Dealing with Overwhelming Desires and Emotions
The Postponement Strategy in Ancient Stoic Practice
Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved. This is a brief excerpt (modified) from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010).
- Learn to spot the early-warning signs of unhealthy desires or irrational emotions before they spiral out of control
- Don’t allow yourself to be “carried away” by your feelings but take them as a signal you should pause for thought
- Gain “cognitive distance” from your feelings by reminding yourself that the underlying impression (value-judgement) is not the thing itself but just the internal representation of it, and that you are upset not by things themselves but you your value-judgements about them
- If the feelings is overwhelming, postpone responding to it, or even thinking about it, until things have calmed down and you’re able to rationally evaluate it
- First apply the general precept of Stoic practice by asking yourself whether the underlying value-judgement is about something “up to you” (directly under your control) or not. If it is not, then remind yourself of the reasons why Stoics judge external or bodily things (not “up to us”) to be ultimately “indifferent” with regard to the goal of life
- Consider what the hypothetical ideal Sage, someone perfectly wise and good, would do in response to the same situation, and try to emulate their example. Alternatively, ask yourself what faculties or virtues nature has given you that correspond with the demands of the situation, such as the capacity for courage or self-control, etc.
The emphasis upon self-awareness or mindfulness in ancient philosophical therapeutics was associated with the recommendation that extreme desires and emotions (the irrational, unhealthy, and excessive “passions”) should be handled with care. This often consisted in the incredibly sound and commonsense advice that no important decision should be taken when in the grip of rage, depression, or other irrational emotions, but time taken to calm down and recover one’s composure before acting. Iamblichus attributed the origin of this practice to the ancient Pythagorean sect,
If however at any time any one of them fell into a rage, or into despondency, he would withdraw from his associates’ company, and seeking solitude, endeavour to digest and heal the passion.
Of the Pythagoreans it is also reported that none of them punished a servant or admonished a free man during anger, but waited until he had recovered his wonted serenity. They use a special word, paidartan, to signify such [self-controlled] rebukes, effecting this calming by silence and quiet. (Iamblichus, 1988, p. 105)
The strategy of postponement was also frequently referred to as an important Stoic practice by Epictetus. He discusses the example of a man temporarily assailed by impressions of irrational avarice or inappropriate sexual impulses and emphasises that although these initial impressions may occur to almost anyone we are immediately presented with a choice as to whether we indulge them or challenge them in ourselves. He makes it clear that his students must remind themselves that to give in once to an unhealthy impulse is to weaken ourselves so that we become more vulnerable to it again in the future, whereas to question it forcefully is to strengthen ourselves by forming a stronger habit of resistance to it in the future. This strategy of focusing upon the longer-term consequences of an action is often found in cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).
Epictetus gives various specific examples of how such an impulse might be counter-acted and controlled, including praising oneself for seeing that it is merely an impression of desirability and not a thing good in itself, and reminding oneself of the example of Socrates’ behaviour, as a role model in respect of similar situations.
If you set these thoughts against your impression, you will overpower it, and not be swept away by it. But, in the first place, do not allow yourself to be carried away by its intensity: but say, ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are, and what you represent. Let me test you.’ Then, afterwards, do not allow it to draw you on by picturing what may come next, for if you do, it will lead you wherever it pleases. But rather, you should introduce some fair and noble impression to replace it, and banish this base and sordid one. If you become habituated to this kind of exercise, you will see what shoulders, what sinews and what vigour you will come to have. But now you have mere trifling talk, and nothing more. (Discourses, 2.18.22-6)
First, though, the Stoic must learn to pause for thought and observe his situation, an aspect of mindfulness that is essential to most remedial action. The Stoics believed that although irrational ideas could always impose themselves upon the mind, especially in adversity, nevertheless, by maintaining emotional calm and self-awareness, the Sage could choose to either grant or withhold his assent to his initial impressions. A similar notion is found in Dubois’ rational psychotherapy,
We should react briskly, act enthusiastically for good, obey the impulse of our better feelings. But however spontaneous this reaction may be, we must nevertheless leave time for calm reason to exercise a rapid control. Our reason is that which as an arbiter judges finally the value of the emotions of sensibility which make us act. It is a sentiment of goodness, of pity, which carries us away, reason very quickly gives its approval. But when we are about to give way to a feeling of anger, envy, vexation, reason should intervene to correct the first impression and modify the final decision. (Dubois & Gallatin, 1908, p. 56)
Similar “stop and think” techniques are employed in modern CBT to control impulses by “nipping them in the bud” before they have a chance to grow out of control. There’s good evidence to support their efficacy, particularly in the treatment of worry in Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). However, they seem to be effective for a range of different emotional problems, such as anger, addictions, and sometimes even depressed mood.