Modern research on therapy often begins with some form of self-monitoring, such as a record sheet in which you note down your thoughts, actions, and feelings in separate columns, in response to upsetting situations. You may wish to employ a similar method if you have time and you’re experiencing difficult feelings such as worry or anger, etc. However, for the purposes of this study, we’re going to recommend that most people employ one of the very simplest approaches used today: keeping a simple count or tally. Epictetus actually told his students to do something similar, keeping a count from day to day of the number of times when feelings such as anger became a problem for them (Discourses, 2.18).
You might do this by literally keeping a tally in your diary, on a piece of card, or your mobile phone. Some people like to use a mechanical or electronic counter, concealed in their pocket, such as those used by doormen, golfers, or knitters. An added bonus with this somewhat minimalist approach to self-monitoring is that it’s more confidential. Even if someone else saw your tally, they would probably have no idea what it meant unless they knew what you were counting.
What should you count? Anything you might want to change, basically. Epictetus’ advice was to keep a tally of what the Stoics called the “passions”, which includes both unhealthy emotions and desires. You might also want to record whenever you engage in some “bad” habit or external behaviour that you want to change, including things you say aloud or even things you fail to do.
- How many times you notice yourself becoming upset at anything, in general.
- Starting to worry or fretting about some worst-case scenario in the future.
- Ruminating about the past or getting depressed.
- Feeling your anger rising, becoming irritated or annoyed.
- Experiencing an urge or craving that you want to overcome, such as for chocolate or cigarettes.
- Beginning to engage in a habit you want to break, like fingernail biting, or compulsively apologising.
- Getting anxious, nervous, or physically tense.
- Saying something inappropriate, negative, overly-apologetic, submissive, or hostile to someone else.
- Avoiding saying or doing something, or failing to do something properly, such as failing to be assertive.
This is a useful way of measuring your progress. However, there’s also a more subtle and potentially more important reason for keeping count in this way. It will often help you develop greater self-awareness and detachment, particularly if you manage to spot undesirable habits at the earliest possible stage, before they have a chance to develop. Catching habits early makes it easier to “nip them in the bud”, sometimes just by choosing to mentally “take a step back”, as we’ll see later. We call this spotting the “early-warning signs” of unhealthy emotions or behaviour and gaining psychological “distance” from them. You’ve been practicing viewing your own experiences from a detached, objective perspective during the “mindfulness” exercise this week. Approach keeping your tally in a similar way. Each time you notice something and add it to the count, pause for a few moments and view it as if you were an impartial scientist calmly studying and recording someone else’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. Research shows that when approached carefully and systematically, self-monitoring of this kind can, all by itself, reduce the frequency and intensity of emotional distress and bad habits. This part of the training should also take virtually no time as it’s very quick and easy to keep a simple tally. In fact, if you find yourself reducing the time spent worrying or engaging in bad habits, then you’ll almost certainlysave a lot of time each day.
Modern therapists might advise clients to spot the early-warning signs of anger and to take a “time-out” rather than “acting out” their feelings through aggressive behaviour. The Stoics often gave very similar advice. For example, the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, reputedly had anger-management problems and was counseled by his Stoic tutor Athenodorus: “Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the [Greek] alphabet.”
This sort of strategy is often misused as as a way of trying to suppress feelings, though, which is something you should be careful to avoid doing. Accept the presence of your feelings or bad habits, with “indifference”, but pause, and take a step back from them rather than going along with them and allowing yourself to act on them impulsively.
If you think you’d benefit from a more detailed self-monitoring technique, try the one we developed for Stoic Week 2013, based on modern Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). There’s a Stoic Self-Monitoring Record Sheet you can download and print, which will help you monitor your individual thoughts, actions and feelings, and the relationship between them.
Free Email Course
Sign up today for our free email course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on this classic Stoic text.