For the love of God, let's retire Stoicism
On Unleashed Chihuahuas, 12 Step Groups, and Emotion Regulation
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Dear readers: I had a week.
Last week, I was walking Daisy (breed: VERY GOOD GIRL) in my quiet neck of the woods here in Portland, Oregon, when an unleashed dog appeared out of nowhere. It ran up, circled and nipped at me, and then proceeded to ATTACK MY VERY GOOD GIRL for what felt like 5 hours.
Was I screaming at the top of my lungs? Yes. Very much yes. The hellhound was a little bigger than a Chihuahua, but, as per the report I later sent to animal control, it “attacked with the destructive energy of a miniature UFC fighter on meth.” I was too shocked to intervene rationally, didn’t want to get my hand caught in the scuffle, and figured that the owner would emerge immediately.
Despite being backed into a corner, Daisy didn’t fight back. Eventually, some guy came out and said—and I quote—“I did not intend for that to happen.” 😑
Random, unprovoked assaults are like heroin for trauma responses—going straight to the core, releasing all the fury—and sometimes all it takes is for a front door to swing open from a gust of wind to stir up that hell. Just consider having to watch your child getting beaten up for a few minutes and not knowing if the other child had, I dunno, rabies.
All of this may sound dramatic, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back on a number of fronts: work stuff (piling up); hatred of taxes (infinite); getting real about the effects of a family member’s mental illness (not fun). But a main problem was that a source of much pleasantness—dog walks!—immediately became a huge source of stress. For two days, my shoulders randomly tensed up; my memory and attention were all over the place; I cried.
I called in. I did self-care stuff. I did the emotion regulation stuff. And still, I felt guilty as hell.
What Happens and How We React
In recovery circles and 12-step programs, a main teaching is the importance of focusing on how you reacted to that thing, rather than what happened. The first time I read The Art of Living by Epictetus, I was blown away by the similarity between these basics of Stoicism and the lessons in recovery:
Things themselves don’t hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble.
An oft-quoted passage in 12-step literature:
And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation - some fact of my life - unacceptable to me. I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.
There are whispers of this in the most famous quote in Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Here’s the problem: what if the thing that happened actually is detrimental to your well-being?
Last year, I started noticing that the average member in my 12-step groups was an old, straight, white man who enjoyed telling newcomers to be quiet. Older folks who pathologized any sort of emotional reaction. Step 4 in any 12-step group asks people to list their resentments (who wronged them); why they’re upset (so-and-so said this); what part of you was hurt (self-esteem, security, etc.). The 4th column is usually the game-changer: it asks people to look at a situation from an alternate universe, in which the other person did no wrong whatsoever, and asks them to consider what part they played—what their fault was in the entire ordeal.
If you look at the historical context of the 12 steps, this made sense—it was mostly violent alcoholics terrorizing their families, holding loved ones hostage; this crucial step was, perhaps, the first time that many people were ever asked to seriously consider the other side. As recovery has expanded to include a wider variety of humans, this black-and-white thinking has become a huge liability. Sometimes it takes an extreme case to make the point, so here’s one: last year I was volunteering at a rehab when the director of the institute asked this question to a woman after she was raped: How was this your fault?
Missing the historical context
Stoics and the 12 Steps would have said that only fools are “slaves to their emotions.” Ryan Holiday would have told me: “Control your emotions.” As it turns out, emotions are not useless—they are merely fast pieces of information.
It’s telling that in a Stoic’s view, the worst thing possible was to be a slave to their emotions; freedom was defined as “control over your emotions”—not actual freedom, i.e., whether or not you were a slave. (Or a woman.) This worked perfectly for both the slave owners (who were unhappy, despite wealth, and wanted justification for that) and the slaves (who needed a spiritual salve and way to regain a sense of mastery over their lot in life).
As Mother Jones said, “Stoicism offers both a guide to living and a tool for justifying the status quo, in all its inequalities.” Today, there are large communities of men’s rights activitists online using Stoicism to justify misogyny. “Accept your position in the world, don’t get angry” is great advice for people who are unhappy and want to maintain the status quo—say, the bros of Silicon Valley who helped reboot the Stoicism craze, or managers who want everyone to be machines and get back to work.
Instead of properly dealing with emotions, or learning what they have to teach us (and how we can successfully deal with those underlying issues), we’re awash in an era of justifying toxic masculinity—using Soundbite Stoicism to suppress and pathologize the very human experience of having feelings. This faux-wisdom is popular on Instagram, Reddit, Twitter, or wherever people quote Jordan Peterson—and it’s merely a set of teachings developed in a slave-owning society used to soothe owners and justify the status quo.
It’s been used to pathologize the experience of having emotions, being human, and criticize the state of affairs ever since:
Southern white people, Percy realized, were outraged on Stoic grounds at “the Negro’s demanding his rights instead of being thankful for his squire’s generosity.” Things are as they were fated to be, so just deal.
Let’s retire Stoicism
My modest proposal? Fuck Stoicism. It’s bad for everyone. It’s shaming people who have emotions. It’s used to justify bad behavior towards others. Is it good to look at your part in a situation? Sure! But emotions are proof of being human. Stress and anxiety are rational responses to threatening situations. Trauma is a rational, justified response to a horrifying, life-threatening event.
Many quote-unquote high performers I’ve worked with have had a superhuman ability to compartmentalize and suppress their emotions, brushing off spousal fights, getting back to work—right until they’re blindsided by divorce papers. Right until they unleash all the anger, and somehow manage to convince themselves and others that anger is not an emotion. Because here’s the truth: that emotion is going to come out, one way or another. As a heart attack, an outburst at a loved one, a growing, seething anger at the world.
If our skin gets too thick, we won’t feel anything at all, which is the most unreasonable of expectations. And we won’t know we’ve been wronged or wounded until it’s too late.
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