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From Vol. 1, Issue 5, May 2019

How to handle negative emotions

Feature || RON PIES

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All of us are bothered by negative emotions—anger, rage, revenge, worry, sorrow and depression. In this article, psychiatrist Ron Pies reviews some solutions to these problems offered by the Stoics. 

Chuck Chakrapani, Editor 


Seneca describes anger as “brief insanity” and adds that 

No plague has cost the human race more. 

Seneca, On Anger 

This doesn’t mean that we should be indifferent to injustice or cruelty. On the contrary, we need to take appropriate action to punish wrongdoers and to protect the innocent. But when we really “lose it” and allow ourselves to be overcome by rage, we often undermine these very goals. 

Remedies for anger 

Realize that you have done similar things 

When you run [up] against someone’s wrong behavior, go on at once to reflect what similar wrong act of your own there is…for if you attend to this, you will quickly forget your anger… 

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book X. 

Realize that anger harms you 

In his own understanding of vengeance, Epictetus introduces an important and subtle doctrine of Stoicism; namely, that the one who wrongs us harms himself more deeply, and that this renders vengeance unnecessary: 

He who has erred, or injured another, has indeed no pain in his head; nor loses an eye…But, he has injured something greater—his Will, his Reason, the Divine Being within him. He has inflicted upon himself indelible harm which will add to his unhappiness and increase his misfortunes. 

Bonforte, The Philosophy of Epictetus 

In this last statement, perhaps we see hints of the Buddhist concept of “karma” – the principle of causality that says, in essence, 

What we put out into the world comes back to us. 

Wallace, Tibetan Buddhism, p. 63 

if not in this life, then (according to Buddhism) in the next. 


Understand that things do not touch the soul 

Like cognitive therapists—and like the Buddhist sages—the Stoics believed that external events do not cause worry, sorrow, and depression. Marcus Aurelius tells us that 

Things themselves touch not the soul…nor can they turn or move the soul: but the soul turns and moves itself alone… 

That is, it is our attitude toward “things” and events that determines our emotional response. 

Don’t live in self-induced dissatisfaction 

We make ourselves unhappy by holding certain irrational views or persisting in certain self-defeating behaviors. As Prof. William Irvine puts it 

…what is really foolish is to spend your life in a state of self-induced dissatisfaction when satisfaction lies within your grasp, if only you will change your mental outlook

William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life 

The Stoics teach us that when “bad stuff” happens, we need not be made miserable by the unfortunate events. Thus, Epictetus says, 

Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the Will. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. 

Bonforte, The Philosophy of Epictetus 

Indeed, for the Stoics, the Will is really the only thing under our control (assuming we are not suffering from, say, a dementing illness). Epictetus writes, 

Within our power are the Will, and all voluntary actions; out of our power are the body and its parts; property, relatives, country, and in short, all our fellow-beings. 

It is when we put our energy into trying to control these externals, rather than changing our mental state or attitude, that we become upset, dissatisfied, depressed, etc. 

Even the great misfortune of illness and pain need not lay us low, the Stoics insist. Thus, Seneca advises the sufferer to 

…turn your mind to other thoughts and [in] that way, get away from your suffering…it is your body, not your mind as well, that is in the grip of ill health…even if one cannot always beat it, one can always bear an illness. 

Seneca, Moral Letters, Letter LXXVIII 

Ron Pies MD psychiatrist and educator, compares Stoic thought with Buddhism and Judaism (juBuSto), and finds parallels. This article is based on his book Three Petalled Rose.