In his wonderful new book How To Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, historian, and Stoic Donald Robertson charts the fascinating development of Marcus as a person over the course of his life. He artfully weaves in his insight as a working psychotherapist into how we can draw from both the life and writings of Marcus to improve our own lives.
In our interview with Robertson, he talked about some of the two-thousand-year-old Stoic concepts that inspired many psychological strategies practiced in the modern world. The central psychological strategy the Stoics employed, Robertson said, was what is now called cognitive distancing—summed up by what Epictetus famously said, “It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about things.”
In practice, therapists ask clients to imagine that they’re wearing colored spectacles:
If you believe the world is actually rose-tinted or dark and gloomy because of the lenses before your eyes that’s like fusing your beliefs with reality. Realizing that the world isn’t really that color – it’s just the glasses ‒ is like cognitive distancing. It’s the difference between telling yourself “Life sucks!” and “I’m just assuming that ‘life sucks.’”
The Stoics knew this over two thousand years ago, though…It took therapists decades to really wrap their heads around this idea….Marcus likes to refer to cognitive distancing as the “separation” of our judgements from external events. The goal of Stoicism is to suspend certain value judgments responsible for unhealthy passions in this way.
Give this a try today. When you inevitably get frustrated with someone or something today, remember that you have the power to change the lens in which you are looking through. Anytime someone hurts our feelings or something makes us upset, we are complicit in the offense. We choose our reaction. We choose what glasses we see things through. We don’t have to let it frustrate or upset us. It’s just the glasses.