Do your opinions get in your way? Do your opinions cause issues in your relationships? What would happen if you weren’t so attached to your opinions? Today I want to talk about why we should be willing to let go of attachments to our opinions and how doing so can help you live a happier life.
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
— Marcus Aurelius
“Be disentangled from all perceptions. They are not you.”
— Brian Thompson
The stoics talk a lot about how our opinions are one of the things that cause us the most stress in our lives, and that we can, at any point, choose to not have an opinion about something. Now what exactly does this mean? I mean, the stoics seemed to have some pretty strong ideas about what life is about and how to live. Is this is ironic? Does it mean the stoic are wrong?
When the stoics talk about having an opinion on something, they recognized that an opinion is just our perspective on something. It is not something that is a fact. The problem is that we often treat them like facts, and get so attached to them that we’re willing to end friendships, and exclude people from our lives because they don’t hold the same opinions as we do.
"It is not things themselves that disturb people, but their judgments about those things."
First, lets talk about the different kinds of opinions that we have, and some of the downsides to each of them.
Opinions are often judgments that we have about something. Usually these are based on some experience we have which cause us to form an opinion around something. While taking time to judge things properly is important, we need to be careful that we don’t make sweeping judgments or fall into black and white thinking. For example, we might see some bad behavior by someone and make a judgement that they are a bad person without knowing the whole context of a situation.
“Opinion is the enemy of reason. We prefer the plausible to the true.”
Beliefs are simple strongly held opinions. It is not something that is based on facts, because if it were based on facts, then it wouldn’t be something that you would need to believe in. Often, we will justify our opinion on something by claiming that it is something that we “believe”, but this doesn’t make it any less of an opinion, or immune from scrutiny. In fact, I think that it’s highly important that we examine the things that we claim as beliefs. Any time someone claims that they “believe” something, just remember that they are simply sharing their opinion.
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”
— Marcus Aurelius
I also want to differentiate between something that is a principle versus something that is an opinion. Generally speaking, a principle is a fundamental, foundational value that guides our actions. An opinion, on the other hand, is a specific idea or view about something that may or may not be based on a principle.
In other words, a principle is like the foundation of a house, while opinions are the different rooms and decorations that can change over time. You may hold a principle of treating others with kindness, but have opinions about what kindness means in different situation. We may also have opinions that do not necessarily reflect any deeper principles, such as having an opinion about whether pineapple belongs on pizza, which of course it does.
Another key differentiation of principles and opinions is that principles tend to be focused on things that are in our control, like our own thoughts and actions, while opinions might be more focused on things that are outside of our control, like what others think or do.
“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”
— Marcus Aurelius
So why do people hold onto and defend their opinions so strenuously?
Often, people defend their opinions because they are afraid of being wrong or looking foolish. The insecurity that comes from being wrong about something can drive people to defend their opinions, even if their opinion is unhelpful, damaging, or downright wrong.
Another reason why people feel such a strong attachment to their opinions that they want to feel certain about how they view the world. The world is a complex and confusing place that is not easy to understand or make sense of. For some, ambiguity and uncertainty are very uncomfortable, and so they look to find answers that make sense to them to reduce their anxiety. Often these ideas are not well thought out, but they speak to the persons preconceived ideas of how things are, so they latch onto them.
Another key idea in Stoicism is to recognize the role that emotions play in shaping our opinions. When we're attached to an opinion, it's often because we're feeling a strong emotion like anger, fear, or pride. If we can take a step back and try to identify the underlying emotion, we can then question whether it's serving us well.
Probably the biggest problem we run into with attachment to our opinions and beliefs is they can become part of our identity, meaning that we see our beliefs as part of our self concept or self image. We see letting go of a belief as letting go of a part of ourself. When we hold onto opinions this tightly, we feel like changing our opinion would threaten who we are as person, and in some cases, it threatens our reality.
“Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility; to treat this person as they should be treated; to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in.”
So what happens when we hold on to our opinions too tightly?
When we're too attached to our opinions, we can become closed-minded, defensive, unwilling to change our minds, and even hostile toward others who disagree with us. In our need to be right, we can alienate others, such as friends and family members. This can make it harder to find common ground, come up with creative solutions, and understand where others are coming from. In other words, it can create rifts and make it harder to connect with others.
Growing up mormon, I lived in a culture that was so sure that their beliefs and opinions were the correct ones, that those with differing opinions were not welcomed. Because of this attitude, I’ve had friends who’ve been excluded from their families because they had different political opinions or religious beliefs. Their families decided that their attachment to their beliefs and opinions was more important than reaching out and trying to include those who thought differently.
When we’re too attached to our opinions or beliefs, we can use them to justify things that actually go against our principles. We’ve seen throughout history that people believing in the rightness of their opinions or beliefs has led them to do pretty awful things. From the Crusades to slavery to the Nazis of World War II, we have seen what happens when groups of people have a belief or opinion that they want to force upon others.
“Intelligence consists of ignoring things that are irrelevant.”
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb
So how can we get better about being less attached to our opinions, and have opinions that better serve us?
There is nothing wrong with having opinions. As I said earlier, opinions are just our perspectives and judgments on the world. Having opinions on things is how we navigate the world. It’s our attachments to our opinions and beliefs that can cause us issues.
One of the things the stoic talk about is that we don’t have to have an opinion on everything. There are plenty of things that we don’t need to waste our energy on, because we have no control over them, nor do they have any impact on our lives whatsoever. For example, why would I care about what some celebrity wore to some awards show? It has no impact on my life, nor does my opinion of it impact anyone else’s life.
It’s Okay to be Wrong
“Strong opinions, loosely held.”
— Paul Saffo
“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”
Another thing to realize is that you might be wrong. Your opinion is just an idea and perspective on something at a certain point in time. You should always be willing to update your opinions based upon new information because the world is always changing and you are always changing as well. It may mean that at some point in time you may hold the completely opposite opinion, or just not care about something because it doesn’t really matter in your life anymore.
I look back on a lot of the opinions I had when I was young and realize how uninformed they were. Some of that was because I just didn’t have enough information. Some of them were simply opinions that I inherited from my parents and the culture that I grew up in. I also just didn’t have enough experience in my life to really have an informed opinion.
Now that I’m older and have a lot more life experience, I can see how I held onto a lot of opinions that seemed so important I don’t even care about any more. I try to be more curious about other peoples opinions, and be open to them so that my opinions can be better informed.
Live Your Principles
“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Where our opinions are important is how well they help us live our principles, not be used as an excuse to skirt our principles. For example, if we claim to live the principle of justice, but we fail to uphold it for others that we deem undeserving based on something like their class, gender, or skin color, then we aren’t living by our principles. We have opinions we are using to selectively apply our principles. So when it comes to our opinions, we might ask, "Is holding this opinion useful?" and "Will this opinion make me more or less likely to act in accordance with my principles?"
We should also recognize that others may have different opinions on things, but can hold the same principles that we do. Often times is just that they have a different approach on how they think things need to be done. When we focus more on finding our common principles and less on our differences of opinion, it is more likely that we can find common ground to work together.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of our opinions are about how we think other people should be or ways that they should behave. When we hold onto these opinions we end up driving others away from us because we think we have the right to tell others how they should act, and as the stoics taught, we don’t have control over other people.
When we’re willing to be less attached to our opinions, we are more likely to bring people closer to us. We are able to approach conversations with the goal of learning and understanding, rather than pushing them away because of our need to “win” be “right”. By cultivating an attitude of curiosity and openness toward others' perspectives, rather than immediately trying to refute or dismiss them, it allows us to see things from a different angle and perhaps gain a more nuanced understanding.
Everyone has opinions in life because it’s how we operate as humans. We hold onto ideas about how we think the world works, and they can help us make choices. But the more that we can be aware of our opinions, the better we can recognize that our opinions and beliefs are just our perspectives on something and not necessarily the truth about something. But most importantly, we need to make sure that our opinions don’t get in the way of living our principles.
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