How to Deal with Overwhelming Feelings
The Postponement Strategy in Ancient Stoic Practice
What can ancient philosophy teach us, in general, about coping with overwhelming emotions? In this article, I’ll summarize some of the advice given by Pythagoreans and Stoics. You’ll find a bullet-point list of practical tips followed by a more detailed discussion taken from my book on Stoicism and cognitive psychotherapy.
Summary of Techniques
Learn to spot the early-warning signs of unhealthy desires or irrational emotions before they spiral out of control
Don’t allow yourself to be “carried away” by your feelings but take them as a signal you should pause for thought
Gain cognitive distance from your feelings by reminding yourself that the underlying impression (value-judgement) is not the thing itself but just the internal representation of it, and that you are upset not by things themselves but you your value-judgments about them
If the feelings is overwhelming, postpone responding to it, or even thinking about it, until things have calmed down and you’re able to rationally evaluate it
First apply the general principle of Stoic psychology by asking yourself whether the underlying value-judgement is about something up to you (directly under your control) or not. If it is not, then remind yourself of the reasons why Stoics judge external or bodily things (not “up to us”) to be ultimately “indifferent” with regard to the goal of life
Consider what the hypothetical ideal Sage, someone perfectly wise and good, would do in response to the same situation, and try to emulate their example. Alternatively, ask yourself what faculties or virtues nature has given you that correspond with the demands of the situation, such as the capacity for courage or self-control, etc.
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