Stoicism: Cautionary Advice

byVivaLaPanda8mo14th Nov 201814 comments

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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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