It often feels that our emotions just happen to us automatically and involuntarily in response to an event, that it’s just an action and a reaction. Let’s say we’re walking down the street and we pass someone frowning, we immediately feel offended and angry. It feels like we go straight from A to C. But if you look at that event closely, what happened was you interpreted it a certain way. You thought: “That person is frowning at me. They’re looking down on me in some way. And they shouldn’t. How rude! How offensive!” And that interpretation led you feeling offended and angry.
Once we realize how our interpretation leads to our emotions, we can hold our interpretations up to the light and ask if they’re definitely accurate or wise. We could ask ourselves, for example: “Was that person definitely frowning at me? Maybe they were just frowning. And if they were frowning at me, so what? Does that mean that I have to take their bad mood with me through the rest of my day?” We can start to choose our perceptions, our interpretations more wisely and this will affect how we feel. So that might sound quite simple, quite easy. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy because lot of the time our interpretations are unconscious and automatic. We have a kind of running commentary, an inner voice that’s going through our head all through the day, making judgments about the things that are happening to us. And usually we don’t question that inner voice, we don’t even notice it. That inner voice would be made up of all the beliefs and opinions we’ve heard since we were children and we’d internalized it.
We assume that, that running commentary, that inner voice, is always completely accurate and true. But, unfortunately, it isn’t; it often gets things wrong. You can think of that inner voice, that running commentary, as like a sort of 24-hour news channel, constantly commenting on your life, but in a very distorted and biased way, it never really checks its facts.
Now if you have emotional problems like depression, that would be because, probably, your inner commentary is jumping to very negative conclusions. You might assume, for example, that everyone dislikes you or that everything you turn your hand to will fail. So according to the Greeks, then, what often causes suffering is our own beliefs. We are our own imprisoners, our own torturers. We cling to our negative or toxic beliefs even when they hurt us or even kill us.
So how do we free ourselves from our self-made prisons? Well, according to Socrates, the father of Greek philosophy, what we need to do is learn how to ask yourself questions, not just assume that that inner voice is always telling the truth, learn how to engage it in a rational dialogue. So that’s what Socrates tried to teach to his fellow Athenians. He engaged them in a dialogue in Athens, getting them to think, perhaps for the first time, about their unexamined beliefs and values and life philosophy.
And likewise, if you go to see a cognitive therapist, they’ll also engage you in a rational dialogue asking you questions, getting you to examine your beliefs. You can do that for yourself as well. Asking yourself questions and learning to perceive, perhaps for the first time, the bars of your prison cell, your own beliefs. Do we really have control over ourselves? Can we really choose how we react to things? Aren’t we the slave of circumstances, the slave of our DNA, of our childhood, of our social-economic situation?
So let me tell you to explore that question a little bit more about this philosopher Epictetus. He lived in the first century AD and he was actually a slave, his name meant “acquired.” To be a slave in the Roman Empire meant you had very little control over your external life and your situation. And yet Epictetus developed a philosophy of inner freedom and resilience which is still very powerful today. The secret of his philosophy of resilience was to divide all of life into two spheres: those things that we don’t have complete control over and those things that we do. And he said the secret of resilience is to know the difference between those two spheres.
So what don’t we have complete control over in life? According to Epictetus we don’t control the weather, the government, the economy; we don’t control other people. We have some influence over them, but they remain to some extent out of our control. We don’t control our own bodies. We can try and remain healthy and we should, but we all get injured sometimes, we all get sick, we’re all getting older, and we all eventually die.
And we don’t have control over our reputations either, we can put a lot of effort into trying to manage our online reputations, or whatever but to some extent they are beyond our control.
So what then do we control, according to Epictetus? Well, the only thing that we control according to him is our beliefs. And he thought that emotional problems come from two mistakes that humans often make. Firstly, they try to exert complete control over something in that first area, something external. They insist that something in their external life must be a certain way. And then when it proves beyond their control, they feel frustrated and helpless and angry. Or they fail to take control over zone 1, over their own beliefs and thoughts. Instead, they use something in the external world as an excuse or an alibi. They said: “I had no choice because this happened to me or because of that.”