How to Handle Disappointments: Respond Like a Stoic

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Daily Stoic" by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you respond when things go wrong? How should you feel, and what should you do?

The Stoic philosophers taught that we should pursue virtuous living. They recognized, though, that we will inevitably suffer setbacks on that journey. In The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman share the Stoics’ advice for dealing with life’s setbacks.

Continue reading to learn how to handle disappointments the Stoic way.

How to Handle Disappointments

According to the authors, life will test our courage and our commitment to justice—it gives a steady stream of opportunities to respond well when things go wrong. The Stoics argued that, even in the face of disappointment, fear, and other difficulties, we need to steadily pursue virtue.  

(Shortform note: Disappointment is a painful, but normal, emotional response when things go wrong. Experts suggest that the way you respond to disappointment can be transformational—it gives you the chance to grow stronger in your pursuit of your goals. Some good ways to overcome disappointment include journaling or talking about it, reassessing your core values, and accepting yourself for who you are. Consider some of these strategies as you look to apply Stoic practices.) 

The Stoics showed us how to handle disappointments, encouraging us to take them in stride. If we find ourselves suddenly out of work, for instance, we need to process our situation through our reason and keep our focus on living virtuously. Don’t lash out in anger or check out of your daily responsibilities—that accomplishes nothing good. Instead, consider how you can learn from your situation. With this mindset, the Stoics argue, we can even treat setbacks as an opportunity to grow in virtue. 

(Shortform note: Psychologists argue that the single most important way to take setbacks in stride is to regulate your emotions. The first step to do this is identifying the particular emotion you’re feeling—for example, anger. Once you’ve done that, pay attention to your physical response: Are your cheeks flushed? Is your head pounding? If so, begin breathing deeply and steadily and tell yourself to relax. You should be able to tone down the emotional response. When you’re calmer, you can begin dealing with the situation with clarity of mind as the Stoics suggest.)  

The authors claim further that the Stoics reinforced their commitment to living virtuously by simply expecting things to go wrong. If you expect that you’ll lose things you enjoy, for instance, you’ll be less afraid of it happening, and less affected when it does happen. Knowing that trials will come, they reasoned, prepares you to face them well when they arrive.

(Shortform note: Expecting things to go wrong can easily devolve into an unproductive mindset known as catastrophizing. In this frame of mind, you become fixated on the worst possible outcomes of situations—everything is a catastrophe. Mental health professionals note that this pattern of thinking is especially common for those who are prone to anxiety or overthinking. They suggest several strategies for overcoming catastrophic thinking, including noticing your thought patterns, challenging your negative assumptions, and rationally considering other possibilities. If you’re prone to negative thinking, bear this in mind as you consider the Stoics’ advice to expect things to go wrong.)

How to Handle Disappointments: Respond Like a Stoic

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Daily Stoic summary:

  • Insights from ancient Stoic philosophers on how to live a good life
  • Stoic practices you can follow on a daily basis
  • Why you should think about death more often

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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