Stoic advice: how do I learn to speak up for myself?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

A. wrote: I have been a practicing Stoic for several years now and it is thanks to Stoicism and other factors that I was able to turn my life around. I spent the majority of my life in a state of moral wrong. Now I believe I have eradicated those evils. There is one aspect of myself that I have yet to change, however.

Growing up in my house as a child I loved and respected my father and had the opposite feeling toward my mother. My father was passive and never stood up for himself. My mother spoke her mind and raised her voice when need be. So in essence, I grew up unable to speak up for myself and as someone who gets anxious and tense when others yell or raise their voice.

I have gotten better over the years practicing Stoicism to find the courage to speak up for myself, but there are issues. I hesitate to speak and I don’t say what I want to say and how I feel, even though I know and feel that I am in the right. Because of this, people have taken advantage of me.

I am asking you for Stoic advice regarding primarily the virtue of Courage and secondarily that of Justice. How can I incorporate these virtues in a practical sense so that I may be able to speak when it is the right thing to do? How can I overcome my internalized faults and become the Stoic that I and my loved ones can be proud of?

Let us begin with your acknowledgment that Stoicism has already helped you becoming a better person. I don’t know which moral evils you have overcome, but it is clear you feel that practicing and reflecting has improved your life. Since Stoicism isn’t a magic wand that will make all our problems go away, we need to be thankful for what the philosophy can do for us before turning our attention to any remaining issue. Indeed, I suggest you incorporate a practice of thanks similar to the one implemented by Marcus at the beginning of his Meditations, where, for instance, he writes:

“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)

From time to time, write down what you are thankful for and to whom, and try to incorporate your mother in that list. Despite your discomfort with her while you were growing up, surely she has taught you some things, and expressing your gratitude to her, even simply to yourself, may help you overcome lingering negative feelings towards her.

You say that you hesitate to speak even though you feel you are in the right. Well, that should make it easier for you to follow Epictetus’ advice:

“When you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink — common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.” (Enchiridion 33.2)

“In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.” (Enchiridion 33.14)

In other words, talking a lot, especially about oneself, is completely unnecessary, and this dovetails well with your current issue. You should reject the pressure to speak, unless it is necessary and you feel you are contributing to a meaningful conversation. This will in turn allow you to focus on, and prepare for, those moments when you have to speak on your own behalf, to avoid being taken advantage of.

I do, however, get a sense that you may be a bit overconfident that what you think or feel is, indeed, right. What if it isn’t? Do you pause and reflect on other people’s criticisms, to see whether they may, in fact, have a point? Epictetus has more to say on this specific issue:

“Whenever anyone criticizes or wrongs you, remember that they are only doing or saying what they think is right. They cannot be guided by your views, only their own; so if their views are wrong, they are the ones who suffer insofar as they are misguided. I mean, if someone declares a true conjunctive proposition to be false, the proposition is unaffected, it is they who come off worse for having their ignorance exposed.” (Enchiridion 42)

That is, whenever someone says something critical of you, there are two possibilities: (i) they may be right, even in part. In which case, you should not get upset, but accept the criticism and vow to yourself to do better. Or (ii) they are wrong, which does not hurt you, and really ought to embarrass them. Whether it actually does, or whether they are oblivious to their own bad judgment is their problem, not yours.

Let us get to the bits about other people taking advantage of you. It is not clear, from your letter, how exactly that happens. If it is simply that they think they bested you at a social gathering, coming off as smarter or more articulate, who cares? It is nothing to you, because it is not under your control, and does not affect your moral worth, your character. If we are talking about actual damage, however, such as, for instance, financial transactions, then you have to summon the courage to stand your ground, including threatening to go by legal ways. There is nothing in Stoicism that says that we should take injustice by laying down, or endure it with a stiff upper lip. Cato the Younger summoned the courage to start a revolution against Julius Caesar, surely you can manage to stand up to so-called friends or acquaintances who are doing something wrong to you.

Before you do take action, however, ponder this other bit of advice from Epictetus:

“Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite — that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.” (Enchiridion 43)

I have experienced this myself very recently. I had been picking up things from the wrong handle, so to speak, with one of my brothers for a couple of years, and that had led us nowhere. Indeed, I was risking a permanent crack in our relationship. One day I re-read what Epictetus says in Enchiridion 43, pondered it for a few minutes, and called my brother, having decided to lift the cup from the other handle. Our relationship is still not perfect, but it has improved immensely. Similarly, before taking a stance with your friends or family about perceived injustice, ask yourself if that is worth possibly losing those friends and family.

You ask about the virtues of courage and justice. Here is how Cicero defines them, in On Invention, II.53-54:

“Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature, and moderation, and reason. … Justice is a habit of the mind which attributes its proper dignity to everything, preserving a due regard to the general welfare. … Fortitude [i.e., courage] is a deliberate encountering of danger and enduring of labor.”

Let’s start with the latter, courage. How do you become courageous? By willfully practicing exposure to uncomfortable situations. Remember the episode of Crates teaching Zeno not to be ashamed of things one has no reason to be ashamed of:

“From that day [Zeno] became Crates’s pupil, showing in other respects a strong bent for philosophy, though with too much native modesty to assimilate Cynic shamelessness. Hence Crates, desirous of curing this defect in him, gave him a potful of lentil-soup to carry through the Ceramicus; and when he saw that he was ashamed and tried to keep it out of sight, with a blow of his staff he broke the pot. As Zeno took to flight with the lentil-soup flowing down his legs, ‘Why run away, my little Phoenician?’ quoth Crates, ‘nothing terrible has befallen you.’” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.3)

This is a technique still used in modern Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, both of which have been in part inspired by Stoicism. Instead of lentil soup, a typical exercise might go like this: enter a pharmacy, approach the counter, and — in a fairly loud voice — ask: “Where do you keep the condoms? I need the small size!” The idea is to force yourself into situations that are not comfortable, which takes courage. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

In your case, prepare ahead when the next social occasion is looming on the horizon, rehearse saying something uncomfortable, in a version of the premeditatio malorum, and then do it. Start small, and work your way up to more difficult propositions. You will become more courageous by the day.

Now, about justice. In modern parlance that word indicates a universal concept articulating how people ought to be treated, a concept that — ideally — should be reflected both in our own actions and codified into law, for instance in the case of universal human rights as charted by the United Nations. That’s very good, but the Stoic focus is always on one’s own virtue, not on whatever failures others may have — because, of course, our moral choices are under our control, those of others are not.

Re-read Cicero’s definition above. He is talking about two aspects of justice, from a virtue ethical perspective: attributing the proper dignity to things, and preserving the general welfare. So whenever you are under the impression that an injustice has been done to you, ask yourself these two questions: first, is the thing itself worthy of your consideration? Many things will turn out just not to be important enough to get worked up about, or sufficiently important to pick up the cup from the difficult handle. In other words, choose your battles wisely. Second, is the injustice in question a matter of general welfare, or is it perhaps simply something that wounds your pride? If the former, by all means take action; if the latter, don’t bother, and focus on things that are truly worth fighting about.

One more note. Near the end of your letter you say that you want to become the kind of prokopton that you and your loved ones can be proud of. This is an understandable sentiment, but not really in line with Stoic teaching. We don’t practice Stoicism so that we can proudly display it to others; we practice Stoicism in order to become better persons, whether others appreciate it or not. Focus on improving your character and practicing the virtues. Everything else will follow, or not, just as the universe decrees that it may.

8 thoughts on “Stoic advice: how do I learn to speak up for myself?

  1. d y

    As always, good, thorough advice. One thing I especially find helpful about this column is that it presents issues most can identify with and then provides solutions that cover these issues from several angles, quite often from some that I hadn’t even considered. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. themurgman

    Thorough response! Really been appreciating the Q&A’s.

    I find the suggestion truly terrifying but intriguing to do something that you know will bring me rejection. I have a situation right now where I interact with a certain person on a weekly basis. He is constantly breaching my boundaries and I actually lied to him out of fear of his disapproval. I am an “easy-going,” “don’t rock the boat” kind of guy in regards to social interactions, but it leads me to feeling pressed in uncomfortable ways.

    My wife suggested that maybe the just thing to do would be to inform him how it makes me feel to have him overstep like he does. “Maybe that’s the kind thing to do for him so he knows what he’s doing?” I agree with her, but the idea is scary-not to mention him and I spend one-on-one time together which could make strained relationships that much more awkward.

    But, what do I have to lose? I’ve been pretty co-dependent my entire life: always wary of how another person will react to me. But maybe it is time to make a change. I love the idea of being able to walk through the market place with soup all over my lap, but doing so is something completely different. I must work up to this!

    Thank you for the posts as always Massimo!


    Liked by 1 person

  3. leonids


    I would stress you strive to avoid making the common mistake of confusing assertiveness with aggressiveness, a trap so many people trying to overcome submissiveness fall into. Examples, of course, abound. One I find amusing is when some stranger, upon being introduced to me, seems to try to crush my right hand as he shakes it. To help decide if something “is worthy of your consideration,” as Massimo put it, I recommend referring to his “modern Stoic’s decision making algorithm”:


  4. samargiro

    I’d suggest to the OP, reviewing the ideas about assertive communication. This seems to be in line with Stoic temperance. In any case, if another person yells or raises their voice, they are leaving off civil discourse and attempting intimidation. A good habit is to insist that others talk calmly and respectfully, as you do with them. If they refuse, I typically suggest, “I’ll try to discuss this with you some other time, when maybe you will be able to speak calmly.” It’s a mental habit now, person yelling at me, I abort conversation. And, yes, if I notice emotion taking over my speech, I try to apologize and ask to reconvene. The time for reflection can be used to practice the worst case scenarios too, “they’ll hate me forever, I’ll get fired, arrested, ad infinitum” and commit to what I believe is the virtuous course.


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