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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Stoicism

 

When developing Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the late psychologist Albert Ellis incorporated into the psychotherapeutic modality principles of Stoicism. According to one source:

 

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy that flourished in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. The Stoics believed that the practice of virtue is enough to achieve eudaimonia: a well-lived life. The Stoics identified the path to achieving it with a life spent practicing the four virtues in everyday life: wisdom, courage, temperance or moderation, and justice, and living in accordance with nature.

 

Incorporation of this philosophical element into REBT is inextricably linked to the foremost aims of the modality:

 

1) Per one source, “[M]inimize dysfunctional distress and enhance satisfaction, functioning, resilience under duress, goal attainment, and joy in the process of living.”

2) Promote healthy living based on rational thinking.

3) Help people to get better rather than to merely feel better.

 

In an interview, Ellis clarified his approach to mental, emotional, and behavioral health by stating:

 

It is not a matter of teaching a child, or an adult for that matter, how to control his emotions. It is, rather, a matter of teaching a person philosophies of living different from the negative philosophies which now produce his disordered emotions; and, through teaching him these different philosophies, to help him change rather than to control his feelings.

 

The matters over which an individual has control are exceedingly limited. As well, this issue boils down to the ability to partially retain mastery over some aspects of oneself. For instance, you can’t fully control your thoughts or automatic bodily processes (e.g., heartbeat).

 

Therefore, an individual has virtually no control over other people, the Earth, outer space, the flow of time, etc. As an example, you may be able to influence a loved one to do as you wish, though you have no authority over whether or not a volcano will erupt.

 

Even if you’ve chained someone to a wall in your basement, you’ve merely influenced one’s ability to move freely without having control the person’s thoughts. Likewise, even if cloud seeding is used to influence weather patterns, this doesn’t constitute full mastery over the atmosphere.

 

This understanding coincides with three elements of Stoic philosophy – physics, logic, and ethics. Thus, Stoicism is incorporated into REBT through use of the ABC model and unconditional acceptance.

 

First, the ABC model illustrates how when Activating events occur and people maintain irrational Beliefs about these events, unhelpful assumptions – and not the actual occurrences – are what create unpleasant cognitive, emotive, bodily sensation, and behavioral Consequences.

 

Expanding on this belief-consequence connection, one source states, “In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius describes [Stoicism] this way: If any external thing causes you distress, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your own judgment about it.”

 

The same source continues by asserting, “Epictetus says in Discourses: Men are disturbed not by the things that happen but by their opinions about those things.” Thus, ancient wisdom informs the practice of REBT.

 

Second, REBT acknowledges that each of us is a fallible human being. Try as we may, we cannot overcome our faulty nature and we can’t establish enough control over ourselves or exert enough influence over other flawed individuals – or even master the imperfection of life – to change this fact.

 

Therefore, REBT utilizes unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other-acceptance, and unconditional life-acceptance as techniques to simply live with what is rather than to disturb oneself with beliefs about what ought to be. Consider what philosopher Epictetus advised:

 

Practice, therefore, to say frankly to every harsh appearance: ‘You are just an appearance, and not at all what you appear to be’. Next, examine it and test it by the measures you have, first and chiefly whether it concerns the things that are within our control or the things that are not within our control. And if it concerns the things that are not within our control, be prepared to say: ‘it is nothing to me’.”

 

This is the essence of a Stoic approach to living that is favored by REBT. Regarding Epictetus’ advisement to practice, Ellis stated in an interview:

 

The insight that I made myself disturbed – I foolishly listened to my mother and father, and took them too seriously…and I’m still doing it and that now I require work and practice, work and practice to give up my biological and sociological tendency to disturb myself – that will help you, not the belief that I disturb myself and that I don’t have to. That’ll help, but not that much.

 

Noteworthy, it isn’t enough to merely understand or believe in REBT and Stoic philosophy. Practical application of theoretical and philosophical tenets is required. This involves consideration of Stoic virtues (wisdom, courage, temperance or moderation, and justice).

 

Regarding wisdom, one source states, “It is key today, as it was in the ancient world, to be able to distinguish between the vast aggregations of information that lay out there at your disposal—and the actual wisdom that you need to live a good life. It’s key that we study, that we keep our minds open always. You cannot learn that which you think you already know, Epictetus said.”

 

In reference to wisdom, I stated in a blogpost entitled The Original Hip Hop Therapist:

 

I consider knowledge as an ongoing investigation of truth. I think of wisdom as the application of knowledge over time. I conceptualize understanding as a balance between what is known, what is unknown, and what is believed—all through comprehension of one’s own fallibility.

 

As cliché as it may sound, I have the wisdom to know that the older I become, I’m aware of how little I actually know. Therefore, in the tradition of the Stoics, I try to keep an open mind so that I may attain wisdom over time.

 

Concerning courage, one source states, “Seneca would say that he actually pitied people who have never experienced misfortune. ‘You have passed through life without an opponent,’ he said, ‘No one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”

 

In reference to courage, I stated in a blog entry entitled Cowboy Up:

 

One source states that “like Stoicism, REBT is a tough-minded philosophy that holds up well when your worst nightmare or adversity occurs.” As such, building resilience through the experience of suffering is something I appreciate.

 

As well, in a blogpost entitled Victimhood’s Journey, I concluded, “I’m just a person who has done various things, some considered courageous and others cowardly.” REBT doesn’t rigidly require people to be heroic, though the ability to do something that frightens you can help foster Stoicism.

 

Related to temperance or moderation, one source encourages, “Temperance or moderation is about: Doing nothing in excess. Doing the right thing in the right amount in the right way,” and, “Do not adhere to one extreme or the other; make temperance your goal in every part of your life, and your future self will thank you for it.”

 

In reference to temperance or moderation, I stated in a blogpost entitled Life in Plastic, It’s Fantastic, “While a hedonic lifestyle may appeal to some people, constant pleasure without struggle is unrealistic.” Finding middle ground between joy or pleasure and suffering may be the key to a life well-lived.

 

Considering justice, one source states:

 

There is no Stoic virtue more important than justice, because it influences all the others. Marcus Aurelius himself said that justice is “the source of all the other virtues.” Stoics throughout history have pushed and advocated for justice, oftentimes at great personal risk and with great courage, in order to do great things and defend the people and ideas that they loved.

 

Throughout my blog, I address justice-related matters – perhaps more so than with which people are conformable. Nevertheless, I consider the virtue of justice one of the most important of my entire life – as I’ve been willing to kill and die to preserve it.

 

While I could reference many blog entry examples of justice, for the sake of conciseness, I’ll highlight only one. In a blogpost entitled Two-Tiered Justice System, I stated:

 

While some may irrationally believe that the [United States] has progressed since [Jim Crow] laws were essentially eradicated, group B now enjoys the privilege of supposed social justice while group W is the recipient of a two-tiered justice system. If it was wrong in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it remains unjust in the 21st century.

 

In the Marine Corps, I enforced laws as a military policeman. Following the military, I earned a bachelor’s degree with a focus on justice administration. In graduate school for social work, I identified as a social justice warrior. Now, I advocate justice through the practice of Stoicism.

 

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that not everyone values Stoicism. For instance, the American Psychological Association features on its website the following statement:

 

The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful. Men socialized in this way are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors.

 

The conflation of “competitiveness, dominance and aggression” with Stoic practice denies the virtues of Stoicism listed herein. Misconception such as this is likely what influences a separate source which reports:

 

[T]he study found that the relationship between stoicism and well-being was fully mediated by an individual’s willingness to seek professional psychological help. This suggests that the most harmful aspect of stoicism may be its tendency to avoid asking for support from other people in the face of life’s challenges, making it harder to cope with difficult thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

 

This caricature of Stoicism presumes that one who is Stoic merely stares solemnly at disaster while suppressing emotion and practicing denial. However, this is a straw man argument of Stoic practice rather than addressing what Stoicism actually entails – as described herein.

 

One overt example of this form of bad faith argumentation is encapsulated by a source that misrepresents Stoicism by asserting:

 

Toxic masculinity is generally related to the need to reject all things feminine, such as showing emotion, being empathetic, and carrying out household chores. Behaviors like dominance, stoicism, championing heterosexuality and violence, have become increasingly valued as manly and corrupt the concept of what it means to be a man.

 

This argument presumes that girls and women can’t practice Stoicism, or that females in general are somehow immune to corruptible concepts. Noteworthy, each criticism of Stoicism offered herein was written by women.

 

If taken as a charitable claim – that Stoicism is synonymous with masculinity and the essence of what it means to be male – and women denounce Stoic practice through criticism and suggestion regarding how men should, must, and ought to behave; would I then be afforded the opportunity to offer critiques about femininity and what it means to be female?

 

How might my analysis be received if I were to claim that women and their tendency toward empathy is toxic, so they should keep their thoughts, beliefs, and emotions to themselves? Might I be perpetuating the perceived harm of “toxic masculinity”?

 

If so, then is one willing to concede that similar behavior, though exhibited by females, constitutes toxic femininity? The flaw in logic used by many critics of Stoicism relates to a profound misunderstanding of what Stoic practice actually involves.

 

Herein, I’ve sought to remedy misunderstanding of this sort by addressing what Stoicism is. Although not everyone may appreciate this philosophy or REBT which uses Stoic principles, a modality that promotes a reduction in self-disturbance is arguably more helpful than irrationally upsetting oneself with unfavorable beliefs.

 

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

 

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

 

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

 

 

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW


 

References:

 

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