What happened to Stoicism?

May 26


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Helen Whitten

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What happened to Stoicism?

Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason

Much has been written about therapy recently in the light of Prince Harry’s pronouncements about the Royal Family, his childhood and the ‘total neglect’ he received.  He has talked of feeling ‘completely helpless’.  This has made me wonder what kind of therapy he has been receiving over the last few years if he still uses phrases such as ‘total neglect’ when anyone can see that this is, to most of us, an exaggerated description of his life.  Was he fed, clothed, did he have a home, toys, parents, siblings, grandparents, nannies?  Yes.  To me the phrase total neglect is better applied to, say, the Romanian orphans.

I am surprised that no therapist has challenged his use of words such as ‘total’ or ‘completely’ because the aim of therapy is generally to provide a client with insight into how they are upsetting themselves, alongside potentially identifying how others may or may not have upset them.  When clients use words such as ‘never, always, everyone, nothing, no-one’, these are recognised as generalisations and are challenged…”was there one time when someone gave you attention?  Can you think of one person who supported you?” etc so that distortions and over-generalisations are picked out, challenged and placed into a more contextualised reality.

I am not saying that one cannot have an unhappy childhood if one is a Prince growing up in a Palace.  Of course one can.  And it seems he did, much of it due to the terrible tragedy of losing his mother so young, so suddenly and traumatically.  Therapy can’t take away a sad event.  It can only help the client find ways of managing life despite whatever events have occurred in their lives.  And that is what good therapy does.

There seems to be a general tendency for people to focus on narratives that ramp up the negative rather than balancing negative experiences with more positive ones.  Listening to reports, one would imagine we are living in the most terrible times ever – and that is outside Covid.  That there has never been a worse time for minority groups such as BAME or LGBTQ, although if you look through history we are living in the least persecuted era that has ever existed, with equality and diversity laws to protect rights and a far greater awareness of acceptance and tolerance than existed in previous generations. 

In order to be content, it really does help to check out the language one is using, to step back and analyse whether the narratives one is expressing are accurate.  The brain gets into default modes and loops of habitual thinking and so if one feeds it all the negative aspects of one’s life, or life in general, that is what it will seek out.  But it may not be the truth.  It is an interpretation of the truth, one person’s perception of truth, as seen through the potentially distorted lens through which that person is observing themselves, their life, others, and the world.

Many people create rules that they feel others should abide by – as to the kind of parenting they ‘should, ought or must’ receive, or ‘should have’ received.  As to the kind of way family, friends, colleagues or bosses ‘should’ treat them.  But it helps to check whether these rules, demands or expectations are reasonable, fair, and logical.  Whether the person is giving as much as they are expecting to receive.  Whether they are accepting that, just as they are fallible, so are others, and they deserve compassion and forgiveness. 

I hear more of judgement than I hear of forgiveness these days, whether in Prince Harry’s conversations, or in the demands of students, say, in universities who say they don’t feel safe listening to a lecture, or reading a book, so rather than choosing not to read the book or attend the lecture, the university cancels the speaker or author, often at a real financial and reputational cost.  This surely does not help those young people develop the resilience they will need to manage this world.  It seems absurd that such groups say they support diversity and yet when exposed to diverse opinions suddenly demand that others are silenced.  What an upside down world it is.

I have had therapy myself and found it extremely helpful but it seems to me that there is some kind of therapy out there at the moment that is doing the opposite to what I believe therapy is about.  It seems to be undermining people’s resilience rather than reinforcing it.  It appears that people have the distorted belief these days that the world should be the way they want it to be or otherwise they become a victim.  This is not the kind of therapy I have been exposed to, nor the CBT/REBT approaches I was trained in.

In my view good therapy helps you to understand the events of your life but then to consider what may have been impacting the people who hurt you, what era and generation they grew up within, what the norms were in those times, how you could have responded differently and then to find ways to build resilience to manage life more effectively in the future. 

There should never be an expectation that life will always be the way you want it to be, or that other people should act the way you want them to.  Because they won’t.  Life will be tough and full of challenges.  Tragedies will happen. Other people will have different opinions to your own.  And so we need to help people build the stoicism to manage these ups and downs.  To recognise any distorted perceptions and realise that ‘your truth’ is not necessarily another person’s truth.  This doesn’t mean you don’t feel or acknowledge emotions.  It means you feel them and then check out that they aren’t blinding you to reason or fact, nor disempowering you.

There is a gap between an event and our response to that event. It is the response that shapes our ability to cope or not.  A useful phrase can be “I would rather x didn’t happen but I can manage it if it does” or “I would prefer y not to do that but I can manage it if they do”.

Prince Harry has had some very tough moments in his life.  As have many other people.  He came through grief and difficult patches, served in Afghanistan, and created the Invictus Games, for which he is much admired and respected.  He has had the support of his family, even if it has not been given in precisely the way he would have preferred.  He also has the affection of many people in the UK and beyond.  Contextualising situations helps us all to recognise what has gone well, alongside what has gone badly, so that we feel strong and capable of managing life.

As Jean-Claude Chalmet wrote in The Times, 22.5.21, “good therapy is never about blaming others.  It’s about developing understanding, compassion and a sense of self and responsibility, as well as understanding the consequences of our actions.  It’s a maturing process that helps us to become the best version of ourselves.  Therapy should help us to become more compassionate…hurt isn’t a way to deal with hurt, understanding is.”

In my view vengeance and blame divide us. Developing resilience, understanding, compassion and forgiveness, plus recognising that everyone is fallible, bonds us all within the human condition.


One Response

  1. Hi Helen,
    This is an excellent and succinct explanation of why many people seem to be so unhappy today. Like you I question the ‘ therapies’ that people use. Focusing on what is going right would certainly make people happier rather than continually criticising every thing.and other people, x

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