Stoic Letters
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Stoic Letters

Emotion is instinctive, but controllable — Letter 11

To be stoic is not to be emotionless, but to remain unaffected by your emotions — James Pierce

In this publication I translate the Moral letters to Lucilius by Seneca into modern English. In letter 11, he discussed if it possible to have complete control of emotion, at all times? To look and act as though nothing is bothering you? I don’t believe that it is.

Mindfulness and the Pause

Much of our lives is spent in reaction to others and to events around us. The problem is that these reactions might not always be the best course of action, and as a result, they can make others unhappy, make things worse for us, make the situation worse.

The truth is, we often react to emotion without thinking. It’s a gut reaction, often based on fear and insecurities, and it’s not the most rational or appropriate way to act. Responding, on the other hand, is taking the situation in, and deciding the best course of action based on values such as reason, compassion, cooperation

This choice presents itself to us all the time, whether it’s someone nagging us, our co-worker being rude, our husband not being kind enough, and so on. There will always be external events that bother us, but if we learn to respond and not just react, we can make things better and not worse.

The main thing to learn is recognise the emotion (mindfulness) and the pause.

Mindfulness means watching ourselves when something happens that might normally upset us or trigger some kind of emotional reaction. Pay close attention to how our minds react.

Then pause. We don’t have to act immediately, just because we have an internal reaction. Maybe we could pause, not act, breathe. We can watch this urge to act irrationally arise, then let it go away. Sometimes that takes a few seconds, other times it means we should remove ourselves politely from the situation and let ourselves cool down before we respond.


Watch the reaction go away.

Regulate Emotion

No matter how hard you try to regulate emotion, some are outside of your control. Take embarrassment, for example. It leads to blushing which is a normal response which you can’t suppress. Blushing is usually caused by an unexpected event but sometimes just the thought of being in a certain situation sparks a reaction. Take speaking to a crowd: if this idea pops into your brain you may shake or sweat because you’re nervous of a future event. No amount of training, discipline or experience can stop it. Or, come to think of it, create it. What do I mean? Well, actors can’t switch blushing on at will; they have to copy the physicality of the emotion itself, which is just a façade.

Even if you could manage control emotion most people would perceive this to be unnatural and inhuman. They would feel uncomfortable in your company. You would be trying to stop something which instinctively everyone has to do.

In signing off I have a piece of advice. Who are your role models? When know who these people are, consider how would you act and what would you do if they were always next to you? I’m guessing you’d act differently, and maybe even better? Try this idea out and perhaps others will admire you? Who knows, over time they may even decide that you are a role model yourself.

Take care.

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash



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Robert Thompson

Robert Thompson


Big ideas and important articles. Writing to help you make sense of the world. And cope with being human.