Say to yourself in the morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill. But I, because I have seen that the nature of good is the right, and of ill the wrong, and that the nature of the man himself who does wrong is akin to my own . . . I can neither be harmed by any of them, for not man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To work against one another therefore is to oppose nature, and to be vexed with each other or to turn away from him is to tend to antagonism. – Marcus Aurelius, 2.1
This passage is among the most often-cited in classic Stoic literature – and rightly so, since in it Marcus sets out an exercise that bears fruit in daily practice. Notice several key things about it. First of all, Marcus doesn’t excuse or euphemize anything about the characters or conduct of the people one is to anticipate encountering. He doesn’t pretend that, deep down inside, they’re really decent people. He labels them as what they are, picking out a number of negative character traits that presumably do actually apply to them.
Second, he reminds himself that these troublesome people are the way they are – and behave the ways that they do – because there’s something fundamentally screwed up in their own lives. They are ignorant, mistaken, off-base about what genuinely is good and bad. This itself is a bad state to be in, and they quite likely don’t even realize that this is the case. Many of them will be convinced that they have matters fundamentally right, and that it is other people (perhaps even the whole rest of the world) who are messed up and mistaken.
Third, precisely because he does not share in their wrongheaded perspective – because he does know what the genuine natures of good and bad are, and because he understands how human choice, agency, and responsibility work – he draws some practical conclusions. To get angry with those people, to hate them, to work against them, to turn away from them is to act against nature, and to do damage to oneself. One should attempt to work cooperatively with them instead, one might then surmise, at least as best as one can.
Problems The Unduly Demanding Pose
But what about people who are unduly and unreasonably demanding? People who take advantage of your repeated attempts to be reasonable with them? People who view you adopting a Stoic attitude as a sign of weakness, and vulnerability to be exploited? Let’s go even further. What about people who have already displayed disrespect, denigrated and downgraded you, demanded more of you than is their due – people who have already developed a track-record of treating you – and likely many other people – badly, unjustly, wrongly? Is Marcus’ approach still applicable? Or does it just lay you in for more mistreatment?
This represents a serious challenge for the Stoic prokopton in the contemporary workplace. We have not only the age-old challenges of dealing with the sort of misguided and morally underdeveloped people Marcus describes – and the proportion of them in our own times is quite likely similar to that in his own – we also live in a time when one constant theme in the workplace is doing more with less, getting more out of everything and everyone. Many workplaces are already stressful on their own, and continuing to have steady employment, clients, or income can be unpredictable, precarious, subject to whims and wishes of those who temporarily possess the power to decide those matters. (This isn’t everyone’s experience, of course – some people would say that their work life is wonderful, exciting, fantastic. . . or at the very least uneventful, all right, and satisfactorily remunerative).
Dealing with unduly demanding people presents particular obstacles for the Stoic. They are not the run-of-the-mill problematic persons encountered in the workplace. We’re not talking about those who every once in a while blow up in stressful situations, or occasionally add extra work to your plate through their own poor planning and last-minute panics. Nor do I mean people with idiosyncratic needs that remain more or less constant once you find out about them (the person, for example, who is a stickler for a regular report being done a certain way).
What I mean by the “unduly demanding” is the kind of person keeps making new demands on top of older ones (which you’ve probably met or attempted to fulfill). They never admit full satisfaction with work you do. This sort of person can always find one more thing that should be changed, added, reworked. By the time that you realize that you’re dealing with something and someone who just keeps unreasonably demanding more, and you start to push back and establish limits, you are usually already mired in a relationship that becomes more and more difficult the more you attempt to make sense of it.
The unduly demanding might be your boss, an owner, a customer, a client, a team-member, a teacher, a supplier. They could be a colleague, a business partner, a subordinate, an employee, or a student. They might even be a family member, or a friend (though not a real friend from a Stoic perspective), a neighbor. These categories sometimes blur together even in normal interactions. But with the unduly demanding, that dynamic is even more common, as they play off confusions and conflations of multiple relationships, with their differing obligations and limits, to their advantage. At one moment, they are your boss and expect to be treated as such, and in another they want to be your friend, since that entitles them to a different kind of treatment.
Reasonable expectations, good faith, reciprocity – these are what they count on from you, and may talk about quite a bit (in some cases, even teach about!), but they don’t provide these in return. And should you point out the imbalances, the undue demands, the inconsistencies – as experience all too often shows – you can expect to be undermined, dismissed, or attacked. You’ll inevitably be the “bad guy” in the story as they tell it – to themselves, to others, and to you.
Stoic Perspectives on The Unduly Demanding
Dealing with the unduly demanding is difficult for nearly everyone. In my practice, I have observed workplaces where employees become progressively demoralized. They fulfill tasks assigned them, only to be told that they have done those tasks wrong, that they should have done something they were not told to do (or sometimes even explicitly told not to do), that they should have been doing something else. . . it goes on and on.
Passive resignation is one coping response for dealing with mercurial, never satisfied supervisors, who then will likely accuse employees of failing to show proper initiative. “I never know what so-and-so wants, so I just do whatever he tells me, and then wait for him to tell me how to do it again, do it differently. I think he doesn’t even know what he really wants . . But, I get paid whatever he decides.” That is not a recipe for workplace satisfaction, for taking pride and ownership in one’s work. Wherever you find them, the unduly demanding exercise a corrosive influence on other people and on organizations.
When faced with dealing with the unduly demanding, what sort of perspective and practices can one adopt? Can Stoic philosophy help us deal successfully with people who routinely make excessive, progressive, and even contradictory demands upon us in the workplace? The answer is yes, and the first way is by providing us with useful perspective on the basic problem, once we realize what – and who – we are dealing with.
Consider first how Stoicism would view the unduly demanding person him or herself. People behave the way that they do because – at least at that time – they have the view that what they are doing makes sense. Put a bit more formally, they believe that the course of action that they choose is right, reasonable, appropriate. So, for example, they think on some level that it is entirely all right to ask someone to do work along clearly defined lines for a certain amount of compensation, then to tell them that the product is not what they wanted, and to demand that the work be redone. It may even make sense to them – in moral terms – that they repeat this process over and over, shifting direction, adding more tasks, expanding the scope of what was originally assigned or agreed upon.
The Stoic can say: This person has clearly got a mistaken understanding of what is good or bad for human beings. So, it is quite understandable that this person desires and is averse to the wrong things, chooses and acts the wrong ways, gets mixed up about their own and other’s duties, exhibits excessive or misoriented emotional responses, adopts the wrong perspectives on matters, and operates with a host of mistaken beliefs and judgements. It also is not surprising from the Stoic perspective that the person exhibits inconsistencies, since their life, psyche, and relationships are beset by conflicts and contradictions (machai, to use Epictetus’ term).
In the case of the unduly demanding person, their basic mindset doesn’t rest on a simple (let alone single) misunderstanding that could be quickly cleared up. As those who set themselves upon and labor along the Stoic path well know, improving oneself requires attention, discipline, and choosing over and over again to remain on course (and to get oneself back on it, when one departs). It requires self-examination, admitting one’s failures and deficits, breaking and remaking habits, deliberately shifting one’s desires and aversions. The unduly demanding person is far worse off, Stoically speaking, than those of us who are making some progress (even if with some setbacks and backsliding). Within their personalities, they have developed at least some of the habitual dispositions that Stoic philosophy calls vices, which take many specific shapes and forms.
Dealing With Them As A Stoic
For the would-be Stoic, one set of difficulties in dealing with unduly demanding people arise from the very ideals and goals of Stoic philosophy. The Stoic aim of living in accordance with nature – classically understood as developing and living in accordance with the cardinal virtues – is one of these. Classifying things that we might desire, value, choose as either good, bad or indifferent – that is another key aspect. Making the distinction between what is in our control and what is not. Fulfilling the duties or obligations that we either have chosen to take on, or find ourselves tasked with because of our roles and relationships. Deliberately working on ourselves, rather than requiring the world, or circumstances, social dynamics, or other people themselves to change to suit us. Paying attention to our emotional responses and the associated assumptions and judgements, and gradually bringing our passions into line with right reason. All of these are important components of a Stoic approach to life in general, and work in particular.
Typically, when people prudently apply these key distinctions and precepts of Stoic philosophy within their workplace and in the matrix of their relationships – although doing so requires some time – the results they experience are that they are able to do their job better, they get involved in less conflicts with others in the workplace, they get more tasks done that they can take some satisfaction in, and in some cases they may actually find themselves flourishing at work. This requires figuring out for oneself what one’s priorities ought to be, where one’s genuine good lies, what duties one really does need to fulfill.
The Stoic prokopton learns how to let many things go, recognizing them as externals and as indifferents, and focuses upon what really is within one’s power, what is genuinely good or bad for oneself. In the workplace, this might mean realizing that the negative attitudes or actions of one’s coworkers are their own business, and that allowing those to affect one is at some level a choice that could be made differently. To use Epictetus’ metaphor, everything comes with a cost, and it is up to us what we think is worth what price. If getting the report done that I am tasked with compiling requires that I once again email a reminder (that I’m tempted to think is really unnecessary, if so-and-so had a good work ethic, was responsible, etc.), then that is the price of tranquility.
Following this course would seem to put us at a disadvantage when our co-worker, our supervisor, our client, or our customer turns out to be someone unduly demanding. We accommodate ourselves to them, so that we can, as so many of the Stoics suggested, do our part, precisely as a part of a larger whole. They don’t do that, but instead press their partial claims even more strongly. We grasp the problem they present to us by the proverbial handle by which we can carry it, and then we discover that they add even more weight to the burden we are trying to carry. But maybe we are wrong to get upset when this happens. Perhaps that is the time when we ought to double down on our Stoic self-discipline? Should we remind ourselves that the things that other person focuses on are really indifferents and externals that we can afford to let them “win”? Aren’t we supposed to live out the principle that the only real harm that can come to us derives from our own choices, desires, thoughts, actions, and attitudes – not from what other people do, say, think, or feel? Doesn’t one have to “bear and forbear,” if one is going to really try to be a Stoic?
When one goes down that path of thinking about Stoicism and considers responses to unduly demanding people, there are two things that need to be emphasized. The first is that while we may take the legendary sage for an ideal, we must recognize that we are nowhere near that level of self-control, fortitude, and practical wisdom (those of you who are, feel free to ignore this!). The sage can treat the unduly demanding just like any other foolish person, but the rest of us have to recognize our own vulnerabilities to those “toxic” people and their characteristic dynamics that we can get drawn into. The second is that, if we look at what Stoic authors and figures actually do say – and do – this will lead us to developing a more adequate, and authentically Stoic response when dealing with unduly demanding people.
Why Might A Stoic Push Back?
When faced with troublesome situations, actions, and persons, the Stoic response will not always be – as some mistakenly represent it – withdrawing into the “inner citadel”, accommodating oneself, patiently enduring whatever another person does, construing their behavior as simply “their business”. There are conditions in which Stoic philosophy and concrete Stoic examples indicate that a different approach is required. Unduly demanding people, precisely because they keep pressing their claims, pushing their narratives, altering agreements or assignments, place us in those conditions more often than do other people.
Justice is among the cardinal virtues recognized by Stoics. It is not only entirely legitimate for a person to stand up for him or herself when motivated by considerations of justice and injustice; in some cases, it may even be obligatory. Unduly demanding persons are unjust in multiple manners, for not only do they make demands that go beyond what is their due, and not only do they refuse to give other people what they deserve, they do something else. They claim that they are the ones who are just and that the others – who typically are behaving justly – are the ones who are unjust.
Consider the employer who alters the expectations about the days and hours employees are required to work, demanding that they now come in on weekends, “just to help out” (which then transforms into the “new normal”). Or expecting they show up uncompensated at company events, which at first are framed as “voluntary” and then as “required if you know what is good for you”. Paying employees for only some of the time they are actually working, arranging schedules in order to avoid paying actual overtime – these sorts of workplace abuses are genuine injustices. The fact that they concern something that strictly speaking is an indifferent – money – does not mean that these practices, and the persons who engage in them, are any less unjust. And if you examine classic Stoic authors and texts – take Cicero’s On Duties, and Seneca’s On Anger as examples – you will see that Stoic ethics will at times counsel us to actively engage ourselves against injustice.
If we do not orient ourselves rightly – presenting some prudent measure of resistance – when faced with the unduly demanding, then the injustice that takes place may not affect only ourselves. If one is earning a living not only for oneself alone but for one’s family, for example, allowing oneself to be deprived of one’s fair wages, salary, benefits, fees, or other compensation likely has negative consequences for those others dependent upon oneself. The costs can go far beyond money, though. It might be time and attention that one can devote to or share with others. It could be in the coin of one’s very energy, moods, affection – for the Stoic-in-development, the emotional energy required to deal with the unduly demanding draws upon finite reserves, and results in there being less for others who have a better claim upon it.
Courage is another important virtue relevant when dealing with the unduly demanding. It does require some modicum of courage to stand up for oneself and for others. As Epictetus counsels us in Enchiridion 10, whatever situation we encounter, we should look within ourselves and see what resources, what capacity (dunamis) we have for properly dealing with (khresis) those things. In the case of the unduly demanding, courage is one we need as an adjunct to justice. Cicero provides some helpful advice and clarification:
If [courage] is devoid of justice and fights for selfish ends instead of for the common good, it is a vice. . . The Stoics, therefore, correctly define courage as ‘that virtue which champions the cause of right’. . . . .[W]e demand that those who are courageous and great-souled also be good and straightforward, lovers of truth and foes to deception; for these qualities are at the core of justice. (On Duties, 1.19)
Proper use (khresis) of external and indifferent things – matters that are strictly speaking outside of our control, and subject to others or to the workings of the universe – is a central, though at times, overlooked feature of Stoic ethics. Just because something does not fall within the scope of what is in our control, or what has intrinsic value as good or bad, does not mean at all that we ought to adopt an attitude of complete indifference. Instead, we ought to consider what use we make of those things, or how we deal with them, if you like (both good ways to translate the Greek khresis one sees referenced so often in Epicteus’ Discourses and Arius Didymus’ Epitome of Stoic Ethics). The use of externals – like wealth, position, reputation, relationships, our bodies – is something that is in our control and for which we are responsible. Giving in to the unduly demanding will generally prevent, or at least hinder and diminish, making proper use of those externals.
A Few Useful Practices
There is another side to dealing with unduly demanding people at work – what one can and ought to do for oneself – and Stoic philosophy provides practices and insights useful for that. Here, I’ll outline just four of these: reminding yourself about your own priorities; prudently expecting people to behave as they do; minimizing emotional entanglements; visualization of negative situations; and, sticking to a truthful narrative. Each of these reflects one dimension of the “care of the self”, an idea going all the way back to Socrates, and further elaborated through Stoic philosophy and practice.
What is it that you want from work? That is a useful question to ask, in order to put matters into perspective. Most of us work because we need an income, and from the Stoic perspective, money is not simply indifferent, entirely neutral in value – it is a preferred indifferent. We often desire (and sometimes get) other things we value through work, ranging from social status or positions, to relationships with people in the workplace, to experience and opportunities. Many people also find some sort of satisfaction within the work they do, in performing their distinctive duties well, in benefitting other people. Stoics counsel that we ought to also keep the development and activity expressive of the virtues – or for Epictetus, maintaining our faculty of choice in accordance with nature – at the top of our priorities. It is fortunate when we can have it all. But, when we find ourselves stuck dealing with the unduly demanding, we should expect that, sooner or later, we have to make choices and sacrifices. And if we want to be happy, free, undisturbed, those will need to reflect Stoic prioritizations.
People can and do change their lives in dramatic ways, but that is the exception rather than the rule. The commonplace, “for people to change they have to want to change,” is quite true from a Stoic perspective. Barring some drastic shift in personality or unusual epiphany on their part, it is prudent to expect that the unduly demanding person will continue their negative behavior in all of its different modes. So, as much as possible, don’t make anything important depend on them changing in general, or even doing anything differently in a particular case. Expect them to continue following their mistaken conception of what the good is for them and for human beings in general, which will lead them to making unreasonable demands on you. Make sure that expectations, benchmarks, and agreements are as explicitly specified as possible. Try to minimize room for reinterpretation, adding in new things, shifting direction, or expanding scope on their part. It is a sign of a generous spirit to offer people second chances, but by the time you’ve realized you’re dealing with someone who is unduly demanding, they have long since passed that point.
One Stoic practice commonly used to address a wide variety of potential problems is negative visualization, and that is particularly helpful in dealing with the unduly demanding in the workplace. Before engaging with people of that sort, one can devote some time to thinking about how the interaction might go. One of the features of the unduly demanding that makes them hard to work with is precisely the fact that they surprise the reasonable person with unreasonable additional demands, unjust complaints and assessments, false narratives of what has taken place. So instead of hoping that the interaction will, contrary to past experience, go well, why not imagine to yourself that they will behave as they so often do? Doing so enables you to consider just how bad things might be – and whether they are really as bad as you fear – as well as what response or resources you could bring to bear. It brings your likely emotional responses (like fear, anger, or embarrassment) to light ahead of time, so you can examine some of the associated thoughts, assumptions and judgements, work on those, and thereby not have to feel them (or at least, feel them less) in the actual situations.
As a last note, although it can be tempting, engaging with the unduly demanding over the narrative about what took place, who did or didn’t do things, what was said or wasn’t said, or what should be the case, is guaranteed to be unproductive. They already have their story, in which they are the good, reasonable person and you are the one who let them down, who hasn’t done enough, who misunderstood matters, who deliberately did wrong (or whatever else they require to be the case). Although it may have some elements to truth to it, on the whole it will be false. It will likely change over time, as they modify it to fit their shifting desires and aversions, and it will be rife with inconsistencies. It will be tempting to try to set the record straight – and you may need to do that with other parties – but that will not be possible with the unduly demanding, since one of their constant demands is that their version of things be accepted. Reminding yourself that you know the true story (or at least a truer version of events), and that the unduly demanding distance themselves from truth by their own choice, can liberate you from entanglements and trouble. At the very least, you align yourself with the truth that is one of the core desires of healthy human nature.
Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog. He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources. He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.