The other day I was stuck in really terrible traffic on my way home. No one likes traffic, especially when it’s in downtown Toronto.
I see this white tesla right beside our car approach into our lane and is now right in front of my car. Naturally, the tesla catches my eye = 😍, but what I noticed had nothing to do with the tesla actually.
The second this driver enters our lane, he gets cut in line by another car… he leans on the horn, punches the steering wheel, and shouts at the other driver. Then the other drivers start honking back at him and before you know we have a whole orchestra situation going on. 🎺🛣️ #NotFun
I’m just like, “Jeez, calm down”. Then I sit there thinking to myself, “why are humans so bad at managing their emotions?” I know interesting how I go from that to this. BUT really it’s because I’ve been obsessed with emotional mastery lately.
Emotional Mastery is the process of becoming aware of and learning to direct your emotional states & leverage it for your benefit. Hence, why the opposite happening in the traffic situation made me ponder this.
Not gonna lie, I’ve been re-reading a lot of Tony Robbins this year, and systematically implementing ideas that I’ve missed in the past. That’s how the obsession started.
What I’ve realized is that philosophy also has a lot to teach us about this, specifically a first-century philosopher Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher who after spending some time in slavery, mastered emotion.
He did this through stoicism. Stoicisms’ basic idea is to not freak out about what you can’t control. It makes a lot of sense. It’s perfectly logical. But logic isn’t always practical, at least for species who are very emotional (aka humans).
Humans don’t really ever listen to sensible-sounding advice: spend less money, don’t waste time on social media, be patient, drink less coffee. The missing piece here is always what it takes to get ourselves to do those things.
But we can’t lie this advice is pretty practical — a great place to start for more self-improvement.
Think of it like this, continually divide your moment-to-moment concerns into two bins: 1. the things you can control, and 2. the things you can’t. Whenever you feel any sort of strong emotion (good or bad), I think it’s important to consider these buckets.
You might realize that the first bucket is a very small part of your concern but guess what?? That’s actually the one you have 100% control of! Crazy how that works.
Of course, the second bucket still affects your life. It contains matters such as when and how you die, how others act, the weather, and people’s impression of you. But this is pretty much out of your circle of control (unless we figure out how to control the weather…)
For example, you could do all in your will to control yourself by being enthusiastic or being a really kind person but you still can’t control how others interpret that enthusiasm or kindness and make a judgement about you.
Stoicism gives you a very useful tool to refrain from these matters that are out of your hands. Usually, if you hear any of these phrases, you’re worrying about things that aren’t in your control:
What if ____ happens?
I just wish _____.
Please let ____ be ____.
Our normal impulse is to see most things that affect us as something we have to worry about but a thing doesn’t automatically become your concern just because it might affect you.
When we think this way, we disperse our energy into many matters (most of which don’t matter). You can regain that energy by going through your sphere of concern (the range of things that appeal to your emotions) to your sphere of influence (the range of things you can affect) and continually developing the essential Stoic skill.
One way to do this is by shrinking the sphere of concern down to roughly the same size as the sphere of influence, where it finally becomes manageable.
This all makes sense, but how do we do more doing and less reading. All behaviours must be trained.
The ancient Stoics knew this. So after writing things, they also created exercises to be performed to train your mind. Don’t worry, I’ll break some of these down for you now.
Using The “Discipline Of Assent”
There’s a split second before you make any decision to decide to give in to an impulse or resist it. You have a choice. But you agree to still act out of impulse. Also crazy how that works.
The Stoics were big on not getting carried away by thoughts and feelings. The “discipline of assent” is the ability to be meta, feel that impulse, that desire to do something you know you shouldn’t, and not give in. But, duh, that’s not very easy for most people.
If we take a step back really the key was that moment when you’re deciding. Catch yourself when you’re about to act and just pause and think.
Like Epictetus said:
Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, “Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.”
You might be able to resist once but it’s a habit… So how do you break bad habits? You don’t.
You replace them. Recent science says the exact same thing. Don’t try to eliminate; replace.
We know that a habit cannot be eradicated — it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.
Clearing out the bad is good. But just because you are taking out negative from your life, doesn’t necessarily increase the positive. Because you have soo many desires, lots of wants, enough is never really enough because we always want the newest, best thing.
How can you stop running on this treadmill of desire and finally just be happy with what you have? Stoics had an idea…
Make It A Treat
First, we have to realize that our worst-case scenario is not actually the worst. One way we can manage our desires is by getting more extreme … thinking about losing everything we love or death. This is an extreme way to deprive yourself of every pleasure to force yourself to stop taking things for granted.
But think of it like this…
What’s something you used to value a lot that you now take for granted? Maybe it’s having morning coffee. Well, skip it for three days.
And then, once the three days are over, oh boy will you SAVOR that coffee — or whatever else it might be. The Stoics only wanted to fight any negative emotions they felt, [don’t get me wrong] feeling emotions is still important.
Living in the present attributes to this as well. You stop caring about the past and the future. All that exists is now. When you’re focused on the present and turn your attention to the pleasurable experience in front of you, you’re happier.
Deprive yourself a bit — then SAVOUR the hell out it. This is how you can stop wanting and start enjoying what you have. It might sound intense, but I think creating these scenarios for yourself once in a while is so important for not becoming complacent.
Alright, times up. Time to round up everything you now have in your Stoic toolbox.
Here’s what Stoicism says:
- Sphere of concern == the sphere of influence. Make it manageable. Stop caring about things you have no control over.
- The “discipline of assent”: Don’t resist; postpone. Then evaluate. And break bad habits by replacing them.
- Make it a treat: Deprive and then savour. When you haven’t had water for a few days and then you finally do, you’re like “DAMNNN, THAT’S SOME GOOD WATER”.
One of the most fundamental principles in Stoicism is that you need to focus on what you can control. I think the greatest thing we have control over are our emotions and this why emotional mastery is soooooo key. 🔑
✌️I’ve been loving learning about philosophies lately. I think it’s a great way for us to practice logic & form unique opinions about the world.
If you have any points on this and want to chat more I’d love to connect:)
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