Stoicism: Cautionary Advice

by VivaLaPanda4 min read14th Nov 201816 comments

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EmotionsPitfalls of Rationality
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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.

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I like this advice as far as it goes, but I'll just point out you seem to be talking about a folk version of stoicism that is not necessarily the same thing as stoicism proper, since that philosophy is more precise than "don't worry too much" or something similar. You can have replaced "stoicism" with "zen" and this would have read the same I think and I would have had the same comment. There is probably some other, better word to describe the category of things you're pointing at that doesn't have a more specific meaning.

Yeah, my second round of edits involved replacing Stoicism with "stoic mindset" in most of the post, but I agree a word that has less attached baggage might be better. I couldn't think of anything ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I think a major reason for this is the new stoic writings like The Daily Stoic which is packaged as a form of advice instead of being a reflexive text like Seneca's or Marcus Aurelius or Epicurus or Epicetus. Packaged advice is often taken literally by the reader unlike Seneca's letters where you have to think and reflect to understand what it is about. Stoïcism is being sold as cool no stress mindset whereas it is better defined as we don't have total control but the control we have should be put to use.

Excellent post! I have had similar thoughts on occasion as well, but I’ve never seen the matter analyzed and described as precisely and well. I, too, think a “stoic” mindset does much more good than harm, but I’ve had to take specific steps to avert the first failure mode, and have also witnessed the second failure mode (though in others, not in myself).

(One minor note: I think your section headings could be a bit more clear—for instance, the section on “Risk Aversion” is really about “The Danger of Insufficient Risk Aversion”, or something along those lines, yes? Ditto with the other two.)

I've updated the headings to be a bit more direct, hopeful that's an improvement.

This post got me thinking.

If I have a relatively stoic mindset compared to those around me then it's entirely possible that I see more instances of the absence of stoicism being damaging (in others) than the presence of stoicism being damaging (in me). This then reinforces positive feelings about stoicism and makes me become more stoic, even though the evidence may actually point to me already being too stoic.

If I'm sufficiently different to those around me, conflating evidence from their lives with evidence from my life is dangerous - especially because spotting where someone else is going wrong feels much easier than spotting where I am going wrong.

I suspect I've been guilty of this on many occasions.

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.

This seems like it could be mitigated with clear communication. You may not appear outwardly to be sad to teammates, but you hold your hand up and admit that you made a mistake.

This is true, and a big part of why I brought up the above advice. Most of the things in this post are mainly about being aware of secondary effects from a stoic mindset and how to adjust for them.

I think these are very important points. I have noticed some issues with having the right responses for social situations (especially laughing when it's not entirely appropriate), which is something I've been working on remedying by paying closer attention to when people expect a serious reaction.

The issue of ignoring problems also seems like something to look out for. Just because something does not make you feel bad should not mean you fail to learn from it. I think there is a fine balance between learning from mistakes and dwelling on them, which is another, related skill.

Losing risk aversion and motivation seem unlikely to be problems for me personally, as what you're calling the stoic mindset seems to push those towards a more ideal spot from my natural inclinations. However, I suspect this advice may be critical for others, though they would never have occurred to me as associated problems. This is why I always feel hesitant to give self-help advice.

Yeah, I was hesitant over whether to start with the disclaimer from Scott's Bravery Debates or end with it. I couldn't find a nice way to make the post flow with it at the beginning, but I think it should really be kept in mind any time you read self-help advice (or share it).

Two things:

1) I think a lot of people think they're stoic when in actuality they've just never had anything bad happen to them. Modern life offers relatively few opportunities to test stoicism, and by default, everyone fails such tests without truly significant preparation.

2) Stoicism is actually a huge drag.

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.
- Epictetus, The Enchiridion

Who wants to live like this? I want to be disturbed if a loved one dies.

In point of fact, I don't kiss most things which are human. I actually do care about the specific instances of those whom I kiss. I suppose I'm not a true stoic, as I do experience and accept both joy and pain for things which I do not devalue by thinking them fungible.

I am disturbed if my favorite cup breaks, and I expect to be quite sad for some time if my wife dies before me. I am semi-stoic in that I don't think either of those sadnesses will be a fundamental permanent change in my temperament or being. Those feelings, too, shall pass.

"Real" stoicism seems to demand total relinquishment of all attachments, to almost exactly the same degree that "real" Buddhism does. I think this is a pathological thing to want.

Yes, it's psychologically beneficial to be less upset about being stuck in traffic. When you're already stuck in traffic and can't do anything about it, your choice to not be upset about it is simply a choice to avoid needless suffering.

One might argue that it's even better to let yourself be really annoyed by being stuck in traffic, and then permit your annoyance to motivate you to take actions to avoid being stuck in traffic in the future.

The sort of person who would legitimately not care if their child died would also be different from me in a number of other very important ways in order to be a reasonably consistent agent. For example, if a stoic claims to be emotionally indifferent between "child death" and "child flourishing", then what actually motivates them? Why do anything, why make any choice? At least Buddhist thought is honest about this, and admits that the only truly consistent solution is a purely monastic life of meditation and aggressive pursuit of non-existence. Stoicism, as far as I can tell, refuses to bite the bullet of the conclusions of its premises.

Epictetus said:

We must make the best use that we can of the things which are in our power, and use the rest according to their nature. What is their nature then? As God may please.

This seems to require being motivated to bring about good outcomes, when those good outcomes are in one's control. I think the idea is to reframe motivations as being about how you use the faculties available to you (which you always have control over), rather than about outcomes (which you don't always have control over).

It seems to me very strange to translate a Greek philosopher who wasn't a monotheist in a way that capitalizes God.

Where this becomes difficult is when your control on outcomes is uncertain.

More specifically, it's quite often that it looks like you probably can't do anything to change the situation, but it's also plausible that if you considered the problem more you would discover something. In that case knowing what amount of consideration is worth it is a hard to determine thing. Presumably there is some sort of diminishing returns curve you could use, but obviously you don't have access to that so you have to estimate the effectiveness of your estimation.

Luckily, I think there are huge number of situations where this consideration isn't relevant, such as being struck in traffic.