What can you learn from the Stoics about dealing with setbacks?


I just finished listening to a Sam Harris podcast interview with William B Irvine – a professor from Wright State University.

He’s written a few books on Stoicism – a philosophy of life that I think has influenced quite heavily some of the things I have been taught as a psychologist.

What struck me about the interview, as well as William’s description of Stoicism, was how easy it is to extract psychological tools that we can all use in our lives.

As someone who is always on the lookout for psychological tools that we can use in our everyday lives, this naturally appealed to me.

My goal in this post is to share what I learned from that interview, in the hope that you may find it helpful as well.


What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is a philosophy of life.

Yeah, but what does that mean?

Well a philosophy of life consists of two things:

  1. a goal – what in life is of greatest value?
  2. a set of strategies to get there – how do I achieve that thing of value?

Stoicism says the goal of life is something akin to ‘tranquility’ – a deeper sense of wellbeing that is constant despite the ups and downs of everyday life. It isn’t a zombie-like state, detached from life but rather a life characterised by well-managed setbacks and multiple moments of delight, joy, gratitude and connection.

The biggest barriers to achieving ‘tranquility’ are negative emotions like anger, fear, jealousy, hatred, envy etc as well as not extracting the full value out of the experiences we do have.

Not surprisingly therefore, stoicism includes specific strategies to a) prevent or reduce the impact of negative emotions and b) extract the full value out of the moments and interactions we have.

At the core of many of these strategies is the idea of reframing a situation – thinking about or approaching a situation in a different way that helps prevent negative emotions and also help extract greater value from it. Stoicism places significant capacity and responsibility in the individual to reduce their own suffering through the application of these strategies.

Let me give you an example.

Say you get a bad mark on an assignment.

How you frame that situation will influence its emotional impact and its value to you.

If you frame the situation as ‘a test of how good a student I am‘, you might feel quite distressed as the bad mark indicates you are a ‘bad student’. You might get angry and throw the assignment away.

If you frame the situation as ‘a chance to work out where I need to develop further‘, then the negative emotional impact is lessened and you are more likely to read the assignment feedback to find out where you can improve. It doesn’t necessarily make the situation enjoyable, but it does reduce your negative emotional reaction and enable you to extract value from the situation.

The psychological frame we put around events can have a strong impact on our experience of those events.

The good thing is the reframing techniques in Stoicism aren’t that complex to understand or implement, meaning someone can quickly test whether or not these ideas have value in their life.

Note: Stoicism as a philosophy is different to how we use the word ‘stoic’ in everyday language. Stoic means ‘a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining’. Someone who follows Stoicism might come across as ‘stoic’ but not because they are simply enduring, but rather because they are deliberately putting into place strategies to prevent excessive negative feelings arising during periods of hardship. 


What are some example Stoical strategies?

1. For the little frustrations of life, William talked about the simple mental act of saying to oneself “I’m not going to let myself get upset about this” and then looking for a way to use the moment in a different way. The example given was getting stuck in traffic and using that to listen to some podcasts. The fundamental reframe here is the idea that small setbacks are a natural and normal part of life and that we can decide, ahead of time, and remind ourselves, in the moment, that we don’t need to get upset about these.

2. Negative visualisation – In this technique, we take regular brief moments to think about the bad things that could happen and imagine our lives with that thing having happened. You might think about life where you’ve broken up with a partner, or where you’ve lost your job. The idea isn’t to dwell on those possibilities. Just consider them briefly – allow yourself a flickering thought on how things could be worse. Use those brief visualisations as a reminder to be appreciative that those things aren’t the case. Use them as a more appropriate basis of comparison for how things are right now. The idea is that if you routinely engage in this process, you will avoid future regret, as you will have more fully appreciated the life you are living.

3. Last time consideration – In any given moment or situation, consider the possibility of it being the last time: the last time you write an email, the last time you see that person. Doing this is an invite for you to connect with that activity or person in a more deliberate way to extract the most out of the situation. This can even apply to unpleasant situations. Sam Harris described it neatly as connecting you to a ‘reservoir of patience and affection for life’. An example that was given was the changing of your child’s diaper. Not necessarily a pleasant event, but one that will come to an end at some point and will be remembered in a nostalgic way later. Similar to negative visualisation above – the idea is that if you routinely engage in this process, you will avoid future regret, as you will have more fully appreciated the life you are living.

4. The story-telling frame – When life gives you a difficult moment, think of the story you will be able to tell later (e.g. car broke down in middle of nowhere). Stories of coping are powerful, not only to the person who coped with that event, but to others who can learn from the story. Remind yourself whilst it is happening that you are creating a story of coping. Stories are one gift that our rational brain has given us for reframing our more primitive brain’s emotional reactions. When the emotions of a situation are trying to hijack your attention, use your story-telling brain to remind yourself that you are right in the middle of building a story of coping you’ll be able to draw on later.

5. The stoic test strategy – When confronted by a setback, conceive it as a game sent to you by the ‘stoic gods’. The setback has been delivered to you to test your resilience and ingenuity. It is not a punishment. The ‘stoic gods’ want you to be strong. Those who don’t experience setbacks are in a worse position. By experiencing and successfully dealing with setbacks you will have a much better life as your ability to bounce back will increase. You might even go out of your way to put yourself in difficult situations so you can practice dealing with setbacks (in the interview they were called ‘stoic adventures’). In this reframe, you position yourself as someone who almost invites setbacks into their life so you can practice dealing with them. Grade yourself on a) whether you developed a solution for the setback and b) whether you were able to minimise negative emotions in the process. Look to improve your self-grade over time.

6. Next best option – This reframe was discussed in the context of situations that cause anger or frustration. Anger was identified as a particularly difficult emotion as it a) tends to emerge quickly, b) can stay around for a long time and c) reduces the capacity of the individual to generate creative solutions to a problem. The next best option reframe involves discarding ineffective solutions quickly and focusing instead on ‘do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are‘. Critical to this strategy is to catch yourself getting angry at a situation or failed solution and moving instead quickly to finding the next best option for dealing with it. The next best solution probably won’t be perfect, but it will be better that alternatives, and is better than remaining angry or heightening the anger further thus eroding your capacity to come up with good solutions.

7. Difficult activities voices – This wasn’t presented as a strategy in the interview, but it can be considered an important reframe. When we confront difficult activities there are reliable thoughts that pop up that encourage us to a) make life easier on ourselves by quitting the task, b) criticise our ability to complete the activity, c) predict failure and humiliation. When we confront difficult tasks, we should view it as an opportunity to not only deal with the task itself, but find imaginative ways to counter-act those internal thoughts. You might find some of the defusion exercises in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) helpful for this.

It is important to remember that these are practices, not one-time exercises. They are something you try to embed into your everyday life. Used over time, you get better at reframing the events of your life, reducing the emergence of negative emotions as well as connecting you more closely to the life you are living.

You might find that you already use some of these strategies in your life. If that is the case, this is a sign that you might gain considerable value from exploring Stoicism further.


Where does Stoicism fit in, in terms of other practices like meditation?

This was discussed a little bit on the interview.

The first comparison discussed was between Stoicism and mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation teaches you to notice and sit with difficult thoughts and feelings. Stoicism invites you to modify your thinking to reduce the frequency of those difficult feelings.

In that respect I find Stoicism more closely aligned with Cognitive Therapy with its focus on changing how we think.

In the interview, William also briefly compared Stoicism to Zen Buddhism in that both have a similar goal (tranquility) but that Zen Buddhism pursues this primary through meditation, whilst Stoicism pursues it through the use of reframing techniques like the ones discussed above.


Where to go if you want to read more

Given how coherently and simply William described Stoicism in the interview, the best place to start is probably his highly rated book – A Guide To the Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, which can conveniently be accessed through the Flinders Library (Win!!).


My thoughts

The mindset or attitude that we carry with us into the challenges of life influences how we respond to those challenges and their impact on us. Stoicism provides actionable strategies for developing more functional mindsets (frames) that we can use to reduce the emotional impact of the inevitable setbacks in life.

Stoicism has a bold goal, which is to provide an individual with a philosophy of life that helps them navigate their life in the best way possible.

Based on the interview, I know I will pursue further the ideas within Stoicism. If you found the concepts in this post interesting, I recommend you do the same.


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