“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” ― C.G. Jung
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.” ― C.G. Jung
“These are the characteristics of the rational soul: self-awareness, self-examination, and self-determination. It reaps its own harvest.. . . It succeeds in its own purpose . . .” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.1–2
The Stoics were pioneers of focusing on what today is somewhat belittlingly referred to as “soft-skills,” understood as those skills that go beyond the specialist requirements of our professional work, the ones that help to produce a more productive and harmonious work environment. These traits and behaviors that characterize our interaction with others offer big clues to understanding our own strengths and weaknesses, and can help us focus on improving our lives—if we are not only willing to look at them, but to be delighted in cultivating the benefits of doing so. Epictetus loved to quote Socrates on this subject:
“But what does Socrates say? ‘Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so I delight in attending to my own improvement day by day.’ ” (Discourses, 3.5.14)
But where to begin?
You can do no better than turning to Heraclitus, one of the first great Western philosophers, who greatly influenced the Stoics (most of all, Marcus Aurelius) and famously said: “self-deception [is] an awful disease and eyesight a lying sense.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 9.7) Heraclitus knew that our own self-deception and conceited opinions keep us from seeing and learning from what is really going on in our daily experience.
The Stoics understood how comfortable we become in patterned behaviors and responses, and in the opinions we hold that justify them. They gave a two-fold prescription for practicing self-awareness, and surprisingly, it involved first being suspicious about our own perceptions and opinions of events until we test them, and secondly, taking an opposite approach with evaluating the behavior of others—being sympathetic before being suspicious.
With our perceptions of events, the Stoics recommend taking a little time-out:
“First off, don’t let the force of the impression carry you away. Say to it, ‘hold up a bit and let me see who you are and where you are from—let me put you to the test’ . . .” — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18.24
Epictetus uses a very interesting word repeatedly on this topic—dokimazo—meaning to test, like the assayist does currency and precious metals. Taking a moment to see what is really going on, without the pre-judgments we often erroneously hold, is an incredibly productive exercise—both at work and home. Epictetus says that when we get good at this we can hear a counterfeit just like a practiced banker can hear a fake coin when it hits the table—like a musician immediately spotting the sour note.
When it comes to other people, however, the approach flips in Stoic teaching. Marcus Aurelius, the most powerful person on earth during his reign as Emperor of Rome, was especially clear on this technique:
“Whenever you take offense at someone’s wrongdoing, immediately turn to your own similar failings, such as seeing money as good, or pleasure, or a little fame—whatever form it takes. By thinking on this, you’ll quickly forget your anger, considering also what compels them—for what else could they do? Or, if you are able, remove their compulsion.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.30
Powerful people are often surprisingly terrible at behaving this way, but Marcus was renowned for his humanity in dealing with others. His view was that we are all trainees and doing our best, even when it seems in the rough and tumble of work and daily life as though others have ill-will for us. He uses a great metaphor from wrestling:
“When your sparring partner scratches or head-butts you, you don’t then make a show of it, or protest, or view him with suspicion or as plotting against you. And yet you keep an eye on him, not as an enemy or with suspicion, but with a healthy avoidance.
You should act this way with all things in life. We should give a pass to many things with our fellow trainees. For, as I’ve said, it’s possible to avoid without suspicion or hate.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.20
These two simple strategies, of first suspicion toward our own senses and judgments, and then sympathy toward the intentions of others—or at least first trying to see things from their own perspective and not yours—were the birth of emotional intelligence in Western practice.
Travis Bradberry, a dual PhD in clinical and industrial psychology, has built on the work of Daniel Goleman and others to help bring training around these “soft-skills” to the modern corporate world. He translates this Stoic two-fold prescription into a helpful framework and set of identifying habits to look for in ourselves and in others.
Developing self-awareness and cultivating our habits in interacting with others is a lifelong process, which continuously requires taking some time out and getting what the Stoics liked to call “the view from above.” Bradberry talks about this as well:
Marcus again reminds us of the same in what we call Plato’s View:
“How beautifully Plato put it. Whenever you want to talk about people, it’s best to take a birds-eye view and see everything all at once—of gatherings, armies, farms, weddings and divorces, births and deaths, noisy courtrooms or silent spaces, every foreign people, holidays, memorials, markets—all blended together and arranged in a pairing of opposites.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.48
The push and pull of our lives with others shouldn’t be a source of constant stress and complaint—it’s the natural order of things! We have the tremendous opportunity to engage with it and develop a more productive and happy life—even at work. When we work at this we are creating a kind of ideal self as our own personal consigliere, with whom we can confer and, as Ali G would say, “check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.”
Seneca frames it as an exhortation “to find our own Cato”—someone we admire for their virtues in conducting themselves at home and in public, and that can serve as a measure for our psyche (soul):
“We can remove most sins if we have a witness standing by as we are about to go wrong. The soul should have someone it can respect, by whose example it can make its inner sanctum more inviolable.
Happy is the person who can improve others, not only when present, but even when in their thoughts!” — Seneca, Moral Letters, 11.9
Focusing on “soft-skills” by practicing self-awareness and developing our emotional intelligence is at the core of what Stoicism offers us. Epictetus, the lame, emancipated slave and foremost teacher of late Stoicism, was a genius in framing the benefits of these practices:
“Then what makes a beautiful human being? Isn’t it the presence of human excellence? Young friend, if you wish to be beautiful, then work diligently at human excellence. And what is that? Observe those whom you praise without prejudice. The just or the unjust? The just. The even-tempered or the undisciplined? The even-tempered. The self-controlled or the uncontrolled? The self-controlled. In making yourself that kind of person, you will become beautiful—but to the extent you ignore these qualities, you’ll be ugly, even if you use every trick in the book to appear beautiful.”
— Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.6b–9
Today, let’s try a little more suspicion with ourselves, a little more sympathy with others, and take counsel with our own Cato and enjoy the view from Plato’s perch.
Stephen Hanselman is the co-author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.