Coffee Break philosophy self-improvement stoicism

171 – Beyond Fear

Beyond Fear

What scares us the most is our perception of events.

“A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”

— Seneca, Letters III

Fear is a powerful force in our lives. It can be the driver of action or inaction. Because it taps into the hard wiring of our lizard brains, it pushes us into reacting in ways that are more basic and instinctual. Fear makes it harder to use higher reasoning skills.

When we are afraid of something, we believe that something it going to hurt us. Usually, fear is triggered by something outside of ourselves. Whether we fear something physical, mental, or emotional, our perception and thoughts around what is happening causes the fear that we feel.

When we are afraid, our ability to make rational decisions is diminished. Depending on the severity of the situation, we may react actions that in the short term may feel like we are protecting ourselves, but in the long term can cause a lot more problems. If we feel truly threatened we may shift into survival mode, “fight, fight, or freeze”.


Anger is the outward expression of fear. When someone is angry they are usually trying to control a situation or another person. In the case of a physical danger, anger might scare away a threat. In an argument it might be used to try and bring someone into compliance.

Fear is such a powerful force, it is used in politics to try and control others and sway elections. By creating fear though rhetoric meant to amplify real or perceived threats, people are less likely to use higher reasoning skills, and act on their baser instinct. Current and past problems are blamed on some “other” group. Tales of imagined future catastrophes are used to spur followers into action against this “enemy”. Whether it’s claiming a stolen election or losing jobs to immigrants, by stoking up fear, their followers become easier to manipulate. People can become so fearful they can be easily influenced into taking actions that they normally would never do.


Recently, I’ve come to the realization that many of my choices and actions come from a place of fear. The more I pay attention to it, the more I see how it influences the things I do and say, and the things I don’t. I see how many of my habits are in place just to avoid something uncomfortable. I often, unconsciously, make a decision based upon what someone else might think of me. I may avoid doing or saying something just to avoid conflict. This is where a lot of my people pleasing comes from. I’m afraid if I don’t behave or act a certain way, then they won’t like me.

If you’re like me, you may have a low level of anxiety that colors most things. Because of my upbringing of always worrying about any misstep, I’m always on alert for the other shoe to drop. Filtered through the lens of anxiety, I can find something wrong in any situation. This kind of thinking is very unconscious, and I usually don’t notice that I’m in a state of vigilance, ready for any threat. A situation will arise where I feel threatened and have a strong reaction, which at the time seemed appropriate. But once things calm down, I can see that I had an outsized reaction to the situation.

So how do we manage our fear? How do we minimize it’s impact on us? How can we begin to get control over this powerful emotion so that in the midst of it, we can choose to be intentional with our response, rather than simply react?

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions, not outside.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Fear is the result of our thinking. When a situation comes along, we project what we think the outcome will be and if we judge that it is positive, we’re generally going to be happy. But if we decide that the likely outcome is negative, we might feel upset. Our mood has been changed by something that hasn’t even happened!

Some of us get stuck agonizing over things that happened in the past. We worry about something that cannot be changed, and can be held hostage by something that can no longer affect us, except in the inner world of our minds.

Because fear is created by our perceptions of things, we can learn how to change our perceptions. We can train ourselves to look at things in a different way. We can decide what thoughts are useful, and which ones trap us in a prison of our own making. When you have control of your thinking, you recognize the patterns and thoughts that create your fears, can you choose new and more helpful ones.

The first step of reducing the fear in our lives is to remember that fear is created by the thoughts in your head, not by a real thing. I cannot stress the importance of this idea. Any time you feel fear or anxiety, instead of looking outwards for the cause, look inwards to your thoughts.

The next step to changing our perceptions is developing the skill of awareness. We need to become observers of how we think. It is estimated that the average person has around 60,000 thoughts a day. Most of us go throughout our day without thinking too much about what thoughts we are having. To pay attention to every thought that we have is not really a possibility.

Our society is not set up in a way that we can easily slow down and take stock of how we are thinking. We have constant and unending distractions around us. Even when we have a spare moment where we could spend some time noticing what is happening in our minds, we instead opt for looking at our phones to catch up on twitter or Facebook or the latest TikTok, which take us out of our present situation and take us somewhere far away.

This kind of mindfulness takes patience and training. The two most practical tools of mindfulness have been with us for thousands of years – meditation and journaling. In fact, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is his journal.

Many people tend to shy away from meditating. I often hear from others how hard it is to mediate. Sitting quietly with your thoughts can feel strangely uncomfortable. I myself find it difficult to do more than 15 minutes at a time. For many, the idea of meditation is sitting on the floor trying to clear thoughts from your mind. What has helped for me is to do a meditation practice where I try to become very aware of my body, my sensations, and my thoughts. I focus on my breathing to recenter myself when my mind has wandered away from observing my thoughts, and following my thoughts.

There’s also what it called walking or active meditation. This is where you focus very intently on some task that you are working on. Whether that is washing the dishes, working in the garden, or going for a run. Just try to be as present as possible. Focus your attention on what’s around you. Focus on the dish or the tool in your hand. Focus on the feeling of your foot landing and pushing off the road. This type of practice helps us move from just “seeing” what’s going on to “observing” what’s going on. When we become more mindful, we stay more in the present. We stay out of the past and the future.

Journaling is another way to get in touch with the constant flow of thoughts in your mind. In The Artist’s Way, author Julie Cameron recommends what she calls Morning Pages. The basic ideas is to write three pages in a stream of consciousness, with no real topic or goal in mind. With no judgment or goal, you are free to explore what thoughts are appearing and leaving.

You either are active participant in your life, or you are being acted upon.

Once you become more aware of the thoughts in your mind, you can start to choose what you want your observations to mean. You can decide how you want to respond to a situation. If you don’t actively choose your judgements and responses, you end up just reacting to the things happening around you. You either are active participant in your life, or you are being acted upon.

But what about things in the past? Since these are things that happened and can’t be changed, how can you make an active choice to do something? You can decide to reinterpret what those things mean. You can decide if the hard or painful thing in the past was a terrible thing that happened to you, or that it was a difficult situation that you figured out how to get through. You can look at your scars as something ugly, or you can look at them as battle wounds that you earned. It’s all about how you decide to look at it. You give it meaning.

When it comes to things in the future, we start to recognize the futility of worrying about what may happen. Most of the futures we imagine will not happen. This isn’t to say that we should completely ignore what may happen, or to prepare for emergencies that can arise. It does mean we don’t need to obsess over all the possible outcomes or only focus on that possible negative ones. By learning how to manage our thinking better, and staying out of that place of fear, we can make better decisions that may help bring about the future that we want.

Learning how to manage our thinking and recognizing that we are the ones that create our fear, we can decide to interpret things in a more positive way. This doesn’t mean that we are naive or overly optimistic. We want to be sure that we see reality for what it is. But it does mean that we can choose if we view something as a difficult and fearful thing, or a challenge that we can learn from and grow stronger.

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Coffee Break self-improvement stoicism

170 – Boundaries


Today I want to talk about how Stoicism can help us set healthy boundaries. Learning how to set healthy boundaries is not easy. I was never really taught how to do this, and so I’ve been learning how to do this over the last few years, and honestly, it’s been a challenge.

“To achieve freedom and happiness, you need to grasp this basic truth: some things in life are under your control, and others are not.”

– Epictetus

The first and most important teaching of Stoicism is that there are things that we control, and things we cannot and that we should focus on the things that we can control and let go of the rest. This seems like a very clear concepts, but is one of the hardest things to master. Truly understanding and taking responsibility for the things that you can control is hard. It is much easier to blame our misfortunes and unhappiness on things outside of ourselves. But every time we do this, we allow ourselves to become a victim, and come no closer to solving the issue we’re dealing with.

But how do we deal with things that we can’t control, but have a big impact on us? For example, we can’t control what other people do or say. Does this mean that we have to just let them do what they are going to do and just live with however their actions impact us? I think that Stoicism gives us some tools to handle these situations.

First lets talk about what a boundary is. A boundary is a clear statement about what your actions will be in a given situation. It is letting the other person know what you will do. It is not telling someone else what to do. Setting a boundary is not the same as an ultimatum.

When we set boundaries we are acting on the things that we control, namely, what we say and what we do. We let others know how we will respond in a given situation. We don’t tell others what to do, because that is not within our control.

This is really hard for most of us to do. We want to control the things and people around us. But when we try to control others, we are not taking responsibility for the things that we can control. We often try to do this through all kinds of ways – manipulation, coercion, threats, ultimatums. All of which are trying to control the actions of others, most of which generally fail.

Why is it important to set healthy boundaries? Figuring out your boundaries helps you understand what you want, and how you want to be treated. It is a way for you to define your values. It is how you stand up for yourself. Setting boundaries is how you let other people know how you want to be treated. It improves relationships because you let the other person know how they can respect and support you.

Setting boundaries, especially where you haven’t before, can be very challenging. Often when you start to set boundaries with people that weren’t there before, there is resistance. The other person might get upset because they like how things are. They might try to test the boundaries that you have set up, which is why it is important that you hold your boundaries. Maintaining your boundaries is how you respect and take care of yourself.

How do we set healthy boundaries?

There are a few steps to creating healthy boundaries.

First define what is acceptable behavior. Decide what things uphold your values and what things do not. Decide what you will and won’t put up with.

Second, decide what action you will take in response. Remember, this is about you and your actions. It is not telling the other person what they have to do.

Third, communicate this boundary to the other person. You don’t have to explain yourself. You don’t have to justify why you are setting this boundary. You have the right to determine what you do and do not want to do. Also, remember that this is not an ultimatum, but a statement of what your actions will be.

Fourth, hold up your end of the bargain and take action when necessary.

In some cases, setting a boundary is as simple as saying “no”. Whether in relationships at work, or with family and friends, a clear and concise no is often the best way to create healthy relationships. It lets others know how they can respect your space and time. Remember, you do not have to explain yourself. For some people this is hard, and as a recovering people pleaser, doubly so. We each have the right to determine what we will or won’t do.

Sometimes setting and maintaining boundaries is a little more involved. Lets say you have friend who frequently gets drunk whenever you go out together and it bothers you. When they’re drunk, they get loud and obnoxious. Maybe it’s led to some uncomfortable situations. Setting a clear boundary would be letting them know that if they continue to get drunk when you are out together that you will excuse yourself and head home.

In this case, you made it clear what actions you will take in that situation. You did not tell your friend that they have to stop drinking. You just make it clear what you will do. The next time you are out with your friend, and they decide to get drunk, you politely but firmly excuse yourself.

The last aspect I want to discuss is making sure that we respect the boundaries of others. When someone else has set a boundary, do we acknowledge it and to our best we respect it? Do we try to persuade or talk them out of it? Do we get frustrated and try to bully them? Recognizing and respecting the boundaries of others is a clear recognition that we can’t control other people.

Learning how to set boundaries is a process of defining your values, and understanding your value. It is how you let others know how you want to be treated. Think of it as creating a guide book to you.

Coffee Break philosophy self-improvement stoicism

169 – Why Do You Care What Others Think?

Why Do You Care What Others Think?
Why do you care what other people think?

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”

– Marcus Aurelius

“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius warned us worrying about the opinion of others is a waste of time. But, if we live with other people and are social animals, shouldn’t we worry about what others think?

No, because what others think doesn’t change the intrinsic value of who or what is being judged. It’s just a thought in their mind. That is all.

While this is an easy concept to grasp, it is a hard thing to implement. From the day we’re born we seek the approval of other. Our parents and family at home. Our teachers at school. Our friends and co-workers. We all want to be liked.

But does someone’s opinion of us change our intrinsic value? Does someone else’s thoughts make us a better or worse person? No, it doesn’t. What other people think doesn’t have any bearing on whether you are a good or bad person. Whether you have value or not.

So what happens if we stop worrying about what other people think?

We save ourselves a lot of stress. We focus on how well we’re are doing in our personal growth. We stop worrying about what other people are doing with their lives. We stop focusing on the faults of others. We don’t worry about who others think we should be. We focus on becoming the person we want to be.

Because in the end, you’re the one that chooses who you are. You’re the only one who can decide who you want to be. If someone disapproves of you, or doesn’t like you, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change who you are.

Now, does this mean that we should completely ignore the opinions of others? No it doesn’t. I know that I just got done telling you the opinions of other shouldn’t matter to you, but we should listen to others to see if there are any facts or truth to what they have to say.

So how do we do this? How do we listen to the opinion of others, but not let the sway of it impact us? If someone disparages us, how do we let it go? If someone praises us how do we not let it go to our heads?

We do this by being curious. We listen for what is fact, and what is opinion. We leave the opinion for the other person. We verify the facts and use them to our benefit. We try to find the data, so that we can learn from it.

Let’s take an example. If you’re singing a song at a performance, and afterwards you overhear someone mention they didn’t like your performance. Should you be offended? Does it change your value? Does it change the performance? No.

Now let’s say that you go up to this person and ask them why they didn’t like your performance. They may mention something like the prefer a different kind of voice for that song. Maybe they didn’t like the style it was played in. Maybe it was their exes favorites song and it brings up bad memories for them. Most of these things are just their opinion. All of them are things that you cannot change.

But, if they were to tell you that a few notes were  flat, or you flubbed some of the lyrics in the second verse, these are factual things that you can verify. These are things that you can do something about. You can practice those tricky passages. You can work on memorizing the lyrics. In this case, you should be grateful for their feedback because others may not feel comfortable being that honest with you.

Learning to separate fact from opinion is a very powerful skill but it something that most of us are not very good at, but there are some ways that you can practice this. The next time you’re watching the news, pull out a sheet of paper, and split it in the middle into two columns. Label one column facts, and the other opinions. Pay attention to what the speaker says and write down which things are facts and which are opinions. Also notice how many things they state as facts but really are just opinions.

When you start to master this, try this in a conversation with someone. Think about what you are saying. Which things are facts and which are opinions?  How about the other person?

The buddhist’s teach that all suffering is caused by attachment. Attaching our self worth to the opinions of others is a way to truly suffer. It gives the other person control over you, and you become a victim. Learning how to let go of the opinions of others gives you the strength to stay true to your core values.

philosophy self-improvement stoicism

168 – Self Acceptance

Self Acceptance
The relationship you have with yourself is the most important one of your life.

“Equanimity is the voluntary acceptance of the things which are assigned to thee by the common nature.”

– Marcus Aurelius

How often do we hold ourselves back because of our inner critic? What if instead we practiced self acceptance, and treated ourselves like we treat a good friend – with honesty, kindness, and forgiveness? The relationship you have with yourself is the most important one of your life.

In today’s episode we talk a look at how we can stop being our own worst enemy, and how being a friend to yourself helps you grow into the person you want to be.