This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "A Guide to the Good Life" by William B. Irvine. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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How much do you let other people affect your mood and behavior? How can you minimize their impact on you?
If you could get advice from an ancient Stoic philosopher, you’d hear this: Don’t let people bring you down or rile you up. Philosophy professor William B. Irvine explains how to avoid negative people, be patient and forgiving toward others, handle insults with maturity, and never display anger.
Keep reading for this practical advice from ancient philosophy.
Don’t Let People Bring You Down or Rile You Up
As you learn to focus on only the things you can control, you’ll gradually realize that one thing you can’t control is other people. For that reason, Irvine suggests being careful about how you relate to others—specifically, he says you should be careful about the company you keep and learn how to handle negative interactions productively. Don’t let people bring you down or provoke you to anger.
According to Irvine, the ancient Stoics argued that you should avoid people who put an unnecessary strain on your Stoic practices, such as overly negative people and people who value the wrong things in life. For example, if you’re trying to follow the Stoic practice of making the best of bad situations, you’ll find it harder to do so if you associate with someone who always sees the worst side of things and seems to seek out misfortune. Similarly, if you’re trying to adopt a Stoic disregard for material goods, you may find it harder to do so if your friends are constantly concerned with things like the latest fashions and electronics.
(Shortform note: In The Success Principles, Jack Canfield suggests that it’s not enough just to cut out people who are negative influences—he argues that you should surround yourself with people who support your values and goals. Canfield suggests going out of your way if you need to in order to find such people. For example, you might consider joining a new organization or taking up a new activity in order to find people who share your interests and values.)
At the same time, Irvine explains, the ancient Stoics believed that you have a duty to other people, so you should be patient and forgiving. This sense of duty stemmed from the ancient Stoic belief that we should live in accordance with nature—because humans are naturally social creatures, being virtuous means interacting and cooperating with others no matter what you think of them. If we find someone annoying, Irvine says, the ancient Stoics would point out that other people didn’t choose their flaws any more than we chose our own—and moreover, there are certainly other people who find us annoying. Therefore, Irvine says, the ancient Stoics suggested simply not worrying about what other people do or say.
(Shortform note: In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius added that even those who oppose you can’t actually hurt you. He reasoned that the only thing that can hurt you is that which damages your character—and only you can do that. For that reason, Marcus Aurelius argued that your main goal in dealing with difficult people is to never compromise your own principles—though you can and should take the opportunity to explain them to anyone who’s genuinely interested.)
All the same, Irvine cautions, as a Stoic, you must learn to shrug off insults. As you go about your life, you’re bound to be insulted from time to time either when people are openly rude to you or when you feel you’re not being treated in the way you deserve. When this happens, Irvine suggests that you consider your opinion of the other person—do you even care what she thinks? Remember that you can only control your own thoughts and that you can only be hurt if you let yourself be. Instead of fighting back against the insult, Irvine recommends that you disarm the situation by responding either with humor or not at all. Either option will potentially signal to the other person that his comments or behaviors missed their mark.
|How to Not Take Things Personally
In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz similarly argues that getting offended by other people only leads to bad results. Ruiz suggests that you remember the following in order to avoid taking criticism and insults personally:
• Anything the other person says reflects on them, not on you. Their opinions, judgment, anger, or other emotions aren’t your problem.
• Everyone’s dealing with their own problems, and the other person might just be taking their unhappiness out on you.
• The other person has a different perspective and therefore a different take on the situation. They don’t have to agree with you (or you with them).
• Taking the other person’s opinion personally means accepting their judgment of you, which only increases your suffering.
Above all, Irvine points out, the ancient Stoics recommended that you avoid anger at all costs—speaking or acting in anger ultimately gives other people control over you and your behavior. Ideally, if your Stoic practice is strong and you follow the other advice in this section, other people won’t anger you much in the first place. But if you do find yourself getting angry, don’t act on that feeling. Instead, Irvine says, the ancient Stoics suggested remembering that life is short and that most things don’t matter as much as we think they do in the moment.
(Shortform note: One strategy for coping with anger is to prepare in advance for anger-provoking situations. In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama suggests doing so by meditating on what it looks and feels like when you get angry and resolving to avoid those sensations in the future by controlling your reactions. Once you’re in a heated situation, he suggests that you respond with curiosity, patience, and tolerance: Try to understand where the anger’s coming from, then do your best to defuse it by accepting it calmly.)
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- A simple step-by-step guide to developing a Stoic practice
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