The danger of "little s" stoicism

Putting the passion back into Stoicism?


I grant that [the Stoic Sage] is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel. — Seneca, On the Constancy of the Sage

This is a clip from an interview that I did recently for the Stoa App. I’m talking about the problem of people confusing stoicism (lowercase), the unemotional coping style, with Stoicism (capitalized) the Greek philosophy. Ironically, people think of lowercase stoicism, or having a stiff upper-lip, as a way of being tough but research shows it’s actually, in a sense, the opposite — stoic individuals, far from being tougher and more resilient, are actually more emotionally vulnerable.

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There’s a growing body of modern psychological research that suggests lowercase stoicism, which consists in suppressing or concealing unpleasant or embarrassing emotions, leads to a number of problems. People who try to be “stoic” in this way are less likely to see a therapist or counsellor, or doctor, and less likely to seek emotional support from friends or family — which makes them more prone to difficulties and undermines resilience in the long-run. They also tend to use crude emotional coping strategies like trying distract themselves or suppress or avoid unpleasant emotions, which often backfires by forcing them to allocate more attention than normal to their inner turmoil, as if placing painful emotions under a magnifying glass. This can also lead to what psychologists call the “rebound effect” or “paradox of thought suppression” whereby trying too hard not to think or feel something has the opposite of the desired effect by causing it to recur more frequently in the future.

The Greek philosophy of “Stoicism”, by contrast, is the main philosophical inspiration for modern cognitive therapy, from which most of the strategies used in emotional-resilience training are actually derived. So there’s reason to believe that Stoicism is good for your mental health whereas stoicism is bad for your mental health — and those are two things you definitely wouldn’t want to confuse!

Stoic philosophy does not tell us to suppress our fears but rather to challenge the beliefs and values underlying them.

However, the Internet is awash with bad self-improvement and self-help advice that does precisely that, mixing up the Greek philosophy with the unemotional coping style named after it. These often give contrary advice about how to cope with emotions, though. Lowercase stoicism tells us to view our painful feelings as bad and to try to suppress them. Stoic philosophy tells us to accept the automatic feelings with indifference, and be unafraid of them, while taking more responsibility for our thoughts and beliefs in response to them, and questioning those philosophically, as a way of learning to cope. Stoic philosophy does not tell us to suppress our fears but rather to challenge the beliefs and values underlying them.

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If you’re interested in going into this subject in more depth, check out my article The Difference between stoicism and Stoicism.

Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life
The Difference between stoicism and Stoicism
Against being unemotional and the case for a “Passionate Stoicism” I do not withdraw the wise man from the category of man, nor do I deny to him the sense of pain as though he were a rock that has no feelings at all. — Seneca, Letters, 71 Stoicism has become a quite trendy over the past …
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