I resented others for how easy life seemed for them
In many cases, they pushed through fear when I didn’t and took chances when I wouldn’t
I had undergone a couple of years of cognitive behavioural therapy before taking a serious look at Marcus Aurelius and other Stoic philosophers. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
I came to stoicism later than I discovered philosophy generally, and a few years after I first started to notice problems that seemed more complex than I knew how to cope with.
As a teenager, I felt perpetually disconnected in a way that it became clear only later was depression.
When it seemed to me that other kids were elated by the promise of their own burgeoning adulthood and streaming out into the world fuelled by a new appetite for experience, I felt almost nothing at all except a gnawing feeling that there was something wrong with me. That, and an intuition so powerful it felt like knowledge, telling me that I could never amount to anything.
If you have read this column over the years, you might be tired of my gratitude to the Stoic philosophers. If you aren’t in the mood to indulge me, I promise you a stoicism-free column next week. But really, they helped me to see a world in which my feelings were not the most true or important thing (and no one can do a person a greater service than that).
I had undergone a couple of years of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) before taking a serious look at Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and other Stoic philosophers, and was fascinated to discover that the CBT texts I’d been recommended to read, and which directed the therapy I had been doing, were rooted almost entirely in stoicism, as are several of the most practical (not to mention trendy) psychological therapeutic theories and practices in use today.
Ironically, stoicism and cognitive behavioural therapy helped me to break what would eventually become the habit of celibacy
The CBT approach I tried and found helpful was based on problem solving and finding coping mechanisms in order to help me to do things I struggled with, or felt I could not do at all. Here was a set of ideas and a therapeutic methodology which acknowledged the validity of how I felt, without insisting on the truth of how I felt.
I could feel powerfully that some of my shortcomings were my father’s fault, and be wrong. I could feel that I was incapable of being in a relationship with a man (in my early 20s, I did), and be wrong about that too. It would indeed turn out that I was wrong about the latter, but only after several years of voluntary celibacy.
When I tell people about this, their faces contort in horror as though I have told them my hobbies include throwing kittens into a wood chipper. I don’t entirely blame them. Ironically, stoicism and cognitive behavioural therapy helped me to break what would eventually become the habit of celibacy. That’s another column, I suppose.
The Stoics are not that widely credited for their influence on therapeutic methods, though that is improving. If anything, most people associate stoicism with that taciturn guy in the corner at a work event; the one who doesn’t hug his children enough and looks like he suffers from chronic constipation.
The frustration I grew up with felt almost separate from me – a disparate element of reality that influenced me from what felt like outside.
That guy is not admirable. He is repressed rather than controlled, tense rather than confident. This is a misunderstanding of stoicism, which does not in fact hate emotions, but rather does not credit them as inherently true. The Stoics saw truth as something to be understood, not felt.
It was at first offensive to me that the intense feelings which largely made up my perspective on the world might be inaccurate, unhelpful, or deceptive. The frustration I grew up with felt almost separate from me – a disparate element of reality that influenced me from what felt like outside.
The version of the world it showed me seemed objective, and not my own insecure and limited construction.
Stoicism – and cognitive behavioural therapy – along with trying new things and taking my feelings under advisement rather than as Godsent signposts about my own fragility, helped me to realise that I had been actively making my own life harder.
I felt like a victim, a person who could never do normal things, and I unfairly resented others for how easy life seemed for them. In reality, it wasn’t easier for them (at least, not all of them). In many cases, they pushed through fear when I didn’t, and they took chances when I wouldn’t. When I accepted responsibility for my own choices, everything got better.