Stoic advice: I’m angry at my relatives

Advice[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

M. wrote: I read Meditations like six months ago and have incorporated a lot of Stoic principles to my life. However, this is while being in college. I live in India, Bombay, but go to school in Boston. I’ve noticed that whenever I come home for holidays, my temperament changes. I become more angry and anxious at home while at college, I feel calmer and can deal with things better. Why does this happen?

I’m a part of a very small family: Mom, dad, a younger sister, and I. Now, when my mom and dad were young, they quickly realized that they weren’t right for each other and wanted to get a divorce. However, because I was born (and, they didn’t want me to live in a separated family), they decided to stay together. So, growing up, I saw tons of fights between the two of them. Every day was scary at home, especially because my dad’s pretty short tempered. Till the time I graduated from high school, my mom was almost certain that they wanted to get separated; however, she was scared about doing it because of financial reasons. She’s a housewife (so, no income) and is fully dependent on my dad (and her own parents). Plus, she was scared that a divorce would mean that my dad wouldn’t sponsor my education. I still feel guilty about this because somewhere I feel I am the reason she’s unhappy. She tells me at times about her depression because of living in that house. My dad is also very egoistic. I sometimes think of him as a narcissist. And my mom, a co-dependent.

Now, I know the Stoics talk about not judging people’s actions unless we know their motivations. So, I now realize that my dad had a bad childhood too. My grandparents never gave him attention and love (he used to tell me this) and always favored his brother more (my uncle). So, psychologically, his personality makes sense. I’m now scared for my sister being brought up in such a toxic environment. There are fights and quarrels about money, plus, my grandparents have their own issues due, again, to short tempers.

So, whenever I’m home, I notice all of this and I feel very angry. I feel angry because my mother can’t get out of it (I’ve told her many times to do so, but, she never does), I feel anger towards my dad and then towards my grandparents for not raising him properly. What do I do? How do I remain sane and differentiate between things I can control vs things I just cannot?

Forgive me for being predictable, but the obvious starting point for you is to read the full essay On Anger by Seneca. It really is an amazing piece of writing on the psychology and philosophy of that destructive emotion. I have written a three-part commentary (here, here, and here) to help you out navigating it, but I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Allow me to quote a few of my favorite passages from it, hoping that they will be helpful to you and that they will inspire you to tackle your problem with renewed energy:

“It appears to me that you are right in feeling especial fear of this passion, which is above all others hideous and wild … Anger [is] a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes.” (I.1)

Seneca is telling you that you are right in being concerned about your anger, because it is a kind of uncontrollable madness that is not going to help you deal with the actual situation at hand, even though yours certainly isn’t due to trifling causes.

He suggests that — once started — it is useless to try to control your anger, you need to avoid it altogether: “Reason herself, who holds the reins, is only strong while she remains apart from the passions. … [and] there are certain things [like anger] whose beginnings lie in our own power, but which, when developed, drag us along by their own force and leave us no retreat. … The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition.” (I.8)

This insight is actually backed up by modern empirical evidence, and it is the very same advice given by the American Psychological Association about how to deal with anger. You don’t control it, you prevent it or disengage from the situation (cognitive distancing) as soon as possible.

This is particularly true in your case, because we are not talking about a sudden, unpredictable emotional reaction to an unexpected situation. You know days and weeks and months in advance that you will become angry when you get back home, so you need to train yourself to “deny assent” to it, as Epictetus would put it. If your personal Stoic exercises (e.g., premeditatio malorum, view from the above) are insufficient, then I suggest you actually engage in cognitive behavioral therapy with a professional.

“‘What, then,’ asks our adversary, ‘is a good man not to be angry if he sees his father murdered or his mother outraged?’ No, he will not be angry, but will avenge them, or protect them. Why do you fear that filial piety will not prove a sufficient spur to him even without anger?” (I.12) Here the idea is to convince you that you shouldn’t feel as if not being angry would somehow mean that you don’t care about your family, especially your mother and your sister. It is your concern for the situation that demonstrates that you love them.

“You must remove anger from your mind before you can take virtue into the same, because vices and virtues cannot combine, and none can at the same time be both an angry man and a good man, any more than he can be both sick and well.” (II.12) Meaning that your anger is not only not helping the situation — as you yourself point out in the letter — it is actually undermining your own quest for a eudaimonic life, getting in the way of your practice of virtue.

“Anger pays a penalty at the same moment that it exacts one: it forswears human feelings. The latter urge us to love, anger urges us to hatred: the latter bid us do men good, anger bids us do them harm. … How far more glorious is it to throw back all wrongs and insults from oneself, like one wearing armor of proof against all weapons, for revenge is an admission that we have been hurt.” (III.5) This suggests to me that you need to understand your father, as you in fact have began to do. Apparently, he had a bad childhood, himself exposed to a parent who was prone to violent outbursts. This doesn’t excuse the way your father has treated you, or is treating your mother and sister, and if there is any practical step you can take to stop or at least ameliorate the salutation (e.g., helping your sister plan to move abroad to study) you ought to do it. But at the same time we need to remember that none of us is a Sage, and that you actually have a chance to break the streak and not become the third generation of men in your family to fall for this destructive emotion.

Seneca goes on to provide very practical advice on how to calm or pre-empt your anger: “Pythagoras used to calm his troubled spirit by playing upon the lyre … Green is good for wearied eyes, and some colors are grateful to weak sight, while the brightness of others is painful to it … and we ought no less to avoid bodily weariness; for it exhausts all that is quiet and gentle in us, and rouses bitterness. … Hunger also and thirst should be avoided for the same reason; they exasperate and irritate men’s minds: it is an old saying that ‘a weary man is quarrelsome.'” (III.9) So make sure that, especially when you visit your family, you take some of these precautions: bring something with you that you know will calm your mind (playing the lyre may not be your first choice…), and take care not to tackle your family situation when you are tired. Eat and drink in a healthy manner, and rest, just as if you were to prepare for an exam, or an athletic competition.

Seneca also, again very practically, advices us to work on the outward expression of our emotions, since that instantiates a feedback loop that will actually improve our inner state as well: “Let us conceal [anger’s] symptoms, and as far as possible keep it secret and hidden. It will give us great trouble to do this, for it is eager to burst forth, to kindle our eyes and to transform our face; but if we allow it to show itself in our outward appearance, it is our master. … Let us replace all its symptoms by their opposites; let us make our countenance more composed than usual, our voice milder, our step slower. Our inward thoughts gradually become influenced by our outward demeanor.” (III.13)

Also, do not engage your father when he is angry: “To reprove a man when he is angry is to add to his anger by being angry oneself.” (III.40)

I’m going to reprint here my summary of Seneca’s recommendations about anger management, for your ease of consultation:

* Engage in preemptive meditation

* Check anger as soon as you feel its symptoms, don’t wait, or it will get out of control

* Associate with serene people, avoid irritable or angry ones

* Play a musical instrument, or purposefully engage in whatever activity relaxes your mind

* Seek environments with pleasing, not irritating, colors

* Don’t engage in discussions when you are tired

* Don’t engage in discussions when you are thirsty or hungry

* Deploy self deprecating humor

* Engage in cognitive distancing, what Seneca calls ‘delaying” your response

* Change your body to change your mind: deliberately slow down your steps, lower the tone of your voice, impose to your body the demeanor of a calm person

The Stoics are not the only virtue ethicists to have a problem with anger. For comparison, take a look at this article in Aeon magazine by noted contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum. You will see that, even though she is not a Stoic, her take is not that different from that of Seneca.

Now let me address a different aspect of your situation: the guilt you feel about your mother’s decision to stay in order for you to have a better future. That decision was virtuous on her part, but you have absolutely no responsibility in it. It was not “up to you,” as Epictetus would say, it was up to her:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion 1.1)

The proper response, therefore, is gratitude, along the lines of the opening chapter of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, but definitely not guilt:

“From my mother [I learned] abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.” (Meditations I.3)

In other words, try to practice one of the fundamental tenets of Stoicism: shift your emotional spectrum from negative (guilt, anger) to positive (gratitude, compassion) emotions, from pathē to eupatheiai, with the ultimate goal of achieving apatheia, i.e., freedom from disturbing emotions, probably best translated as equanimity toward what the universe throws at you.

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5 replies

  1. Wonderful advice. I’m about to visit my parents for two weeks and while my situation isn’t as dramatic as the advice-seekers, I do tend to get short with them on occasion. I will start now preparing myself for a more pleasant visit.

    Also, I just read your post on the practical Stoicism class you taught. That sounds amazing. Any way to get a copy of the syllabus?

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  2. Thanks Jim. The syllabus for the class basically included all of Irvine, the first half of the Meditations, the first two books of the Discourses, and as many Letters to Lucilius as we managed to read…

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  3. I am struck by how ineffective simply knowing the sources and causes of negative emotion is in dealing with it. In fact, simply knowing that the source of one’s anger is, say, an abusive childhood seems to justify the anger. Recognizing that anger is a destructive emotion regardless of it origins and causes and rationally challenging it is, to use a contemporary buzz word, empowering.

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  4. A very minor editorial point on a great piece – you say in the first paragraph of your quotation from Seneca that anger is “a short madness” when I suspect you mean “a sort of madness”. The length of time madness lasts would probably be another matter entirely.

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  5. Robin,

    Thanks for your kind words! I checked my version of Seneca’s On Anger, and it actually says “short,” not “sort of.” I think it refers to the fact that it happens quickly, or that it doesn’t last long, but it could be a mistake in the translation.

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