Life can be stressed. Life can be full. Life can be not like you expected. It’s almost Christmas and we all know what it should be like: a happy family gathering around a table filled with tasteful food, the children behave, everyone is jolly, the room is warm and candles are lit. But in fact Christmas is more like this: stressful preparations the days before, sweating in the kitchen for hours and probably burning something along the way. And then during the ‘big’ moment, when all the family is together, children might misbehave, the candles may fall down causing a little fire or old family rows may be brought upon the table while some family members are getting a little bit too fond on the wine…
HOW TO REMAIN CALM WHEN THINGS CONSTANTLY GO WRONG? BE AWARE THAT BOTH CALMNESS AND FRUSTRATING EMOTIONS COME FROM WITHIN.
It can be so frustrating when things don’t go like we anticipated. It can be so frustrating when we’re really afraid to do something that we really want to do. Negative emotions can completely take over our bodies, leaving us paralysed with either fear, anger or other negative feelings. Afterwards, we almost never feel happy about what we did or didn’t do in those negative states of mind. In anger, we say things we didn’t mean to say, in fear we don’t do things we should have done, in frustration we waste energy on things that aren’t worth it. We all know it so well, so why do we keep losing ourselves in our own emotions?
WE TEND TO BELIEVE THAT WHAT WE FEEL IS THE TRUTH. BUT ACTUALLY IS WHAT WE FEEL ONLY AN IRRATIONAL REACTION ON WHAT IS HAPPENING AROUND US.
Many people love to go on rollercoaster rides, but some become terrified once they only think of it. Many people love dogs, whereas some are very afraid of them (like me…). The rollercoaster ride and the dog are the same thing, but still our personal experience of them can be very different. The philosophical school of Stoicism, founded in the third century B.C., was very interested in emotions and what they are actually useful for. Because the stoics fondly believed in rationalism (the power of thinking rationally to make decisions, you could say listening to your head rather than your heart), they thought that emotions were not a very reliable source to base our actions upon.
“What really frightens us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.” – Epictetus
So OK, the Stoics made clear that our feelings are only interpretations of the things happening around us, but that doesn’t help us overcoming them to take over our minds. How to remain calm in a situation that simply is (or at least feels) really terrifying, shameful or frustrating? Well, here the stoics come up with a little bit of an out of the box solution: in order to overcome our negative feelings, we have to expect the worst to happen.
BEING PREPARED FOR THE WORST MAKES US BETTER AT COPING WITH REALITY.
So when we have to do something we find very scary, say speaking up to our boss about a raise of salary, you have to imagine what will happen in the very worst case (e.g. becoming fired for being rude). Once we imagine the ‘worst case scenario’ in a situation that seems scary or frustrating, we come to the realisation that nevertheless, we can cope with it. Imaging that the rollercoaster will be a terrible ride, that your conversation with your partner will be unbelievingly annoying and that your job interview will turn out in a disaster makes you better at coping with the real scenario (which often isn’t as bad as the worst case scenario!). We are much stronger than we think. Imagine what you can do, what you can cope with, even in the very worst case. Then assure yourself that you’re probably totally able to cope with reality as well.
LEARNING FROM STOICISM DOESN’T MEAN YOU BECOME A PESSIMIST. IT RATHER MEANS YOU BECOME A REALIST THAT IS AWARE OF IT’S OWN STRENGTH. YOU CAN DO THIS.
Stoicism can seem cold and pessimistic. I mean, imaging worst case scenarios seems a little bit depressing. But it doesn’t have to be. At points in life when you really feel unable to do something, thinking about these scenarios to give yourself strength can really help. It enables you to remember and recognise your own capabilities. Remember all the things you already went through, you are so strong.
Now look ahead and think ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’
You can probably deal with it and it’s probably not as worse as you expected. You will cope.
Expect the worst and then do it. You are brave.
I am back home, back in Holland. Looking at the future is sometimes scary, but thinking ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ helps me to get back to my strength: I can cope. Bring it on life, because I will cope.
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