Stoic Letter 13
There are a lot of reasons to be anxious. Not just now, but at any given time in history. It’s the human condition.
The truth is that we’re fragile beings. I can go outside right now for a walk, slip on a banana, hit my head on the curb, and it’s lights out. There are a million bad things that could happen to you and me. But as Epictetus once said, “If you want to make progress, stop feeling anxious about things.”
It’s really difficult to live a happy and peaceful life if you feel anxious all the time. I think it helps if we accept that a little bit of anxiety is a normal part of life. It’s just like feeling hungry. When you don’t eat for a longer period of time, your body starts giving you signals. “Hey, you! I’m hungry. Feed me. NOW!” So you grab something to eat and your body stops the signaling. That’s actually useful.
But your mind works in the same way — which isn’t always helpful. When the mind identifies something it doesn’t like, it says, “You better do something about this thing I don’t like!” One thing that I used to get anxious about is whether people liked me or not. Can you relate to this? I often thought things like, “What if this person I work with doesn’t like me? Why didn’t they respond to my email within an hour? Maybe it’s because I was in a hurry last time we talked?”
So what? You can’t make people like you — and that’s fine. The world is a big place. There are always people who will like you. If you’re a good person and are aware of your own behavior, there’s no need to ever worry about what others think of you. That’s not your problem.
What about the economy and the future? Yes, that’s another favorite topic for everyone who struggles with anxiety. What if you lose your job? What if there’s a new virus? What if people no longer buy your products?
We can train ourselves not to be anxious about these things. The key is to practice detachment. Start with small things. Let’s say you bought $1000 worth of Bitcoin and the next day, you’ve lost 10%, which is a very likely outcome. Say to yourself, “I took a risk, and I’m happy to part ways with the $100 I lost. It might come back, or it might not. Either way, I’m happy to detach from this loss so I can have peace of mind. There are more important things.”
You see, anxiety is always about fear. We fear that reality is different than our expectations. But reality doesn’t have to match our expectations for us to feel less anxious. Epictetus explained this well: “Things may not work out the way you want. When you choose not to be anxious, you do it in spite of your unfulfilled expectations. What you lose is what you pay for your peace of mind.”
You want and expect people to like you, but if that doesn’t happen, you should accept it, and move on. Don’t give anxiety power over you. Be prepared to pay the price of not being liked. Is that so bad? Is your peace of mind not more important than what your co-workers or strangers think of you?
Build up this mindset slowly and have some patience. It took me a few years to get over my anxiety about the future. But there will always remain some traces. To be honest, anxiety will never fully get out of your system. It’s human nature. But with practice, you can make sure anxiety doesn’t have a hold over you.
At some point, you will accept that life is what it is. Some people like you, some don’t. Jobs disappear, while new ones are created. Nothing is forever. And for what it’s worth, we’re not getting out of this thing alive either! There’s only one conclusion to this whole story: Nothing is worth giving up your peace of mind for. All the best.