Anger Awareness Circumstances Coffee Break Control stoicism

144 – Emotional Management

Emotional Management


When was the last time that you felt a really strong emotion? What was that emotion? Gratitude? Joy? Anger? Jealousy? Emotions are a powerful force in our lives. When channeled properly, they can be the fuel that helps push us through to accomplishing what we want. They can also drive us in ways that we aren’t expecting or don’t want.

I’ve had several listeners reach out to me asking me to talk about how to manage emotions and how to deal with triggering events, so today I want to talk about using stoic ideas to help with regulating emotions. At times, our emotions can seem very overwhelming for us, and push is in a direction that is not helpful and can be damaging. In my own life, I’ve had times where I’ve let my emotions override my common sense and make choices or say things that I later ended up regretting.

I’ve talked on this podcast about how I struggle with keeping my temper in check, and the last few weeks have been a bit of a struggle for me. I’ve been dealing with some insomnia, which tends to leave me with less energy to keep a lid on my anger. And while my lack of sleep is a factor in lowering my attentiveness to my emotional state, my emotions are my responsibility.

What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.


First, let’s look out the flow of emotional states. The first thing that happens is we sense something.  Some even occur and we see, hear, touch, smell or taste something, and that information is received by our brain. At this point, it’s just raw data. It may be the vibration of a voice or a song. It may be the image of a car. It may be the smell of something cooking on the stove. This is just an observation of the event

Next, we have a thought about what that data means. We begin to make some kind of interpretation or judgment of what we sensed. We may hear someone say something that we think is rude. We may think the smell from the kitchen is enticing. We may think that the car we see is coming at us at us too quickly.

Once we have added some meaning to the data that came into our heads, we have created some emotion around it. We may feel offended at the remark. We may be excited about eating whatever someone is cooking in the kitchen. We may be on alert that we’re going to be run over by the car.

This cycle of observing, making judgments, and creating emotions continues until we take some action. We might say something back to the person. We may head into the kitchen to see what’s cooking. Maybe we run out of the way of the car.

Once we take action, then we start the cycle over again. We observe what has happened, in response to our action, have a thought about that observation, then have some kind of emotion around it, then we take some kind of action.

Now that we have our pattern established, what happens in this causes us to lose control of our emotions? It really comes from the judgment stage. How we think about something, and what we think that it means, is what create the emotion.  If someone said something trying to offend us, we can decide if we want to let that offend us, and feel that emotion. If we make a judgment that we don’t care about what they said, or that they are misinformed, or that we possibly misheard, then we have a very different feeling about what that person said, and will respond quite differently depending on our interpretation. Because we decide what we want to think about what they said, we are in control about how we feel about it. If we are able to delay making a judgment as long as possible, and just observe events, then we can choose what kind of judgment to attach to something, or to not have an opinion it at all.

Now some things, we should have a quick judgment on. If a car is racing towards us, we should get out of the way. But even in this case, making a wise judgment is more helpful, because if you are able to manage your fear, you can make a better decision of where to run.

The biggest trigger for anger is expectations. When we think that something should happen a certain way or someone should or shouldn’t behave a certain way, we set ourselves up to be disappointed. Learning how to let go of any expectations or outcomes, especially around things that we have no control over, such as what other people think of us, is one of the key teachings of both stoicism and Buddhism. The more we can learn to let go of things we can’t control, observe them, and make judgments based only on things we observe, the easier it is to manage our emotions, and make better decisions.

Most of the triggers for my anger come from my interpretation, my judgments of what I think about what someone else says or thinks of me. This is why the stoics talk so much about not worrying about the opinions of others.

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

Other peoples opinions are none of my business. They have the right to feel whatever they want. Just like I do. The question I need to ask is, “What do I think it means if they are annoyed at me? What meaning am I attaching to it?” Their opinion of me is not something that I can control, and when I do try to control it, I get frustrated by my powerlessness to be able to control it.

One of the best ways that I’ve been able to get this more under control is by using a stoic exercise called Premeditatio Malorum, or to premeditate on evil, basically imagining what could go wrong, so that you are prepared to handle those negative emotions. This is a powerful exercise in learning how to deal with things that trigger you.

Let’s say for example that you have a family member or friend that seems to triggers your anger. Sit down and imagine a scenario where you normally would get upset and lose your cool. Imagine what the situation would be like, and feel that emotion. And then make a choice to just sit and feel that emotion. How would it feel to just sit with it? How would it feel to just observe that emotion, and notice how it feels in your body? If you can just sit with it, and let yourself feel that you can recognize that this emotion can’t really harm you in any way.

Even after working through this kind of exercise, you’re going to make a judgment about something, and you’ll feel that strong emotion. There is nothing wrong with this. If you do notice this, try to take that step back an observe the emotion. Notice it. Try to see what the thought was behind it. What was the meaning that you attached to it? Once you can start to understand your own thought process, you can start to change what thoughts you have about specific events.

Learning to manage your emotions is not something that is easy to do. It’s something that takes constant work and attentiveness. Understanding the thought processes that lead to these emotions and using exercises like Premeditatio Malorum can help you be prepared to deal with those triggers help you manage your emotions rather than letting them control you.

Coffee Break stoicism

139 – Judgments


Show Notes:

  • How many times have we made judgments about someone when we first meet them, that later turn out to be completely wrong?

“Impressions, striking a person’s mind as soon as he perceives something within range of his senses, are not voluntary or subject to his will, they impose themselves on people’s attention almost with a will of their own. But the act of assent which endorses these impressions is voluntary and a function of the human will.”

– Epictetus

  • We are constantly being bombarded by strong impressions, and making snap judgments.
  • We’re constantly creating unconscious judgments about things and people.
  • We compare ourselves to others – our friends, or neighbors, our family members.
  • We see someone we’re attracted to and we make all kinds of judgments about what kind of person we think they might be. They’re pretty so they must be smart…or dumb.
  • We see someone that is maybe less attractive, or disheveled and we make judgments about them. Maybe we think they are lazy.
  • We judge people by their clothes, by their skin color, by their accents when they talk, their voice, how much money they have.
  • The thing is that judgments in and of themselves aren’t bad. We need to size things up. But we need to be sure that we’re making judgments that serve us and the people around us.

“You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”

– Marcus Aurelius

  • Does this thing really need our attention? Was what some celebrity scandal worth our focus? Does it matter if that person walking down the street from us has tattoos or a mohawk or is wearing a suit and tie?
  • And the thing about judgments is that we need to be conscious of what we’re comparing. If you’re comparing yourself to someone else and saying that you’re a better than they are for some reason, then it really doesn’t serve either of you.
  • And who’s to say that you’re better than they are?
  • What works for you, doesn’t work for them.
  • The path they are on is not yours, so what you deem as important doesn’t mean shit to them.
  • What you want and what they want are not going to be the same.
  • So why do we make so many unconscious judgments about things?
  • Our brain likes to create shortcuts and so it sees patterns that it likes that it thinks are safe so it creates a shorthand to help it make quick decisions, to keep you safe, and save mental energy.
  • The other thing to think about is where are these judgments coming from?
  • Are they yours? Are they ones that were given to you growing up? From your family? From society? The media?
  • These mental models that you hold onto and use to try and make sense of the world need to be examined all the time because they may not be serving you.
  • And changing those models is not easy. Sometimes we’re simply not even aware of them.
  • Racism is something that’s passed down or part of the culture that you grew up in.
  • And so many of these judgments are part of your identity. They are the things that are part of your ego. They are ways for you to feel secure in who you are. If you’re “better” than that person, then you feel good about yourself. You feel okay. But if you have to feel good about yourself that way, then it’s probably not a very healthy way of living.
  • The other big area that I want to address is self-judgment.
  • We spend so much time judging ourselves and all the ways that we don’t measure up.
  • And where do these self-judgments come from?
  • I think they usually come from outside of us. From our culture. From our families.
  • We have these expectations of what we “should be”, and rather than learning to accept and who we actually are.
  • When we learn to stop the self judgments and just be okay with who we are, and stop having so many expectations about things we really learn to lighten up and go easier on ourselves.
  • And when we are easier on ourselves, we are less judgmental of others.
  • I know that much of the anger that I’ve struggled with is from expecting things to be a certain way, and when they weren’t I would get upset about the uncomfortable emotions and try to use my anger to control the outcome of the situation.
  • This usually has the effect of causing even more distress and angst with the whole situation and making it much worse than it was in the first place.
  • When we let go of expectations, it’s like learning to step into the flow of things. We can roll with things because we don’t have any preconceived idea of what should be, but we simply work with what is.
  • In Zen, this is the beginner’s mind.
  • How do we suspend our judgments of others?
  • How do we suspend judgments of ourselves?

“We are not privy to the stories behind people’s actions, so we should be patient with others and suspend judgment of them, recognizing the limits of our understanding.”

– Epictetus

  • We can let go of thinking of things as either right or wrong.
  • We can become curious as to why something is the way it is.
  • Why does that person wear those clothes?
  • Why is that person acting that way? What are they thinking those actions are going to accomplish?
  • And this goes for ourselves. Rather than judging ourselves harshly, we can become curious about why we think a certain way, or why we said or did a certain thing.
  • If we are curious, we can be compassionate because we’re not worried about if something is right or wrong, we simply want to understand why.

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