How to talk to your emotions
Use a basic Stoic technique to take charge of your emotional life
A central tenet of Stoic psychology (which happens to be supported by modern research) is that emotions are, in part, a matter of cognition. Specifically, the Stoics developed the following model for how to arrive at good decisions and actions, despite experiencing an initially problematic emotional reaction to a situation:
Impression > Assent > Impulse to Action
The above are technical terms, and should not be understood according to their modern English meanings. Margaret Graver, in her excellent Stoicism and Emotion, provides the following definitions:
An “impression” (Greek, phantasia) is an alteration of the mind through which something seems to be present or to be the case. In having an impression, the mind registers some state of affairs prior to forming an opinion about it one way or another.
An “assent” is what converts thought into belief. It is also referred to as ‘judgment’ (krisis), or ‘forming an opinion’ (doxazein). Assent is defined in intentional terms: it is that event in which one either accepts an impression as true or rejects it as false.
An “impulse” (hormai) is a tendency to action, generated by the assent that one has given to an impression.
For instance, I may have the impression (convened to me by internal sensations) that I am thirsty. If I assent to such an impression, I may then develop an impulse to act: I get up, go to the refrigerator, and get myself a beer.
This is way of framing things is crucial to Stoic practice because it means that we have a way to argue with, so to speak, our emotions. Impressions simply come to us, by way of sensorial inputs (from the outside) or thoughts floating by (from the inside). There is no controlling them. But assent, as Epictetus puts it, is “up to us” (Enchiridion 1.1). And since assent is the gateway to impulse (again, in the Stoic sense of the word), this means that our actions are also up to us, no matter how much our judgment may be influenced by external circumstances, including other people’s opinions.
Take again my example above: even though there is no denying my impression that I am thirsty, I can decide not to assent to the notion that now is a good time to quell my thirst, and therefore not to generate the action, for instance because I’m in the middle of doing some writing, and I’m afraid that I may lose my focus. I’m first going to finish this paragraph, then I will get up and walk to the refrigerator.
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