External impressions can be deceiving. What often appears to be harsh or unfavorable is usually just that…an appearance. Furthermore, we often create these false appearances for ourselves through faulty reasoning.
An example of this is often provided in the story of a sudden wave that is about to capsize a boat in the sea. A sailor on the boat may look at the incoming wave and state that “This wave will envelop the boat and I will drown.” Another sailor on the boat may also comment that the incoming wave will overtake the boat and drown the passengers, but also indicate that “This is a bad thing.” The first sailor is observing the event and facing the moment without fear and panic. The second sailor chooses to lament and curse the universe for their bad luck.
Stoic philosophy provides us guidance in these areas, specifically the writings of Epictetus. In some of his works, he asks us to develop a stoic approach by self-monitoring and focusing on mindfulness throughout the day. Specifically, Epictetus reminds us to constantly examine our “impressions.”
Identifying your impressions
By “impressions”, he is referring to our initial reactions to events, people, and what we are being told. We should step back to make room for rational deliberation and avoid rash emotional reactions. We should ask whether the trials and tribulations being thrown against us are under our control, or whether we have no impact on them. If they’re under our control, we should act upon them. If they are not, we should ultimately discount them and regard it as not of our concern.
Epictetus says as follows in Handbook, 1.5:
Practise, then, from the very beginning to say to every rough impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by the standards that you have, and first and foremost by this one, whether the impression relates to those things which are within our power or those which aren’t up to us; and if it relates to those things which aren’t within our power, be ready to reply, ‘That’s nothing to me’.
In this Epictetus is suggesting that we train ourselves to avoid being carried away in our own thoughts and feelings. Once again, under extreme duress, there is the sentiment that something is “nothing to me.”
To achieve this balance and avoid errors in our judgement, it is suggested that we “examine our impressions.” That is to say that we should examine and problematize our impressions, or thoughts, feelings, and sensations. In short, routinely problematize your perceptions about the world and your place in it.
Making this happen
To make this happen, it may help to employ some aspect of “cognitive distancing.” In this psychological strategy you need to step back from your own reality, and examine your life and world from a distance.
We see this at times from great athletes or military figures that indicate that they can mentally step back from the field and see all of the pawns on the board and how they intersect. I believe this mental strategy may come with time, experience, and self-efficacy.
In this we have an opportunity to challenge negative patterns of thinking and the socially constructed narratives that we set for ourselves. By examining our impressions, we can regularly interrogate our own thinking and perspectives to ensure that we’re experiencing reality.
As you encounter strong impressions, have an immediate response of “An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.” You can then test and assess this statement with various criteria by asking “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?” If your responses is that it is not one of the things that you control, your quick response should be “Then it’s none of my concern.”
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