Stoic advice: I suffer from addiction, and I hate myself because I’m a bad Stoic

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

E. writes: Before I discovered Stoicism, many years ago, I struggled with an addiction. At the time I tried to implement what I now understand to be the dichotomy of control: that I can’t control external events but that it was within my power to work and change my addictive behavior. Yet no amount of realization seemed to make the situation better. If anything it made it worse.

But once I entered a 12 step program they taught me that the first step was to realize my powerlessness over the addiction. That was transformative, and the program is what brought me relief and “sobriety” from the addiction. Of course, there is more to it, but admitting my powerlessness over the direct addiction, whilst simultaneously strengthening my resolve to work around the addiction, made the difference. Some actions I could control: working the steps, making amends, talking to my sponsor, reporting on progress, daily journaling, going to meetings, helping others, etc.

Now that I face other (less destructive, but emotionally turbulent all the same) addictions, and after losing my belief in a higher power and trying to act according to Stoic virtue, I find myself in a state of not progressing again. Mostly I just really hate myself for how badly I’m failing to live up to Stoic ideals and a virtuous life. Is there any room in the dichotomy of control for finding utility in recognizing that some people seem powerless to change their bad behaviors directly, but have power to alter their environment, thoughts, etc. such that eventually their behaviors change as a consequence? I can’t say unequivocally this is the case, but it almost seems, paradoxically, that for me attempting to exert control over the addictive behavior is counterproductive and makes it worse. 

Stoicism is a philosophy of life, not a cure for addiction. The latter requires professional intervention, in forms that may vary from support groups like the one that helped you originally, to psychotherapy, to medication. Nevertheless, as you know, many 12-step organizations adopt the so-called Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The Prayer is, in fact, a modern Christian version of a sentiment found in different cultures (e.g., in the writings of 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva, as well as those of 11-century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol), but is also found in Stoic writings, especially Epictetus:

“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 I.1)

The tricky part is that the standard interpretation of Epictetus assumes that he seems to be assuming that people having complete control of their inner workings, a notion that modern psychology most certainly does not support. But the Stoics, despite living in a pre-scientific era, where keen observers of the human psyche, and they realized very well that there are plenty of aspects of the human mind that we do not control. That’s why they famously distinguished between proto-passions and fully formed passions. Consider what Seneca says, for instance, about anger:

“A passion, therefore, consists not in being affected by the sights which are presented to us, but in giving way to our feelings and following up these chance promptings.” (On Anger, II.3)

We cannot help being affected by external events, or internal turmoil. It is human, and to even attempt to control those is a path toward misery and possibly destruction. What we can control is our cognitive attitude toward what is going on, the very same principle that informs modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for instance. Interestingly, early CBT was based on the assumption that changing maladaptive thinking (the “cognitive” part) eventually leads to changes in behavior and affect (the “behavioral” part). Some more recent varieties of the approach maintain, more modestly, that the focus should be on one’s attitude toward the maladaptive thinking, rather than on the thinking itself, though I think both approaches are valid, depending on what, exactly, “the thinking” is about.

As is well known, the basic steps of CBT are:

I — Identify critical behaviors;
II — Determine whether critical behaviors are excesses or deficits;
III — Evaluate critical behaviors for frequency, duration, or intensity (obtain a baseline);
IV — If excess, attempt to decrease frequency, duration, or intensity of behaviors; if deficits, attempt to increase behaviors.

You can see even from this short summary that CBT is very practically oriented, it doesn’t provide, and is not meant to provide, a general philosophical framework for life. That is why I suggest engaging in both: therapy for the immediate problem, philosophy (what my colleague Lou Marinoff calls “therapy for the sane”) for a broader outlook.

You do not provide, in your letter, any details about which specific addictions you are battling, but if they are indeed addictions, then you need counsel and therapy, not just philosophy. That said, a philosophy, especially Stoicism, should be helpful in putting things into perspective, providing you with a compass for your entire life, not just this particular aspect of it.

Moreover, I keep stressing that Stoicism is inherently forgiving and, especially, self-forgiving:

“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” (Enchiridion, V)

So long as you earnestly try to be a better person for yourself, your loved ones, and the rest of humanity, you are a prokopton, literally someone who makes progress. And progress isn’t linear either. Sometimes we slip back a bit, and that’s okay, it is human. Of course the danger is that we may rationalize our failures and actually give up a positive path to eudaimonia. That is why the Stoics suggested three fundamental types of exercise:

* Engage in self-reflection, for instance by way of keeping an evening diary;

* Summon the mental image of a role model (the “Sage on the shoulder” exercise) and ask yourself what he or she would do;

* Confront yourself with peers and like minded people, either directly, if possible (a local Stoic group, for instance) or indirectly (via our increasingly large Facebook community), to keep yourself from making up excuses and stop progressing.

You need to apply to yourself the very same attitude of non-judgment that Epictetus counsels us to apply to others:

“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Enchiridion XCV)

The advantage, when applying this attitude to ourselves, is that we actually have a decent understanding of what we are going through, as well as, more generally, of the limits imposed on human agency by addiction. Forgive, then, yourself and simply do your best to cope with the situation the universe has handed you.

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Categories: Psychology, Stoic advice

20 replies

  1. I like this. I think you more powerfully have addressed the issue of the ‘Fortress Self’ than before. It was a concept that struck me as one of Stoic’s weakest points. I cannot find the citation, but somewhere I thought Socrates referred to the self in terms of three horses, not entirely unlike Freud’s id, super id and ego. Both speak to the limited control we have over our self.

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  2. Thank you so much for this post!

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  3. 12 Step groups are about getting rid of the baggage of self, first 1 you admit to the problem, you need to get rid of the addiction first, as it controls you, then 2 you can better deal with yourself. (2 parts in Step 1) Second you find a solution (Step 2) God or the higher power of your understanding, you can’t do this alone, (Spirituality it works) Steps 4-10 are the action steps…basically this tells us that it is our own self or self-centeredness (ego) that caused us to get this addiction in the first place ( the underlying causes which caused you to drink, drug, gamble and so forth) resentments, fear, anger, worry and a boatload of other emotions etc., and how we can be free of those causes (Serenity) also why we have been thinking (negatively) in that manner and how we may change our thinking.. Steps 11&12 are about spirituality and of being in service to others.

    I have found that 12 Step teachings or practices are very much like in what the Stoics, and many other ancient teachings were trying to convey, similar principles that basically mean the same thing, just worded, and/or taught differently.

    Dan2000

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  4. Massimo: Sounds like good advice.

    I’m sure you’re aware that, just as mindfulness-based intervention (e.g. MBSR or MBCT) is not Buddhism, CBT is not Stoicism, and that patients who undergo such interventions do not necessarily emerge as Buddhists or Stoics in any strong sense, though they may know to credit those traditions as historical influences, and rightly so.

    I suppose Buddhist and Stoic communities can serve today as a kind of long-term support group for folks, whether they complete such intervention programs or not. However, it also seems fair to say that those traditions bring along plenty of cultural baggage, which may or may not speak to a person’s actual conditions or situations.

    In E.’s case, it sounds like Stoicism may be causing more confusion and hindrance than it’s worth – at least for now.

    As for later, I’m not convinced that a long-term commitment to Stoicism or to Buddhism or to some other ancient school of thought (albeit, in modernized form) is necessarily a wise decision, though I’m certainly glad to know what the options are.

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  5. Jason,

    Of course CBT is not Stoicism, I wrote about the difference between therapy and philosophy here: http://tinyurl.com/y9e5uo6n

    The two approaches can be complementary, though I think everyone can benefit from a philosophy of life (Stoicism or whatever else), while only some people need therapy, and only for some periods of their lives.

    “I suppose Buddhist and Stoic communities can serve today as a kind of long-term support group for folks”

    Stoicism, Buddhism and the like are a lot more than support groups. They provide a compass for everyone to live a eudaimonic life.

    “In E.’s case, it sounds like Stoicism may be causing more confusion and hindrance than it’s worth – at least for now.”

    That’s for him to decide.

    “I’m not convinced that a long-term commitment to Stoicism or to Buddhism or to some other ancient school of thought (albeit, in modernized form) is necessarily a wise decision”

    Obviously, I disagree. Hence the 349 (and counting) posts on this blog, and my book.

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  6. Massimo: That’s for him to decide.

    E. may be too close to the situation to decide whether Stoicism is hindering him more than it is helping him.

    Of course, one can dispute whether he’s even practicing Stoicism, but if he truly believes that he is “trying to act according to Stoic virtue”, and yet he hates himself “for how badly [he’s] failing to live up to Stoic ideals and a virtuous life”, then it sounds like Stoicism is not serving him well (e.g. it’s adding confusion and unnecessary pain to his condition)…at least for now.

    After he follows your good advice to seek professional intervention and that (with any luck and a concerted effort) works for him, then maybe Stoicism will play a long-term supportive role in his life: either in the thick sense that it supports you (as a “compass to live a eudaimonic life”) or in the thin sense that it supports me (as one of several orchards in which there are fresh cherries to be found).

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  7. Jason,

    I really don’t think either you or I have sufficient basis, reading his letter, to tell E. whether he should continue to practice Stoicism or not. It is truly up to him.

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  8. I’m the E. from the question, thanks so much for answering this, Massimo!

    I was trying to be brief, but I see here that I should clarify a few things. This may not seem relevant, but it is: I grew up in a very strict religious environment. So self-reflection and being too hard on myself are always the problem; the rationalization fear is not much of a concern. If anything, it’s the utter demoralization that comes from sometimes taking one step forward and two steps back (yes, I wrote that correctly) that at times that causes me to abandon the effort. So, at least when I think about it rationally, I think encouragement is more what’s needed than the fear of rationalization.

    I should clarify that my upbringing informs the context of what I call “addictions.” In reality I think a large majority of people wouldn’t be fazed by anything I struggle with. I hold down a job with intense requirements, have a stable family, friends, am law-abiding, etc. But there are behaviors that, well, perhaps compulsive is a better word, or a bit too impulsive? They feel like a big deal to me, because I’m really hard on myself and they don’t match my values, but it’s not like I’m doing drugs or drinking too much or anything like that.

    To respond to your concern, Jason, I appreciate what you’re saying. I did go through a time where I had to completely step away from Stoicism for a while, due to the self-loathing from learning a virtuous path but feeling like I wasn’t even progressing along that path. I guess that’s been a constant struggle, I think sometimes it’s paradoxically that my over-zealousness for how I should behave that overwhelms me and drives me to seeking comfort in food or other pleasures that can be done more than I prefer, or in a manner in which I don’t prefer.

    I did recently start therapy, so I’m happy about that. I’ve been a bit too avid of a self-help learner beforehand, but Feeling Good was probably the most transformative and helpful book in my life to date. So, if anything, I’ve had the experience where some of the counselors haven’t told me anything I haven’t already studied in more depth than they could tell me. But I’m hopeful about it this time since I made clear that I really need to know where and how to focus my efforts and time, and I feel like it’s helping me get insight and motivation that I didn’t have before.

    Just to come full circle, this more recent time trying out and learning Stoicism has been much more helpful. Your words, Massimo, about being a prokopton being reflected in one’s aspirations and efforts and goals, were very helpful. Even recognizing that sometimes our best efforts feel like we might be regressing, as long as we really are doing all we can that’s what matters. Also, in re-reading some of the Stoic writings and paying attention to the aspects that I think are more helpful to me I’ve come across some really moving parts that encourage me to keep trying and have given me a different focus, for example, from The Art of Living:

    “No greater thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig.”

    “By the steady but patient commitment to removing unsound beliefs from our souls, we become increasingly adept at seeing through our flimsy fears … and our lack of self control.”

    “No great thing is created suddenly. There must be time. Give your best and always be kind.”

    “Pursue the good ardently. But if your efforts fall short, accept the result and move on.”

    “Try, also, to be as kind to yourself as possible. Do not measure yourself against others or even against your ideal self. Human betterment is a gradual, two-steps forward, one step back effort … Forgive yourself over and over and over again. Then try to do better next time.”

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  9. E: “I think sometimes it’s paradoxically that my over-zealousness for how I should behave that overwhelms me and drives me to seeking comfort in food or other pleasures that can be done more than I prefer, or in a manner in which I don’t prefer.”

    This sounds awfully familiar. Although I don’t have temperance problems enough to call them an “addiction,” their severity does seem to be closely related to psychological insecurities that, recently, I’m starting to frame as a moral courage problem. Namely, I need to develop and maintain the guts to shake off these arbitrary external standards of success that I either compulsively pursue or compulsively regret not pursuing in order to…feel smart, feel valuable, something like that. I wasn’t raised strictly religious, but having been labeled “smart” in school due to a few slightly precocious talents and the pervasiveness of the Self-Esteem movement, I had it drilled in to me that Being Successful was what mattered, and that you could measure it based on how you did compared to your peers or some external standard. Of course, I usually came out short of Successful, and any self-esteem-promoting consolations backfired on me as a natural pessimist, as recent studies are now showing is typical. (Don’t tell people who are insecure that they have nothing to dislike about themselves! They’ll just try to prove you wrong.)

    So now I’m playing with the idea that maybe my actions speak louder than my social programming, and so if I look back on how I’ve made my major decisions and how I feel about them (few to no regrets about the big stuff, most of the time), I have to conclude that I don’t actually want to be successful. I know I could have made much worse choices and, between that and some bad luck, ended up in an actually tough situation rather than an objectively super-easy one. So maybe what I really want in life is not to be any kind of hero, not even a Sage, but appreciate what I already have and can do: the chance to appreciate Nature (as a scientist) and share that appreciation with others (the teaching part of my job), and help others deal with life when their comforting fantasies fail them, given that my pessimistic nature means that my fantasies tend to fail me quickly. Maybe you’re already doing more or less what you want to do with your life, too, or can do so easily whenever you’re not in the throes of your worst habits of mind.

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  10. Thanks for the comment, Julie! I can relate to so much of what you said. I don’t know how relevant this is or isn’t to the topic at hand, but I also excelled academically and athletically, but had abysmal “self-esteem” (I also dislike that term and think the movement has probably been harmful). In an odd way the accolades sort of made things worse, as I came to think that’s what I needed in order to be considered “successful” and when I wasn’t quite as stellar in college it was a serious blow.

    That’s one area where Stoicism has really helped. Realizing that these things are preferred indifferents, and the most important work I can do is working on living a virtuous life, is oddly comforting. A life well lived now doesn’t quite mean that I have the perfect job that maximized all my latent potential, as much as trying to exemplify and internalize the four main virtues (although striving to do well at work is a goal and struggle I still have).

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  11. Hello again E. Interesting that you also struggled with the “smart kid” labels and the disconnect between your natural painful awareness of your flaws and the cultural compulsion to focus on the positive. (Read “Excellent Sheep” by Bill Deresiewicz to see how “successful” members of my generation have been passing these issues on in even worse form to their children.) For me it’s been grad school and my career since that have been tough to deal with having been raised to expect and strive for “success.” I don’t consider my job perfect nor do I consider myself to be maximizing all my latent potential, but I can appreciate the decisions I’ve made – and even not having been “smart” enough to get a “better” job – on the basis that I have clear opportunities to practice virtues through my job. Yes, even that tricky virtue of Courage – persisting in spite of feeling like I’m barely doing the job well enough and might not manage to keep it. You may not have lucked out as much in the job you ended up in – I have to admit, I’m unusually lucky, or maybe just unusually stubborn, for having actually ended up doing what I went to college for. But chances are, there’s a lot you can do with the life you have, including the job you have, that you can learn to appreciate as you get better at making sure your attempts to practice virtues don’t get hijacked all the time by subtle vices such as ambition without a cause.

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  12. Hi Massimo,

    I recently attended your lecture at Kings College and I really enjoyed it. Just wanted to drop you a line and say hi. Thank you for what you do, you’ve made Stoicism much more accessible to a layperson like myself. I already have started implementing what you’ve taught me in my own lectures (I’m a high school history teacher) and my students seem to really enjoy these ideas, especially the dichotomy of control.

    Hope you are well.

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  13. Glad to hear it, and thanks for the kind words, whathehellamidoinghere!

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  14. I have a Question thou its not related to the topic.
    I watched a 2011 documentary on Netflix called Happy, in one part a scientist says that people who focus on getting intrinsic goals (Personal growth, Relationships, Desire to Help,…) are more prone to be happy and have less anxiety than those people who focus on getting extrinsic goals (Money, Image, Status,…), my question is how to use this and other findings of Positive Physiology to inform our list of preferred and dispreferred indifference?

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  15. Julie, that’s funny you mention that, a few days ago I just read an interview with Deresiewicz that mentioned that phenomena and highlighted that phrase. I sent it to my daughters to make sure they know that I want them to do their best, but I love them no matter what and achievements aren’t what gives them worth. I find this is also where Stoicism is helpful, I don’t use the word virtue much with them, because the meaning is a little different than in modern vernacular, but we talk about a life well lived and having to be “excellent sheep,” in the way the article mentions, is not a direct measure of that. My parents were great, I think they just didn’t know what was going on in my head. Hopefully I can at least avoid putting that kind of pressure on my girls.

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  16. thomzstiro,

    The idea you mention from positive psychology is perfectly compatible with the Stoic notion that we are in control only of our judgments and actions, not the outcomes of those actions (as famously explained in Cicero’s metaphor of the archer, in book III of De Finibus).

    While I am myself a bit cautious about some aspects of positive psychology, a lot of that research seems to empirically and systematically confirm the intuitions about human psychology that were put forth by the Ancient Stoics.

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  17. Hello E.

    Given that you’re raising children, making sure that you don’t encourage your children to pursue vicious ambitions is definitely an opportunity to practice virtue in your own life. In my case, I try not to pass issues on to my students. My students are more likely to be stumbling academically than suffering from the Excellent Sheep syndrome given the market niche of the university I work at, but I make an effort to value and work with all of my students who at least try to do their work, even if working with them will not be easy nor boost the prestige of my own career. Personally, I don’t like the phrase “doing one’s best” because I tend to think I’m falling short of even my own best, or what it would have been in ideal circumstances, so I prefer to think in terms of making sincere efforts in agreement with my healthy values.

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  18. There is a non-religious substitute for 12 step programs. It is called Rational Recovery. Googling on it should find you plenty of materials. There is a group for it on Redd.com.

    Good Luck.

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  19. Aside from /r/stoicism on reddit here is a list of reddit groups for helping get over addictions

    https://www.reddit.com/r/stopdrinking/wiki/links

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  20. Thanks, Soapy, I’ll check out the Reddit resources. I will say I looked at “Rational Recovery” a while back, and unless I’m conflating groups it didn’t seem that rational or that impressive. If I recall it basically just assumed that we’re all rational and a harsh enough punishment would be enough to stop us. That seems deeply ignorant of human nature to me and somewhat dangerous. But, like I said, perhaps I’m confusing it with another group.

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