Stoic Advice: How Do I Overcome Fear?

Massimo Pigliucci
Feb 6 · 5 min read

G. writes: Fear according to the Stoics is related to attachment to externals. Let’s say for instance that someone is shy and wants to ask someone out on a date. According to Epictetus, this person experiences fear if his goal is not totally under his control (get a positive answer). If he changes his goal to an internal one (just ask someone out, and nothing more) the feeling of terror will subside and he will be able to make his move.

Μy problem is that when I face a similar situation, I can calm myself down when I am in solitude, by focusing on an internal goal. As a result, in theory victory depends only on me. But when it’s the time to act and I am with the other person, I feel an enormous irrational fear. Although I try to form the right thoughts in my head, it helps just a little. There is a storm taking place inside me. Somehow, sometimes I manage to make my (clumsy) move with respect to the described situation, but doubts are always coming in my head in an uncontrollable way (is she interested, is she available, is this an awkward ting to do?).

I have read many times that the proper response to feelings of discomfort is to just label them and do what needs to be done. Reasoning with our feelings can backfire. Take this passage for example from an article presenting the approach of EBT therapy to the problem of fear.

“Reasoning with our emotions is often resorted to when we are cognizant of the fact that our maladaptive emotions are not in line with the reality of our situation. It can seem reasonable to try and argue with our emotions in the hope that our cognitive mind can exert control over them and free us to move forward unimpeded by their presence. But emotions are rarely controllable by sheer acts of will, nor amenable to the power of thought alone. In fact an intense emotion is more likely to override our ability to think clearly, than a clear thought is to override an intense emotion.”

At a first glance this approach seems to go against the Stoic principle that the source of our feelings are our judgments. But is it so? How would a Stoic act in the face of fear, when the object related to his fears is in front of him?

Very good question, and very common problem. I assume that by “EBT” you meant REBT, rational emotive behavior therapy, a forerunner of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), both of which were initially inspired by Stoicism. I think that the conflict with Stoic advice is more apparent than substantial.

Let’s step back for a minute and talk about how the Stoics see what we call emotions, which is broadly consistent with the findings of modern cognitive science. An emotion, for instance fear, is the result of two components: a raw feeling that something is wrong (the Stoics call it a proto-emotion), and a cognitive judgment that something really is wrong (in your case, failure to get a date).

The proto-emotion, or what Seneca — in On Anger — calls “the first movement” of the emotion, cannot be suppressed. Don’t even try, you’ll only make things worse. The actionable locus is that of the cognitive judgment. You can, and should, argue with that one. However, as Seneca himself makes very clear, this is not to be done in the moment, precisely because of what your article says: if you try to counter an already developing emotion (anger, fear, or what not) with reason, you are not only likely to lose the battle, but you are all but guaranteed to make things worse.

What then? That is why the Stoics put so much emphasis on practicing. Imagine you are going to face a boxing opponent. I hope for your own sake that you would never consider skipping training and just getting into the ring armed with your theoretical (i.e., cognitive) knowledge of boxing. You’d be pummeled in a matter of seconds.

Similarly, the C in CBT stands for “cognitive,” because the solution to whatever emotional problem afflicts us is to reason about it, to acknowledge to ourselves what the root causes of the problem are, and what the problem itself consists in. But CBT also has a B in the acronym, which stands for “behavioral.” The cognitive step is only preliminary, albeit necessary. Things will not actually change until the individual will consciously and deliberately implement behavioral steps that will eventually feed back into his construction of the emotion.

In the case of the Stoics, practical exercises include the premeditatio malorum, i.e., thinking ahead about negative outcomes and how you will deal with them. There are several ways of doing this, but I want to stress that this is not an exercise in indulging your emotional responses while visualizing a date going bad. It is an exercise in cognitive detachment and preparation for more effectively coping with a negative outcome.

Engaging in philosophical journaling, critically and constructively reflecting on your actions and emotions after the fact, is another standard Stoic technique. Adopting a series of short mantras to call upon in the moment is yet another approach. Greg Lopez and I have collected 52 of these exercises in our Handbook for New Stoics.

CBT and REBT practitioners recommend exposure therapy, which in your case may involve simply going on a large number of dates, expecting negative outcomes. The Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope had a different approach: he was occasionally seen hugging statues, and when someone asked him what he was doing, he replied: “I am practicing rejection.”

I’m going to point out one more thing: you admit that adopting a Stoic approach has “helped a little.” I am willing to bet that practicing longer and more systematically will help you even more. But you seem to expect to have complete mastery of the emotional side of things already. According to the Stoics, only sages have that, and there aren’t too many of those around, these days. Just like there aren’t many world boxing champions.

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