watch it,” you’re intensifying your desire to watch the show. But what is the show in reality, in down-to-earth language? It’s a made-up story with people pretending to be someone else. It has zero impact on your life.
Imagine that you want to control your pizza cravings. The discomfort is real: you love pizza so much, you’d kill just to eat it. Don’t drive yourself crazy imagining the perfect, mouth-watering crust. It’s just baked flour, yeast, water, salt, and olive oil. Is this really worth sabotaging your goals?
Imagine that you want to spend your rainy day fund on a new car. Telling yourself that it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen will not help you resist the temptation. In reality, that new car—or your old car, for that matter—is a machine made of metal and plastic. Sure, it may have different knobs and the metal may be more polished. But swapping an old car for a new one won’t change your life.
When you look at your desires through a dispassionate lens, you’ll lessen their power, if not break their spell on you.
Instead of Criticizing Others, Turn Attention to Your Own Character
He [Marcus Aurelius] actually recommends that whenever we’re offended by the faults of another, we should treat it as a signal to pause and immediately turn our attention to our own character, reflecting on the similar ways in which we go wrong.
Remembering that fallibility is the common lot of mankind—including you—can help diminish feelings of anger. When you point your finger in anger at someone else, remember that three fingers on the same hand point back in your own direction.
It’s easy to criticize others and hard to resist the temptation to judge.
Whenever you feel like you need to point out someone’s flaws, treat it as an exercise in turning attention back to your own character. What if the very things you criticize in others are your qualities, too? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to focus on improving yourself?
Such a simple exercise is something you can practice every day to get more comfortable with emotional discomfort. You’ll also improve your relationships and achieve more peace of mind.
Nothing Lasts Forever
Marcus tells himself to focus on the transience of the events in the grand scheme of things. He suggests contemplating the fact that both he and the person with whom he’s angry will eventually be dead and forgotten. When viewed from this perspective, it doesn’t seem worth getting flustered by people’s behavior. Nothing lasts forever. If events will seem trivial in the future when we look back on them, then why should we care strongly about them now? This doesn’t mean that we should do nothing. Indeed, by remaining calm, we can plan our response better and take action. Marcus didn’t sit on his hands when Cassius instigated the civil war; he rapidly mobilized a huge army against him. He didn’t allow fear or anger to cloud his judgment in doing so, however.
There’s nothing like thinking about death when you’re engaged in a petty argument with someone else.
What does your little clash of opinions mean in the grand scheme of things? And if it’s so insignificant (and our lives so short), why bother at all letting anger control our lives?
Reminding yourself of your limited time can help you stay calm when facing people who don’t support you, oppose you or sabotage you.
Anger Is Not Manly
After listing the ten Gifts from Apollo, though, Marcus also reminds himself to have this precept at hand when he senses he might lose his temper: “To be angry is not manly but rather a mild and gentle disposition is more manly because it is more human.” This is striking because, as we’ve seen, Cassius reputedly insulted him by calling him a “philosophical old woman.” He meant to insinuate that Marcus was weak. However, Marcus believed that in reality someone who is capable of exercising gentleness and kindness in the face of provocation is stronger and more courageous than one who gives way to their anger, as Cassius was prone to do. Whereas people like Cassius often mistake this passionate anger for strength, the Stoics viewed it as very much a sign of weakness.
When I talk about embracing discomfort, it isn’t just about pushing yourself at the gym or learning hard things. It’s also about self-mastery, and one of its aspects is mastering how to handle your anger and not let it dictate your behavior.
The easiest way to let anger make us do stupid things is to consider it a strength. In reality, even the weakest man can get angry. Only those who are strong can control it.
I’ve done my fair share of stupid things because of anger. Each time I get angry now, I try to treat it as an exercise in withstanding emotional discomfort and not letting it cloud my judgment.
Learn From the Discomfort of Facing Disagreeable People
We should not meet disagreeable people and enemies with anger, but treat this as an opportunity to exercise our own wisdom and virtue. Stoics think of troublesome people as if they are a prescription from a physician, or a training partner we’ve been assigned by a wrestling coach. We exist for one another, says Marcus, and if we can’t educate those who oppose us, we have to learn at least to tolerate them. These challenges will help us grow in virtue and become more resilient. If no one ever tested your patience, then you’d lack an opportunity to exhibit virtue in your relationships.
Disagreeable people can become our discomfort-training partners. We may not be able to sway their opinion or change their ways but we can still learn from the experience.
We can learn how to stay patient as we listen to someone we don’t agree with.
We can learn how to control our anger as we talk with someone who insults us.
We can learn how to accept we can’t change certain people and get comfortable with our lack of control.
Every interaction, including the disagreeable ones, can help us become better if we only let it.
Treat Problems as Opportunities to Exercise Strength
You can start training yourself in this Stoic practice of objective representation right now by writing down a description of an upsetting or problematic event in plain language. Phrase things as accurately as possible and view them from a more philosophical perspective, with studied indifference. Once you’ve mastered this art, take it a step further by following the example of Paconius Agrippinus and look for positive opportunities. Write how you could exercise strength of character and cope wisely with the situation. Ask yourself how someone you admire might cope with the same situation or what that person might advise you to do. Treat the event like a sparring partner in the gym, giving you an opportunity to strengthen your emotional resilience and coping skills. You might want to read your script aloud and review it several times or compose several versions until you’re satisfied it’s helped you change how you feel about events.
Adverse situations can help us become more resilient.
Imagine that for the last couple of years you tried to get your online business off the ground. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, it’s not working. You have to cut your losses short and shut it down.
To learn from this misfortune, you’d start by describing what happened in indifferent, non-emotionally-charged words. For example, you were too busy looking for new clients and didn’t have enough time to pay proper attention to your existing customers. Eventually one of your larger clients terminated their contract with you. Unable to find new sources of revenue, your cashflow issues got worse until you were no longer able to sustain the business.
Describing what happened will help you study the failure from a constructive, neutral viewpoint.
Now you can take it a step further and write how your business failure made you a better man. For example, you learned the value of self-discipline which you lacked. Or you weren’t good at handling stress and your communications with clients became more and more brusque. Or you avoided the hardest tasks in favor of the easy ones and your avoidance of discomfort landed you in trouble.
Having learned these lessons, your next attempt will have higher chances of success.
A man comfortable with discomfort is also comfortable with uncomfortable emotions. There’s nothing admirable in losing control.
Questions to Ponder
1. Do you maintain control when you feel strong emotions? If not, what kind of a response would you admire in other people when facing a similar situation? How could you become one of those people?
2. How does your usage of strong language when facing hardships impact your performance? Does it help you or hinder you?
3. Do you exaggerate your misfortunes? Are you aware how it changes the way you perceive the problem and how it makes you less likely to take care of it?
4. When dealing with adversity, do you remind yourself it’s going to eventually end?
5. How many of the seven distancing strategies do you use? Which ones could you add to your toolbox?
6. Do you excite your desires through exaggerating them?
7. How often do you criticize others? What if instead you turned your attention to your own fallibility?
8. In the heat of an argument with someone, have you ever reminded yourself how little it will mean a few days or weeks from now, let alone a few years? If it’s so insignificant, why let your emotions control your behavior?
9. Do you think that anger demonstrates strength or weakness? Would a disciplined man have a short fuse or manifest composure?
10. Have you ever considered people you disagree with as your potential teachers?
11. Do you treat your problems as opportunities to exercise strength and build your resilience?
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