On Being Upset

Disciple: Epictetus, the ancient Roman Stoic, said that it’s not really events themselves that upset us, but our judgements about them.  That just sounds wrong!  If I lost my job, I would be really upset.

Master: Did you lose your job?

Disciple: No, it was just an example.  I’m saying that if I did lose my job, it would really upset me. 

Master: So, would you judge losing your job to be a bad thing?

Disciple: Obviously!  I couldn’t pay my rent; I wouldn’t have anything to live on;  I’d have to look for another job, which would be a real hassle.  I also kind of like my job and the people I work with.

Master: It sounds like you have good reasons to believe that losing your job would be a bad thing.

Disciple: Yeah, so of course I’d be upset.  

Master: Since we’re talking about a hypothetical situation, let’s change the scenario.  Could you imagine different circumstances where you might not feel like losing your job would be bad?

Disciple: I guess if I had a ton of money saved up, and everybody at work was a jerk, and I really wanted to go on that tour of Europe I’ve been dreaming about for years.  I guess then it might be good news.

Master: So then your judgement would be different and you probably wouldn’t be upset. Can you see that it’s not the actual loss of your job that would determine your upset, but rather your judgement about it.  And that judgement would take into consideration other factors in your life.  It’s not really the event itself that determines whether or not you are upset.

Disciple: Okay, fair enough.  But this doesn’t seem like such a useful insight.  I mean, for most of us most of the time losing a job is bad news. So naturally we feel upset.

Master: I think you just kicked the problem down the road.  Now that you’ve added all that information about needing money for rent and so on, you’ve really just modified the event.  Now the event is the combination of losing your job and all those other factors.  The judgement is the conclusion “bad news”.  Your upset is due to that judgement.

Disciple: You’re not making sense!  How could I have that whole complicated disaster happen and not conclude that it’s bad news?  Obviously it’s bad news! Do you want me to call it good news?

Master: Not necessarily.  Step one is to recognize where the responsibility lies.  Your emotional reaction of upset is based on your own judgement.  So the event doesn’t cause your upset.  You do. 

Disciple: Okay, I get that my judgement is the problem.  But what choice do I have?  Why did you say that if I don’t call it bad news, I also don’t need to call it good news?  And if I don’t call it good news, wouldn’t I automatically be upset?

Master: I can see that you would prefer that events unfolded differently.  But what if you stepped back for a second and looked at this whole job loss scenario in the grander scheme of things.  Could you possibly view your life as a series of opportunities to deal with what comes up?  Forget about good and bad.  Some things are very small, like maybe a red light when you’re driving somewhere with no particular deadline.  Others are bigger, like getting a raise or losing a job.  The most important consideration is to deal with them as they come up.  You want to do what is right, accepting the truth of events and acting in accord with your priorities.  You’re most likely to succeed in that responsibility if you focus rationally.  Any strong emotion is likely to be a distraction, at best.  

Disciple: So are you saying I shouldn’t view a job loss as a bad thing?

Master: I’m saying that judging it either good or bad actually gets in your way.  It just contributes to your unhappiness.

Disciple: But how could judging something good be a problem?  I mean, if I got a raise, I would be thrilled!  I’d celebrate!

Master: Exactly!  You would run the risk of wasting money and possibly doing something foolish.  Would that not be a distraction from a possible rational use of your unexpected additional income?

Disciple: I see what you mean. Normally I would see losing my job as a bad thing, and so that would cause me to feel upset.  But if I set aside the whole judgment thing and just dealt with what happened, I wouldn’t feel frustrated or anxious about what was going on.  As an added bonus, I’d probably deal more effectively with the situation.

Master: So are we good with the application of Epictetus’s dictum?

Disciple: Maybe.  Something else is still bothering me.  Let’s suppose I’m dealing with something truly devastating, something permanent like losing my legs in a horrible car accident.  It feels nonsensical to just suspend judgement about something like that!

Master: You haven’t experienced anything at that level. But, if you have fear or anxieties about future calamities, there are behavioral therapy techniques for dealing with them. Even the ancient Stoics had a technique called meditatio malorum that amounted to a kind of visualization of dreaded possibilities. It was intended as a mental inoculation against misfortunes.  Modern behavioral therapists use similar techniques to reduce anxieties to more manageable levels.

Disciple: Do they work?

Master: Yes, when practiced appropriately. It is not always possible to predict how any individual person might react in the event of a true calamity. Clearly minimizing upset feelings would be desirable, and there are techniques for managing such feelings.

Disciple: Surely it would be unreasonable to expect people to avoid being overwhelmed by distress in some really terrible situations.

Master: I won’t say anything about expectations. However there is ample documentation of extraordinary triumph under duress. For example, Admiral James Stockdale, a follower of Epictetus, endured terrible torture without complaint as a Vietnamese prisoner of war.  Many others triumphed over terrible situations by accepting reality and maintaining a positive attitude.  I’m thinking of Victor Frankl’s experience in Auschwitz or the crew of the disastrous Shackleton Expedition to the Antarctic, for example.  I’m also reminded of Anne Frank, who wrote in her diary, “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” Sadly, she didn’t survive.  But at least the misfortune of her time in hiding wasn’t compounded by the misery of dwelling on upset feelings. There is no evidence that these were inherently superior human beings — in other words, heroism is accessible to everyone with the right preparation and mindset.

One thought on “On Being Upset

  1. You can also look at getting upset over losing one’s job as one’s loss of their security blanket. To most having a job is a status. Being important. If you lose it you lose standing within one’s community. Some would regard it as a failure to their pride. Then there are those who stay in their job and the sudden loss leads them down unfamiliar territory. Having to find a new job, developing new skills, leaving their comfort zone behind. In the end losing one’s job leads always to something better but most don’t see that on the spot as anger and being upset gets in the way.


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