Special Offer: Enroll on Kasey Pierce’s new email course How to Unstuck Yourself before the end of May 2021, free of charge, and your name will be entered in a sweepstake to win a copy of my audiobook How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. (See website for terms and conditions.)
What you get in the course. You’ll receive one email each week with Kasey’s advice on how to get your life unstuck. She will guide you through six steps to freedom, combining ancient wisdom and modern psychology.
How to unstuck yourself
Clarity and vision
What’s your story?
Opinion versus advice
Action and will
Register nowfree of charge to begin receiving your emails, and start putting these six easy tips into practice today. Want to learn more? Check out this interview I recently did with Kasey about practical ways Stoicism and cognitive therapy can help you get your life unstuck.
Kasey Pierce is an author and motivator, who specializes in helping people to overcome blocks in their lives. She is the editor of the forthcoming book 365 Ways to be More Stoic from John Murray Press.
Interview with author and CBT therapist, Donald Robertson
Sometimes we all feel a bit stuck. Perhaps you’re making no headway with an important project or task. Perhaps you’re just feeling stuck in general, when you think about your life as a whole. Some people get stuck and remain stuck for a long time. That can be the cause of a lot of suffering for them. It can also lead to other problems, such as through the wider and longer-term impact on their confidence, mental or physical health, work, studies, or their relationships with other people.
Some of us really struggle to get unstuck. However, there are others who cope well, and manage to get through periods of stuckness, and break free from them, relatively quickly or easily. So what are the crucial differences between those of us who cope badly with stuckness and those lucky souls who cope better? Donald got straight into a discussion of practical hints and tips, based on his clinical experience, and knowledge of practical philosophy.
I asked author and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, Donald Robertson, for his advice. Donald has been helping therapy clients and coaching all sorts of high-functioning professionals, helping them to get unstuck, for over two decades now. He’s the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including the recent best seller on Stoicism and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, published by St Martin’s Press. Donald got straight into a discussion of practical hints and tips, based on his clinical experience, and knowledge of practical philosophy. He focused on some of the techniques that have proven most helpful to his clients in the past. Here’s what he said…
Q: What are your favourite ways of helping people get unstuck?
Journaling for self-improvement is popular today but it builds on a tradition of moral self-examination that goes all the back to ancient Greece and Rome. This article describes a simple method of daily reflection, which was well-known in antiquity. It was first described in a poem called The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, based upon the doctrines of the famous 6th century BC philosopher. However, it was later assimilated into Stoicism, as we’ll see.
Arrian and Stoicism
The most famous Stoic teacher of all, Epictetus, wrote nothing. His words were transcribed and edited by a Roman citizen, called Arrian of Nicomedia, the capital city of Bithynia (in the northwest of modern-day Turkey). Arrian attended Epictetus’ lectures at Nicopolis in Greece, around 120 AD. He was later appointed senator, and reached the rank of consul, under the Emperor Hadrian, with whom he was most likely good friends.
Perhaps his success in life was helped by the use of Stoic philosophical exercises.
Later, around 131 AD, Hadrian appointed Arrian the governor of Cappadocia (in the northeast of modern-day Turkey). As such, he assumed command of a provincial army, consisting of two legions, Legio XII Fulminata and Legio XV Apollinaris, numbering approximately 20,000 men in total, including auxiliaries. Arrian was, indeed, a highly-accomplished Roman statesman and general, an expert on cavalry training and tactics. Perhaps his success in life was helped by the use of Stoic philosophical exercises.
Arrian became known as the second “Xenophon”, after a famous Athenian general and author who lived five centuries earlier. Xenophon was part of Socrates’ circle of friends and students, and left a collection of Socrates’ dialogues known as the Memorabilia Socratis. Arrian was also a prolific, erudite, and talented writer, who was clearly very interested in Epictetus’ philosophy. The relationship between him and Epictetus was like that between Xenophon and Socrates. Having transcribed eight volumes of the master’s discourses — only half of which survive — he acquired a very thorough understanding of Stoic teachings. Arrian also reputedly wrote twelve volumes of conversations with Epictetus and possibly even a biography of the philosopher, which are lost today.
In the Discourses, Arrian portrays Epictetus teaching a specific daily routine, which clearly lends itself to journaling (Discourses, 4.6). It’s a Stoic version of the method described in The Golden Verses of Pythagoras.
Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been. — Marcus Aurelius
When I was younger — in my mid-20s — I had a very strong, ego driven, sense of entitlement about my feelings. However, if you asked me to tell you about myself, I would have said that, of course, I was the most humble person you’d ever meet. I was deluding myself, though.
I remember being in a squabble back then with a family member, about some work I was doing for them. I told them: You know, it really hurts you would say that!
This wasn’t the first time I’d said this in response to a statement, a critique of my performance, based merely on opinion. I thought I was putting on my “big girl pants” by being honest about my feelings. I basked in the triumphant feeling of being vulnerable and transparent! Surely these were the behaviors of someone wise beyond their years! Such bravery!
Time projection can be an easy way to use cognitive therapy at home
I began practicing as a psychotherapist in the mid-1990s. I studied many different approaches. I used to train other therapists and became known as a psychological “techniques guy” because I was fascinated by the variety of psychological strategies and tactics we can learn.
You’ll find psychological techniques in books on psychotherapy, as well as in self-help books and even spiritual and philosophical classics. Each individual technique can be classified in different ways. For instance, is it broadly visual, meditative, cognitive, verbal, written, or behavioral in nature? Some are quite complex. Others are surprisingly easy to learn, and work pretty reliably — they often provide “easy wins” for therapists.
I’ll let you in on a trade secret. Most experienced psychotherapists know that one such easy win is what we call “time projection”. That’s the terminology used by early cognitive-behavioral therapists, although you’ll find similar techniques in lots of other types of books. Time projection is a vague term that refers to using your imagination to shift your perspective as if you’re in the future or the past. There many different ways of doing this. Some work better than others. Let me give you my favorite example…
What did Marcus Aurelius say about our reasons to be cheerful?
Live your whole life through free from all constraint and with utmost joy in your heart… — Meditations, 7.68
Many people assume that ancient Stoic philosophers such as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius were a grave and joyless lot. However, that’s a misconception. In fact, the Historia Augusta tells us that, despite his “serious and dignified” bearing as emperor, Marcus was “without gloom” and known for his pleasant and genial nature.
We can actually see direct evidence of this as the warmth of his affection for them truly shines forth in the private letters which survive between Marcus and his rhetoric tutor, and family friend, Fronto — such the charming letter Marcus sent Fronto on his birthday, for example. According to the historians, Marcus had a circle of long-standing friends who loved him very dearly, and based on his surviving correspondence that seems easy to imagine.
Marcus himself likewise refers to joy, cheerfulness, love, friendship, and other positive emotions throughout The Meditations, his notebook of personal philosophical reflections. He says, among other things, that he learned how to remain “cheerful when ill, or in the face of any other predicament”, from one of his Stoic mentors (1.5). Applying Stoicism to his own life, he tells himself to be unafraid of death and to meet his fate, not complaining, but “with a truly cheerful mind and grateful to the gods with all your heart” (2.3).
Elsewhere, he says that a good person is one who “loves and welcomes all that happens to him” and preserves the guardian spirit within him throughout life “in cheerful serenity, and following God” (3.16). Moreover, he does so by “living a simple, modest, and cheerful life”, free from anger, and accepting of his fate (3.16). Indeed, once he has grasped the right course of action in life he is to “follow it with a cheerful heart and never a backward glance” (10.12). So based on the evidence, Marcus was perceived as serious but never downcast by others, exhibited warmth and affection to his friends, and, in his private life, valued the cultivation of a cheerful philosophy of life.
In the fourth century BC, a giant was born among Athenian orators. When he spoke, it’s said his words struck listeners like the blazing thunderbolts of Zeus. And his name was… The Anus. Or rather, as a youth, the other children called him this, Batalus in Greek, because of his speech impediment, as Batalus could also mean “The Stammerer”.
His rivals continued to taunt him with that rude nickname for the rest of his life. However, there’s an inspirational story about how he overcame his vocal problems through the most rigorous, focused, and determined training. His real name was Demosthenes, and he was later described by Cicero as the one true master of the whole art of oratory.
If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a human being [a mortal] whom you are kissing, for thus when they die, you will not be disturbed. — Epictetus
This is of the most notorious passages in the ancient Stoic literature. It comes from the famous Encheiridion or Handbook (§ 3). Epictetus intended his advice to be taken literally, as basic psychological training for the students of Stoicism he was addressing.
He means that we should silently remind ourselves of the fact, when kissing our loved ones, that they are mortal. Nothing about them is immune to change, and eventually they’re going to die. Based on his comments elsewhere, incidentally, it seems unlikely that he meant we should expect not to be disturbed at all by the loss of a loved one. Rather he’s advising his students on how to increase their emotional resilience to loss by reducing their sense of attachment, within certain bounds.
In the same passage, he explains that this strategy should be applied in a very general way to anything we love or find pleasurable. We should pause to consider its true nature, avoid adding strong value judgements or emotive language, and just stick to the facts. We should love in accord with reason, by being brutally honest with ourselves. The facts are that the character of our loved ones may change over time, and one day they will be no more.
[Socrates] was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly. — Epictetus
Most people have heard of Socrates, the ancient Athenian philosopher. However, few of us visualize him as a soldier, despite the fact that it’s known for certain that he was one. Socrates served as a Greek hoplite or heavy infantryman. He was no ordinary soldier, though, as we’ll see.
I’m currently working on a graphic novel called Verissimus, about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. I’m also organizing a virtual conference called Stoicon-x Military, the first event of its kind. Individuals from different branches of the armed forces, in different countries, will be describing what Stoicism has taught them. The men and women I’ve worked with in the military are often fascinated by the fact that Socrates served as a hoplite but they’ve never actually seen this depicted. So I commissioned a team of artists to design a special poster for the event, showing Socrates in armour, which I’ll discuss in more detail below.
Social anxiety is the generic term that psychologists use to describe nerves about public speaking and other interpersonal situations. When I was a teenager, I was very anxious about speaking. I remember asking my older sister, Sheila, to call an employer for me about a job interview because I was too nervous to do it myself. Over the years, it got much better, but the susceptibility to that form of anxiety often never disappears completely.
Many years later, I trained as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist and ended up working with people suffering from a range of severe anxiety disorders, including what we call Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobia. I learned that there are many hundreds of scientific research studies on social anxiety that tell us how it works. Modern research has actually shown us how to treat social anxiety very effectively. However, it also shows that some very common self-help techniques can potentially do more harm than good.
One of the most well-established findings in the entire field of psychotherapy research is that most anxiety abates naturally, given the right conditions. For example, animal phobias are often considered the simplest and purest form of anxiety. If you take someone who has a snake phobia and throw them in a room with snakes what will happen to their heart rate? Within thirty seconds, it will approximately double, from about 70bpm to about 140bpm. But what happens next?
Most clients with severe anxiety will actually be temporarily stumped by that question. They want to say it will get worse, or some catastrophe will happen, although they realise that can’t be right. What goes up must come down. If they wait, their heart rate will normally start to reduce. So how long does that take? It normally takes anything from five to thirty minutes for heart rate to go from its peak level back down to something approaching the normal resting level.