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The One Big Misconception about Stoicism

               Stoicism (capital S) is different from stoicism (small s). For the purpose of this article, we will call the former capital Stoicism and the latter small stoicism. Capital Stoicism refers to the ancient school of philosophy that teaches several strategies and techniques to prevent the onset of negative emotions and extinguish them as soon as they appear. Small stoicism, on the other hand, refers to the “bottling” of emotions showing no display of feelings or complaint. The biggest misconception lies in the popular notion that capital Stoicism is also about hiding negative emotions mainly to look calm during stressful situations which is often the goal of small stoicism. My goal in this article is to end this confusion by citing a specific scenario where these two concepts can be used – in particular, in a dating scene.

               For the sake of those who are still very new to capital Stoicism, allow me first to discuss two fundamental techniques in the philosophy: negative visualization and dichotomy of control. Negative visualization is about anticipating the worst-case scenarios of a future event. Stoics claim the technique works because we are less reactive to things we already expect to happen. For example, sudden rain might cause us frustration not because rain is an unusual event but because we didn’t expect it to rain. When we price in all bad things that can happen and prepare for them, its effect on us is a lot less than if we refuse to imagine the worst-case scenarios. The dichotomy of control is another technique in Stoicism that divides things that in our control and not in our control. Anything internal to us is within our control and includes our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, behavior and for that matter our character. Anything external to us is not in our control such as other’s people opinions and weather. According to the Stoics, if we want to achieve peace of mind and be happy we need to focus all our energy on the things we have control of (internal) and to embrace with full acceptance the things we don’t have control (external). As a result, the Stoics said that we can sufficiently be just happy by being a good person, focusing on our values and virtues/character. Stoicism put a high emphasis on virtue and regard it as the only absolute good that is worth pursuing. 

             Let’s now put small stoicism and capital Stoicism into practice and show how they can help you achieve tranquility but in a different manner pursuing a girl that you really like beginning with small stoicism. 

              You are in a bar and see a beautiful girl that you really like. You approach the girl and talk to her but unfortunately, she is showing you attitude and a lot of body language that she doesn’t like you. Her unwelcoming reaction surprised you but then quickly bottle up your frustrations so as not to look “soft” and not show any emotions. You left the place wondering something might be wrong with you. You might show your “alpha-male” tranquility to the girl because of your non-reactive behavior but deep inside you feel a sense of unworthiness that will disturb your tranquility for weeks. This is how small stoicism looks like.

              Now instead, before approaching the girl you do a negative visualization. You expect all her possible worst negative reactions and behavior including any cursing, slapping, and throwing her wine at you. You then approach and talk to her and then when she showed you attitude in the same way in the first scenario, you remained calm because you already anticipated that she will act that way. So then you left the place and when you arrive him you make sense of what happened. You then tell yourself “I am practicing Stoic. What the girl thought of me and her behavior are totally out of my control and I should therefore be indifferent. I can use this experience to find ways to improve myself and my character which is totally in my control. My character and values are the only things that matter and if she doesn’t see me for who I am then it’s out of my control. On to the next.” 

              Notice that in the first one (with the small stoicism approach) you are not really fundamentally changing anything when you bottle up your emotions. Sure, you showed tranquility to the girl but deep inside your peace of mind was disturbed. I call it fake and short-lived tranquility. That negative emotion will stay dormant for several days and probably longer. With the second one (capital Stoicism approach), the tranquility is internal and should look natural than the first one. By thinking philosophically- in other words, using your reason with a framework of thought that is more than 2000 years old to prevent the onset of negative emotion(negative visualization)and extinguish it as soon as it appears(the dichotomy of control in the scenario). 

                I hope this clears the misconception about “bottling emotion” which is small stoicism, not capital Stoicism. With the former, the negative emotion remains dormant while in the latter the negative emotion is largely reduced or fully extinguish using our mind through reason.

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