Three Stoic tools you can use right now to boost your resilience and mental wellbeing.
You might be squinting at your screen reading this title, wondering how exactly Stoicism can help boost resilience and mental wellbeing. Fair enough. Many people hear or read the word Stoicism and jump straight to the idea of the stiff, upper lip , suck it up mentality. This is not what we are referring to. Instead we are referring to the ancient philosophy rooted in four cardinal virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom . If you’ve read our blog post on ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) you will notice that there are many parallels between this third wave behavioural therapy and the long-forgotten teachings of philosophers.
Stoicism is based on the premise that while we cannot control what happens to and around us, we can control how we react to this . If we take this approach to our life, we will quickly realise that things fall into two zones – that which is within our control and that which is outside our control.
For the Stoics the ultimate goal in life was not pure, blissful, year round happiness. Instead, Stoics believed in a concept called eudaimonia, which roughly translates to flourishing or thriving. It’s likely you’ve heard the term flourishing before, it is often contrasted with the term languishing (or a state of feeling stuck and uninspired). The Stoics believed that they could achieve this life of eudaimonia by taking responsibility for their lives, focusing on what they could control, and living with strength of character (or aligned with their values).
How does this translate to our modern world? How can we apply these three key concepts to boost our resilience and mental wellbeing?
- Recognise that 24/7 happiness is not realistic or attainable. Suffering is a part of the human experience. You will inevitably have good and bad days, that is normal and does not mean you don’t have a rich and fulfilling life.
- You can always take responsibility for where you are now, your behaviour and actions.
- There are going to be things that are outside your control, learn to identify them and let them go.
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus [Stoic Philosopher]
Understanding The Zones
The Stoics believed that there was truly only one thing in your control: how you react to the world around you. Your decisions and actions are within your control. Many people get caught up trying to control what other people think, feel, say, or do. The reality is that controlling other people’s actions, behaviour, feelings, and thoughts is beyond your control. We also get caught up trying to control our feelings, this too is a futile struggle of tug and war. Instead, focus your energy and attention on your actions and behaviours.
Are you feeling worried, anxious, stressed or overwhelmed? Consider what is within and outside of your control and focus your attention accordingly. You can start by writing down everything that is on your mind. Now draw two boxes and label one of them ‘within my control’ and the other ‘outside of my control’. Once you have done this, look at each thing you wrote down and ask yourself whether you can do anything about it, or perhaps is this a case of ‘not my monkeys, not my circus’ and it’s time for you to mentally let go of this thing that has been worrying you?
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius [Stoic Philosopher]
When you hop in a plane to travel to a new and exciting place, do you think you pilot just wings it? Or do you think they have a plan, a way to navigate the journey? The latter, right? The same goes for us as people navigating our lives. Without a map, a set of intentions tied to the person we want to be and the values we want to embody, how would we know whether we are on the right track? The Stoics believed in setting morning intentions, these act as benchmarks for your day and outline not just what you want to do but what you want to be in the next 12 hours. Do you want to be kind and empathetic or impatient and irrational? What might your actions look like if you want to embody those values? You might like to start a journal where each day you sit down and ask yourself two questions
- What virtues and behaviours will you embody today?
- Which vices will you resist?
These two questions will become your navigation system for the day.
Contemplation of The Sage
You’ve considered whether things are truly within your control, you’ve set some intentions, now how do you stick with it day in and day out? The Stoics believed in the power of the sage (and no, they weren’t referring to the delightful herb that pairs great with chicken). The sage was like your ideal person. In ACT, a common values exercise is to consider someone you admire and then think about WHY you admire them (this can help tease out what is important to you). Creating your sage is very similar. Maybe you look up to someone or maybe you want to create a hypothetical sage, the idea you. Ask yourself questions like, ‘what would my sage do when angry, sad, frustrated and how would they act?’. Once you have created your sage you can mentally bring them with you each and every day by asking yourself what your sage might do if they were in your shoes(and why) and then taking a pause to reflect on that.
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” – Epictetus [Stoic Philosopher]
Stoicism is powerful because it recognises that you are the master of your life and that by learning to identify what matters most to you and then living in accordance with those values everyday you can live a truly meaningful and fulfilling life. By understanding what is within and outside of our control and purposefully acting in accordance with our values we recognise that we can make difficult choices in the pursuit of our long term goals. Getting to know ourselves intimately is an important part of this process, these tools will help you do that.
Click here to join our Introduction to Mental Health Course to learn practical tools that you can use to support yourself and the people you love.