This 2-Minute Stoic Idea Will Forever Change Your Life
“So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’” – EPICTETUS
We’re naturally evolved to approach what feels good, and avoid what feels bad. That’s our survival instinct. And it massively influences our behavior in everyday life.
It’s the main reason why we procrastinate. And it’s the main reason why we swear at other drivers while driving. Some stimulus triggers an impression and we act upon it. In most cases, this happens automatically:
- A driver cuts us off and we yell at him.
- Grandma serves us cookies and we eat them.
- Our brother is watching TV, so we sit down and watch with him.
The problem with that? Our senses are wrong all the time. Our emotional impressions are counterproductive in today’s world. If we only approach what feels good, we end up wasting our lives binge-watching Netflix, binge-eating M&Ms, and binge-drinking Goon!
(As a side-note: The image shows Swiss tennis player Stan Wawrinka who strongly believes in the importance of a strong mind.)
What feels right is often not the right thing to do.
As aspiring Stoics, we want to stay at the steering wheel at all times so we can deliberately choose our best actions. This is why it’s crucial we don’t react impulsively to impressions, but take a moment before we react.
If we're able to do that, it’ll be much easier to maintain control.
We must avoid rashness in our actions. As Epictetus says: “Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of the impression, but say: ‘Wait for me a little, impression: allow me to see who you are, and what you are an impression of; allow me to put you to the test.’”
Let’s put our impressions to the test. Is this really so bad? What happened exactly? Do I really want to go down that path? Why do I feel such a strong urge within me? What do I know about this person?
If you’re able to pause and ask such questions, you’ll be less likely to get carried away by the impressions and make a rash move. It’s all about withholding automatic reactions. Refuse to accept your impulsive impression. Test it first.
Now this isn’t easy. If we want to put our impressions to the test, if we want to step back and look at them as mere hypotheses, then we must be able to spot them in the first place. This requires self-awareness.
So it’s really two steps:
- Spot your impressions and make sure you don’t get carried away immediately.
- Examine the impressions and calmly decide what to do next.
The ability to postpone our reactions to passionate impressions by saying, “Wait for me a little, impression” is the basis of expressing our best self. It’s the only way we can abstain from doing what feels good and do the things that don’t.
Avoid Doing What Feels Good and Become Able to Do What Feels Bad
If you’re able to avoid rashness in your actions and have the necessary self-discipline, then you become the person who’s able to say no to the things others can’t resist, and able to do the things others dread doing.
You see, testing your impressions is really a core quality of every aspiring Stoic. As you keep doing that, you will also realize that it’s not the event itself but your reaction to it that upsets or delights you. If you choose not to react at all to minor inconveniences, you simply won’t care anymore. As if nothing happened.
If we just gain time and wait before we react, then we’ll be able to resist our impulses to react instinctively and immediately. These impulsive reactions are not helpful in most cases.
This is all about avoiding rash emotional reactions. And then testing primarily whether there’s something we can do about it or not. Let’s not concern ourselves with what’s beyond our control—precisely because there’s nothing we can do about it.
Only our reaction is within our control. So let’s choose our smartest (non-)reaction, and move on.
Let’s read Epictetus’ strategy to deal with pleasurable impressions:
“Whenever you get an impression of some pleasure, as with any impression, guard yourself from being carried away by it, let it await your action, give yourself a pause. After that, bring to mind both times, first when you have enjoyed the pleasure and later when you will regret it and hate yourself. Then compare to those the joy and satisfaction you’d feel for abstaining it altogether.”
Take away: Before you react, say: “Wait for me a little, impression . . . allow me to put you to the test.”
This is an excerpt practice from my upcoming book The Little Book of Stoicism.