How Stoicism can help at a time of crisis Part II) Epictetus’s Epiphany

Epictetus’s epiphany is invaluable at all times.

I want to suggest it’s even more helpful in these challenging times.

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The basic idea may be familiar.

A friend ignores you when you pass them by in the street.

Mary thinks “How rude!” and feels annoyed.
Rose thinks “She must be a bit distracted, I hope she is OK” and feels concerned.

Same event, different judgement,.

Same event, Mary is upset, Rose is not upset.

Makes sense?

So we should be more mindful of our judgements, right?

But what, I hear you ask, what if the judgement is true?

What if Mary really is being rude?

Isn’t Epictetus’s epiphany just a recipe for being unrealistically positive?
Epictetus and other Stoics have a really good answer for this, involving the virtues, which we will talk about another day soon.

Today though I want to share one really helpful insight, namely

Even when a situation really is difficult, that doesn’t mean that all are judgements we make about it are a either accurate or helpful.

Take the current situation with Covid-19.

Suppose John is thinking “All my plans are ruined!”
How will he feel?
Pretty upset.
Now, you might say, isn’t it true, all his plans are ruined! Aren’t everybody’s?
Well, no actually,
Some of John’s plans are ruined.
The Stoics taught us to be very mindful of the language we use, even to ourselves, and to avoid being over-emotional or exaggerating.
John would feel a lot better if he kept to the facts!
What if instead he told himself
“My plans to on holiday to France need to be put on hold”
Do you notice how John’s more helpful response helps?
Not only is he being more specific he is also avoiding emotional language like “ruined”.

So that’s lesson one.
Even when there is a negative situation, you will upset yourself a lot less if you avoid emotional language and stick to the facts.

What though I hear you ask, if the situation really is very bad?
Suppose Simone is self-isolating with her husband, who she doesn’t really get on with and her teenage children,
She thinks they have only got by in the last year because they have done their own thing and not spent much time together.

“We are going to kill each other by the end of this self-isolation!” Simone says to her best friend, Louise.

What if it was Epictetus Simone was talking to, rather than Louise?

Well, like John, clearly Simone could put this predicting in a less emotional and more specific way.
Epictetus might recommend Simone responds like this:-

“Covid-19 and self-isolation is going to put a lot of strain on our household. It is true it could well cause cause everyone getting frustrated with each other. If we don’t think about how to deal with the situation constructively, there could be a lot of arguments”

Do you notice something interesting about this new way of putting things? The original way of thinking leads not just to feeling despondent. It also doesn’t lead anywhere in terms of coming up with a constructive solution. Whereas Simone’s second way of thinking about it could lead to useful problem-solving and discussion.

What do you think Simone could do?
Maybe she could raise the issue with her family and start a discussion about how they live together for the next month
Maybe she could suggest they negotiate how much time they spend in the same room.
Maybe they might even start to enjoy spending some of the time together!

To sum up, Epictetus’s epiphany has 3 important take-homes

1) Notice what judgements you are making.
2) Avoid emotional and exaggerated language — even when talking to yourself!
3) When you do put things in a more calm and specific way, you will find that you are much more likely to identify issues you can start to problem-solve in a constructive way

How could you benefit from Epictetus’s epiphany today?

Originally published at blog.timlebon.com.

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Tim LeBon

London-based author & CBT accredited therapist & philosophical life coach. I write mainly about Stoicism, Positive Psychology & therapy.