Sunday, June 26, 2016

Brexit: 5 Stoic Strategies to help you cope

Is your reaction to Britain's decision to leave the EU anticipatory delight at the prospect of  a new era of British autonomy?  Do you find yourself  nodding approvingly at proposals to make June 23rd  Independence Day or "St.Nigel's Day"? If so, I suggest you read no further. You have no need for a Stoic response to Brexit.

But maybe  thoughts like these have been popping into your head since Friday morning:-
"I'm so disappointed in the attitude of my fellow citizens"
"At this moment I am ashamed to be British" 
"I am really worried about the future - what will the effect be on future generations?" 
"I am very concerned that this will unleash the forces of Little Englandism and bigotry" 
"Will this be the start of the break up of the UK?" 
"Will this be the end of the European dream?" 
"I am worried that I or my friends or loved ones won't be able to stay in the UK" 
"I am angry with David Cameron for a political gamble with all our futures" 
"I am hoping that I will wake up and the Brexit result will turn out to be  a nightmare"

Such thoughts bring with them emotions extending from disappointment to shame, feelings ranging  from mild anxiety to fear, and frustrations fluctuating from mild irritation  to anger. Some of you may be  worried where it will all end.  As one friend told me "It's not like when  David Bowie died and you were really upset  for a few days but  got over by listening to Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars. The consequences of Brexit will be with us forever."

 Long ago, a group of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers devised an excellent life philosophy  - Stoicism - to help them deal with adversities worse than Brexit. In this post I will describe
 5 Stoic strategies to help you handle Brexit.

Stoic Strategy # 1 Analyse your mood  

Moods and emotions are not, according to the Stoics, an inevitable consequence of things that happen to us. They  result from an interplay of events and our interpretations of them. In Epictetus's words
"People  are disturbed not by things, but the views which they take of them”            Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5

Take a  moment to reflect on your mood since Brexit. Picture yourself in this mood, as in  comic or  a graphic novel ("Nightmare on Farage Street?"). What would be in your thought bubble? Would it be any of the 9 thoughts mentioned above?
 Now ask yourself these questions.

  • Need this thought be 100% true? 
  • Is there a different way of looking at things?
  • Is there anything helpful I can do to deal with this concern?

Stoic Strategy #1 may seem familiar to devotees of CBT which isn't so surprising since CBT stole them from Stoicism. For the Stoic, they are  just the beginning.

Stoic Strategy #2:  Accept those aspects of the situation which you cannot change
"What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens." Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1.17
None of us are gods (not even you Boris, should you be reading this) and there are limitations to what we can change. Thinking otherwise will inevitably leas to frustration and other negative emotions. Applying this to Brexit, it isn't in our power to change the result, so there is no point dwelling on all the "if onlys".  Dwelling on the past or worrying unhelpfully about the future is a very dangerous strategy. Indeed, for the past few years I have analysed thousands of questionnaires  during Stoic Week to discover the relationship between our  attitudes and  happiness.  The  attitude that is consistently the  least conducive to well-being is

     "I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what’s gone wrong the past or worrying about the future"

If you notice yourself doing this, remind yourself that this is really unhelpful and look for a more fruitful way to spend your time. By all means  try to learn from mistakes and  make plan about what's to be done. But these aren't dwelling or worrying, it's trying to change the things you can, which is our next Stoic strategy ...

Stoic Strategy #3: Change those aspects of the situation which you can (and should) change

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are  our opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Epictetus, The Enchiridion

 Stoicism should not be confused with a philosophy of quietism or resignation.  Stoics  argue that you both can change your emotions and should do the right thing. Stoicism can help you to reframe unhelpful thoughts and consequently feel  calmer and develop wiser action plans. Here are are nine understandable but ultimately unhelpful ways of looking at Brexit and how to reframe them Stoically.

#1:"I'm so disappointed in the attitude of my fellow citizens " & 
           #2: "At this moment I am ashamed to be British" 
Pre-Stoic emotion: Disapointment possibly spiralling down into despair if left unchecked & Shame
What I can't control:  How other people have voted
What I can control: My own attitude to how they voted
Stoic reframe: "I am disappointed  in the attitude of many of my fellow citizens but I can't control their attitudes. Furthermore I can't be held responsible for the attitudes of other British people, so shame is not appropriate. What I can control is my reaction, which can be to be an inspiring role model of how British people should be   -see Stoic Strategy  #4
Stoic emotion: Acceptance and determination

#3:"I am really worried about the future - what will be the effect on the next generation?" 
Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: The future
What I can control: My own behaviour, which may have a positive influence on the future (though this cannot be guaranteed)
Stoic reframe:"I can't control the future, there isn't any point worrying  about it, unless my analysis can produce a good action plan. I can use the Stoic Worry Tree   and get involved in projects that can help the next generation.
Stoic emotion: Calm, focussed and determined
#4:"I am very concerned this will unleash the forces of little Englandism and bigotry" 
Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: The political and social environment
What I can control: My own behaviour in so far as it can be part of a ripple effect exemplifying positive virtues
Stoic reframe:"I can't control society, but I can be a role model for cosmopolitanism and tolerance.  One way of doing this might be tweeting such Stoic exercises as the Concentric Circles of Hierocles
Stoic emotion: Caring
#5:"Will this be the start of the break up of the UK?" & 
#6:"Will this be the end of the European dream?" 

Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: The political and social environment
What I can control: My own behaviour
Stoic reframe: "I can't control whether the UK breaks up - I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. With regards to the European dream, whilst I can't control what governments do, I can act like a good European. Marcus Aurelius used to say "concentrate every minute like a Roman". I should "concentrate every minute like a good European".
Stoic emotion: Acceptance and resolve

#7:"I am worried that I or my friends or loved ones won't be able to stay in the UK" 
Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: Decisions made by government
What I can control:How I relate to my friends or loved ones
Stoic reframe: "I can't control what happens with regards to employment law though I could try to influence it by campaigning. More immediately, I can be as supportive as possible to those I care about, being a rock for them to lean on, helping them emotionally and in practice ways."
Stoic emotion: Concern and full of purpose

#8: "I am angry with David Cameron for a political gamble with all our futures"
Pre-Stoic emotion: Anger
What I can't control: Decisions made by David Cameron
What I can control:  My thoughts about decisions made by David Cameron
Stoic reframe: "I can't control the past, least of all that relating to our Prime Minister's actions. It would be  futile  to dwell on this. I need to focus my energy on things that matter that are under my control
Stoic emotion: Calm
#9:"I am hoping that I will wake up and the Brexit result will turn out to be  a nightmare"
Pre-Stoic emotion:Incredulity
What I can't control: The result
What I can control:  My  response to the result
Stoic reframe: "The result of the referendum has gone against my hopes. I need to accept the result and then move on to thinking about how   I can respond like a good Stoic and a good citizen of Europe and the world"
Stoic emotion: Acceptance and resolve to respond with Stoic virtue

Stoic Strategy #4:  Ultimately, external things we want  - like wealth,  status, pleasure, power and even health -  that aren't under our control  aren't nearly as  important  as  how we conduct ourselves, which is under our control
“Seek not the good in external things;seek it in yourselves.” Epictetus
The Stoic outlook is not a dismal one. Stoics believe in  the potential for  a virtuous circle of positive emotion, ethical behaviour and happiness.  First we learn to reframe our thoughts so we try to control only the controllables, thereby avoiding much  frustration .  Next we recognise that what we have most control over is our own thinking and conduct.  But exactly how should  we think and behave? The Stoic answer is that we should aim to develop the cardinal virtues summarised admirably by Professor Christopher Gill in this way:-

                 Wisdom - understanding how to act and feel correctly; 
                 Courage -  knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’); 
                Self-control - knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust; 
                Justice - knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection.

According to the Stoics, developing these virtues is within our power.  So focusing on virtue means we are at the same time controlling the controllables and leading (morally) good lives. We will also increasing our chances of happiness. If this last claim seems at all fanciful, then the results of Stoic Week do indeed suggest a strong link between Stoicism and happiness , as does other research.

So how can the cardinal virtues be  applied to this situation? Here are some ideas.

                 Wisdom -  Reflecting on what is and is not under our control, what really matters and what we need to do
                 Courage -  Doing the right thing even if it brings about inconvenience or discomfort to ourselves 
                Self-control - Avoiding lashing out angrily at those  who do not share our views. Noticing and halting  thoughts that lead  to self-pity or despair
                Justice - Working at both a personal and communal level to help those adversely affected by Brexit. Being  a positive role model of a good European and citizen of the world

Stoic Strategy #5: See difficulties as a challenge and an opportunity

“The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests. ”  Epictetus

John Sellars  argues that Stoics should actually welcome  adversities as a chance to develop and prove themselves.
"It is only through a real fight that the wrestler can develop his skills and prove his talent. Likewise in life, it is only through apparent adversity that we get to prove our character." 
Let us consider both those ideas in relation to Brexit.   It provides the opportunity to develop character - to notice your unhelpful ways of thinking and responding   and to replace them with unhelpful ones. Brexit also gives you the opportunity to prove yourself.  Churchill  - himself an  early advocate of a united Europe - would not  have had the opportunity to show his qualitiesif it had not  been for Hitler. Brexit gives  you have the opportunity to show wisdom, courage, self-control and justice.

I hope to have shown that Stoicism can be a useful philosophy for dealing with real-life adversities like the prospect of Britain leaving the EU .  Whilst we cannot change what has happened, we can learn how to think about it rationally and and how to conduct ourselves like a good citizen of Europe and the world.  Up next - the Stoic response should Donald Trump get elected as President....


  1. Very interesting article. However, my concern as an American is that the UK is headed in the wrong direction which is splintering into smaller and smaller groups rather than unifying realizing the rights and brotherhood of man. The UK following this reactionary trend will give a warrant to every crazy group in the world to assert their "individuality". The UK should be a leader in progress rather than a backwards looking force.

  2. This is a lovely article which echoes all of my feelings. I am not sufficiently stoic to face the future with total equanimity but I am working on it.
    Nearly 50% of the population share my view of a future of cooperation and universal compassion (OK, maybe an exaggeration but also a preferred indifferent)
    Thank you

  3. Very timely, Tim. Good to be reminded of the stoical philosophy at a time when worries about things out of our control threaten to overwhelm our thinking.

  4. Very helpful Tim but the statement "we cannot help what Cameron does" makes me a bit uncomfortable. Surely we live in a democracy and we SHOULD do something when people that are meant to represent us turn out to be totally corrupt and self-interested? (I am referring to the people who advocated Leave and clearly didn't want Leave to win and, furthermore, immediately and cowardly left).
    Anger is, as you say, useless, but would Stoics really believe that we should change "our thoughts" in the face of corrupt politics? Would they not believe we should do something about corruption? (Not that I know what to do). The too-thin line between being stoical and letting evil win has always bothered me, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. Hi Corine, many thanks for your comments. Stoicism is not in favour of doing nothing in the face of injustice - so we should show courage in doing what we can to create a just society. What Stoics think we should avoid is trying to change things we can't change. So what we need is wisdom to tell the difference between what we can and can't change. This is pithily summed up in the Serenity Prayer. The question here is - what does wisdom tell us we can change, and how should we change it? We cant directly change what Cameron does today, we certainly cant change what he did months ago. We can and should do what is just. Cato the Younger is an example of a real-life historical Stoic who was very involved in political action - in his case, opposing Julius Caesar's (ultimately successful) attempt to become dictator of the Roman Empire.


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