A little Stoicism for the PROGDK
This article republished with kind courtesy of Stoic Mom from her substack. The original post can be found at Stoicmom.substack.com
Maybe it’s time to explain the newsletter name choice: StoicMom. Over the last few years, I noticed (because it kept coming up both online and in real life) that Stoicism was making a comeback. True to my nature, I decided to research what it meant to practice Stoicism and realized that many of the concepts overlapped easily with those of positive psychology and intentional living–the purview of life coaches. I realized that I’d developed some basic Stoic practices already though I’d certainly let my practices slip and was pretty rusty at some of them. It’s so important to understand both the concept and the importance of practice.
In fact, let’s start here. Again, maybe you already know this, but I’m going to assume you’re a beginner and explain anyway. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we can take charge of our experience. Our quality of life is dependent on our practices. And new practices are effortful. BUT, if you establish the practices, then while something might temporarily knock you off course and cause you to lose interest or even the will to engage in your practices, you’ll find it easier to return to them–especially if they’ve worked for you in the past.
When we consciously practice something, we are rewiring our brain. Creating “muscle memory” if you will. Establishing and strengthening new neural pathways. This brings me to the most basic Stoic principle: understanding what you have control over and what you don’t. You do not have control over external circumstances. You do have control over how you respond to them and you can develop a practice of recognizing this and making conscious choices. Sound familiar? The Serenity Prayer, maybe? In the unlikely case you’ve not heard this prayer, the simplest version goes like this:
(Lord) Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change The courage to change the things I can And the wisdom to know the difference
The idea is basic yet it has the power to make or break your quality of life. (Am I gonna do that obnoxious “two kinds of people”, thing? Yeah, I’m doin’ it.) There are two kinds of people: those who take responsibility for their experience and those who are victims of circumstance. Here’s the deal though, or at least my theory. Maybe some people are just naturally wired to understand this and from earliest consciousness feel in control of their experience, but I suspect this isn’t the case, or if it is, it’s very rare. From what I’ve witnessed, these two types of people are on different sides of a threshold of understanding. And that liminal space in between is typically dark…and scary. There are very real threats. Though sometimes these dangers are more a matter of perception. Our perceptions do shape our reality and provide evidence for our worldview–more on this further on in this essay.
What I’m describing now is the disintegration that inspires a person to move through the legitimately frightening liminal space. Not everyone makes it. Some retreat, some descend into madness or addiction, but those who dig deep for the inner resources to push through are rewarded with a life-changing awareness that those who don’t cross that scary space can’t even imagine. Because now they understand the power of that basic principle described in the Serenity Prayer. Ancient Stoics were clearly already onto this:
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” -Marcus Aurelius
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” -Epictetus
My first disintegration was in my mid-twenties. I would say the dangers then were more of the perceived nature but the liminal space was indeed dark and terrifying. I felt it physically: the fear, the uncertainty, the lack of skills to deal with what was happening and embrace a different way. I had managed to find ways to avoid growing up, mostly by hiding in unhealthy relationships, and I finally had mustered up the courage to break away, on my own, single for the first time since 15. The maturity that typically takes hold around the age of 25 happened, not in a slow, incremental way like we typically expect during adolescent development, but concentrated—the analogy that comes to mind is the mess that happens in the chrysalis. Ugly and unformed, painful. The major awareness when I emerged? I, and only I, can be in charge of my experience. And the awareness certainly helped, but it wasn’t quite enough...
Life was definitely much better once on the other side of what I refer to as the big “Aha!” and I proceeded through the next few years with exhilarating abandon, but I still needed the practices. It took years to figure those out and establish them. I consider myself “growth-oriented” but there were many false starts, alluring paths that took me off course, dark and confusing times that made me doubt myself and my choices; yet, I did manage to pick up some tools along the way:
This one is known as the “Self Coaching Model.” The acronym to help you remember how it works is CTFAR.
You can click on the image to get a more thorough description, but briefly:circumstances are external and observable facts. They are neutral until we assign meaning to them with our thoughts. The thoughts we have about the external circumstances create feelings for us which we then act on. The results of our actions (which can manifest as external circumstances for others) tend to reinforce our thoughts and keep us in a (negative) loop. OR, we can consciously change our thoughts (reframe) and create new, positive loops that reinforce our more intentional and productive responses to external circumstances. Other models would argue that feelings precede our thoughts. I’m inclined to agree (and maybe more on this another day. It’s important for that in-the-moment analysis I describe here,) but the point of sharing this tool with you is to help you take control over the only part you really can: your response to the external circumstances Life hands you.
So, now it’s time to introduce you to a couple more concepts valued and practiced by ancient Stoics: Reframing and gratitude which I believe go hand in hand, and you’ll soon see, work really well with the CTFAR Self-Coaching Model.
I wasn’t always able to reframe so easily. In fact, I think I’m naturally wired to be critical and have spent much of my life having ridiculously high expectations for myself and for how my family was supposed to be. I’m grateful that I’d already done some work here before the Trans ID landed in my home. See that? This gratitude reframe is now wired into my brain because I consciously practiced it–funny how when you get good at it, you can spin almost anything in a way that brings you gratitude. So for me, gratitude and reframing are intertwined as one incredibly powerful and healing Stoic practice.
I used to practice this…hmm. I may need to introduce another really powerful practice that you may have already discovered: walking. Solvitur Ambulando: it is solved through walking. We’ll see if this actually belongs in this essay–it probably deserves its own. I know for me, an incredible amount of healing and discovery occurs for me when I am outside, moving my body through my neighborhood or hiking the trails behind my Smalltown, MT home. This is also how I found myself consciously practicing the reframe. I’d set out with the intent of allowing my brain to do its thing, and I would catch myself rehashing everything frustrating or difficult in my life. I started consciously reframing–looking for the gratitude angle.
You really can do this with anything, if you’re so inclined. It might even seem inappropriate at times, but I would argue that you may want to consider doing it anyway. For instance, I’m grateful for the tragedies that befell my family. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But remember that liminal space? It’s maybe in the darkest of times that this is most important. Let me explain:
The referenced tragedies help me appreciate my own imperfect but functioning body and its role in how I experience this Life. They have also strengthened the bonds I have with my mother and siblings and contributed to the deeply loving community we share. These losses have fostered resilience in us, showing us what we’re capable of surviving. Does this mean I’m glad my brother suffered with and eventually died of multiple sclerosis? Of course not! But I allow myself to recognize and appreciate how much easier my life is compared to his inconceivably painful and paraplegic experience that kept him confined in a nursing home for the last few years of his short life. It helps me put my own challenges into perspective, recognizing that everyone has their own set of problems and mine may not be as terrible as it sometimes seem to me. He was also a shining example of someone who understood how delicious it is to be alive and who responded to the seemingly cruel circumstances Life handed him by remaining in good humor and forming deep, meaningful relationships with the caregivers that he inspired daily to go out of their way to be in his company and help him be as comfortable as possible. And I think he’d be okay with me finding gratitude in this way, a way that encourages a healthy relationship with tragedy and inspires a higher quality of life for his loved ones (of which there are many who survived him) and the numerous caregivers whose lives he also touched.
So, maybe let’s run this through the Self Coaching Model of CTFAR as an example. Circumstances: my brother had multiple sclerosis of the primary (and rapidly) progressive variety and after years of decline, far beyond what it was expected he could survive, he died of complications. Many might find it hard to argue these are neutral circumstances, but let’s say I spun them negative. I could feel incredibly resentful and angry at the Universe or God or whatever for the thought of being robbed of my amazing brother at such a young age (he had just turned 47 when he died in 2020.) It’s certainly understandable to assign value to these circumstances as “cruel and unfair.” I can’t imagine anyone faulting me if I were to seek comfort (action) through self-medication with alcohol or sleeping aids. Then when my own health declined as a result, I would have evidence of my assessment of this cruel and unfair world. See how this works? And compare this response to what I described in the previous paragraph where I spun the same circumstance through the gratitude lens. What a different experience! See how it comes down to the meaning we assign to the circumstances? This is the part where we can consciously take control; the meaning we assign is totally ours to decide—as long as we recognize we have this power. And, of course, it takes practice.
Let’s now put the situation with my TransIDed daughter through the model. Circumstance: my typically developing teenage daughter adopts a trans identity. My thoughts were that I’d failed to protect her, that the world had turned her against me, that I should have more carefully monitored her tech use, that I’d made so many parenting mistakes. The feelings attached were impotence and desperate fear. Keep in mind, I was already a life coach at this point but this circumstance really shook me. What I discovered through my research (action) led quickly to disintegration (result), reinforcing my thoughts of impotence and feelings of desperation and driving me to interact with her in a fearful way.
This disintegration, as disintegrations will do, ripped away the foundations I had worked so consciously to construct. I found myself questioning everything again. Luckily, I’d experienced disintegration before. I discovered the theory and could see it was happening again. I still wasn’t sure I had the capacity to move through it.
(I think many parents I encounter who share these circumstances are stuck here. I was stuck here for quite awhile. Even as I consciously knew I needed to pull it together, I didn’t feel capable. I think for some, this is undoing them. And it’s understandable! And I’m not judging anyone. I just want those who’d rather do something different to know it’s possible. And that it’s okay. It’s okay for you to continue to enjoy your quality of life even as you have a child who is suffering with something really painful with potentially scary outcomes. In fact, maybe that’s what they need from you.)
So I started looking for what I could be grateful for. I could recognize that nearly all families with adolescents have their own problem set. Puberty is hard! Remember? At least I didn’t need to worry about teen pregnancy or STDs for my girl who seemed to be using her colorful identity to avoid all that awkward and risky sex stuff. She also wasn’t abusing substances or breaking curfew or any of the really risky behaviors I was doing at her age. In fact, it seemed this trans identity was a way to opt completely out of the riskiest of adolescent tendencies. Of course, we all know, the identity comes with its own risks but I was upfront, right out of the gate, that we would not be allowing any medicalization while she was still a minor. We had some time.
The more I looked for ways to be grateful, the more I found. If I’m going to be totally honest, this circumstance with our daughter may have saved my family. My husband and I were struggling in our marriage with little hope of mending our seemingly irreconcilable differences. Early on in the discovery of the transID, I said to him, “This could be the thing that finally rips us apart or we could use it to heal us.” I’m happy to report that we’re more solid in our relationship than we’ve ever been. The communication skills I set out to develop have helped me not only have a unique closeness with my daughter, but have so clearly benefited my relationships with my husband and son as well. The self-compassion that I determined to model for my daughter has brought more peace to my mind and, in turn, my home.
One of the most famous Stoics, Marcus Aurelius said:
Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
While I had already developed practices that had improved my quality of life, this journey with my daughter, along with the losses my family of origin experienced simultaneously, derailed me for awhile. Disintegration is real! I am certainly not encouraging you to stuff your feelings so you can keep plowing forward. The tragic deaths of these men in my family were deeply painful. The grieving process is important; allowing those excruciating emotions to happen in the company of loved ones who are sharing in your grief is also part of the richness of life and not to be avoided in attempts to feel happy (or nothing) at all times.
I also had to grieve the hopes and expectations I had for my daughter’s adolescence. I had to do the work of mothers who realize their children have adopted different worldviews. Coming to the understanding that I can’t control my kids’ outcomes and they have to do the painful work of growing up was incredibly difficult–and necessary. I have to laugh at how, through my journey as an educator, I already understood this–but the practice of letting go and allowing continues to challenge me. Once again, the awareness came long before the practice. I can now recognize when I may be too attached to an outcome over which I have no true control. I can quickly assess the fear in my body and remind myself that this isn’t my work to do. Yet if I can shift my energy, I may be able to offer my child some helpful wisdom. She’s more likely to hear and consider it if she’s getting the vibe that I believe in her and that I am not going to try to force the outcome I want for her. To do otherwise is to push her in the direction I don’t want her to go, right into the arms of the “bad boyfriend.”
I would imagine many readers already understand all this. I would also imagine many readers aren’t interested in this approach. As I mentioned, it is effortful. I think there are also families that believe that their children’s pain has to be their pain too, or that they must continue to attempt control over their adult children’s outcomes. I like to think of things in terms of whether they’re working for you or not. Is your approach (or unconscious habits) adaptive or maladaptive? Sometimes a certain way of doing things is adaptive for a time, but then stops working for you. How do you know if it’s time to try something different? I would encourage you to ask yourself that question: Is what you’re doing working for you? I think you’ll know the answer. If it’s not, now what?
Life sometimes hands us what seems like unbearable situations. These external circumstances are opportunities. Your practices will determine whether those circumstances “make or break” you. For many, it’s in the deep darkness brought on by (the meaning we attach to) the circumstances that inspires us to do the work, to adopt practices that give us more control over the quality of experience we’re having. “The Obstacle is the Way.” Humans are naturally resilient creatures; we’re wired for survival. We can’t control what happens in our lives, but we get to decide how we respond. It is in these difficult times that we learn what we’re made of.
It’s funny. Parenting a transIDed teen has made me a better human. I’ve learned how to be a more conscious communicator; I’ve identified and dealt with a lot of my own psychic baggage, and have, as a result (mostly I hope?) stopped projecting my own junk onto my kids; I’ve developed much more self-compassion which in turn allows me to have more compassion for others and their human journeys; I’ve come to truly appreciate the richness that is Life and I don’t expect comfort to last too long, because the human spirit didn’t evolve for that.
So, yes. I am grateful for this journey with my daughter. She remains my teacher and my inspiration. She demands that I walk my talk. I can’t control how she will respond to Life but I can model Stoic practices for her and my life will be better for it. I’ll heal myself through parenting her.
Grant me the serenity…