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From Vol. 4, Issue 6, June 2022

An empath’s guide to Stoicism


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“We can choose whether to go with the world the way it is, or be dragged along kicking and screaming.”

Stoicism is a perfect philosophy for empaths, those people who are keenly attuned to the emotions and needs of others. Not only do empaths pick up on others’ emotions, we often take responsibility for them. We become stressed and anxious if anyone within our ambit is upset. We feel guilty and blame ourselves if we can’t make things right for other people. We are like mirrors for our social environment: we reflect the feelings of other people, whether those feelings are happy or sad.

Empaths and the emotional roller-coaster

Such high sensitivity often leads to an emotional rollercoaster. If you’re only as happy as the least happy person around you, you’re never going to be very happy. Which is why empaths can benefit tremendously from Stoic philosophy. We can be good, kind people and give back emotionally to others without being on an emotional rollercoaster ourselves. In fact, when we get off the emotional rollercoaster, we have even more to give because we’re not wasting our energy on pointless negative emotions. So let’s look at two ways empaths are prone to getting emotionally tangled up and how Stoicism can help us overcome these challenges.

Challenge 1: You are extra sensitive to criticism

As a sensitive person who is attuned to other people’s desires and expectations, you very easily pick up on their disappointment. Even the merest hint of criticism (or perceived criticism) can stress you out.

Stoicism helps us deal with this sensitivity by putting distance between other people’s opinions and our own sense of self-worth. Another person’s opinion of you – whether it is positive or negative – does not impact who you are or what you’re doing. That person probably isn’t a sage, so their opinion may not hold much value. (In fact, that person could have their own unvirtuous reasons for disliking or criticizing you.) But even if the critique is well-intentioned, their opinion of you doesn’t determine the worth of your character or your work.

Marcus Aurelius’ reminder about first impressions is a classic, but it bears repeating here:

Say nothing more to yourself than what first impressions report. You have been told that some person is speaking ill of you? That is what you have been told: as to the further point, that he has harmed you, that you have not been told. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.49)

Stoicism can help us alleviate our fear of being negatively judged by others. Instead, we can learn to evaluate the judgment on its own terms: Is it fair? Is it helpful? Is it wellmeant? We can learn to accept criticism without feeling personally attacked, and we can learn to shake off personal attacks as illjudged and meaningless.

Challenge 2: You want everyone to be happy.

You know it’s not within your power to make everyone happy all the time. Yet you still feel guilty when you let someone down. Or maybe you see something that’s not right with the world – p eople are suffering from war and hunger – and it pains you even though there’s nothing you can do about it. Stoicism helps us step back and reflect carefully on whether it’s worth tying ourselves up in emotional knots over something we cannot change.

Part of wisdom is realizing that we have little influence over most things in the world – the world simply is the way it is. The ancient Stoics compared our situation in life to that of a dog tied to a cart. When the cart moves, the dog can either be dragged along beside it or start running behind the cart. Either way, the dog has no choice but to move, but one type of movement is much better for the dog.

In the same way, we can choose whether to go with the world the way it is, or be dragged along kicking and screaming. Which way makes more sense? The better choice is to make the best of the world as it is. This means figuring out what we can do within the parameters of our life instead of fretting about what we can’t do.

A radical acceptance of the world as it is

There’s an important distinction here: it’s the negative emotion we want to get rid of, not our care and concern for others. We want to find that deep connection through a radical acceptance of the world as it is. We want to look reality squarely in the face, not shrink away from it. It’s in this acceptance of the world that we find our strength to support others and keep going.

imageBrittany Polat, author of Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged, holds a Ph.D. in applied linguistics but currently researches and writes about Stoic psychology and philosophy. Brittany's latest project is Living in Agreement, where she applies her lifelong interest in human nature to the discourse and practice of inner excellence.