Imperfection and the Stoic by John Kluempers

The researcher and author Brené Brown does not call herself a Stoic or describe herself as being stoic. Nevertheless, when I read her book, I find parallels on how she relates to her work on courage, shame, and imperfection in leading a good life, and how the stoic seeks eudaimonia, or a good life.

If you don’t know Brené Brown, I suggest you watch her TED talk (here) on vulnerability, which still belongs to one of the most viewed talks on the conference platform. On her own website, Brown calls herself a research professor of the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington-Brené Brown Endowed Chair and has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. One of her early books is The Gifts of Imperfection.

In it, she takes the reader through a journey on how we can get past the negative feelings that appear when we compare ourselves to others—and possibly worse, comparing ourselves to the expectations of society. On the journey, Brown leaves 10 so-called guideposts. Each one of the guideposts is a gremlin that prevents each one of us from living what she calls Wholeheartedly (her capital ‘W’). Stoics would use the term eudaimonically. I find that each one of the 10 guideposts has a bit of Stoic philosophy. Here are the guideposts:

  1. Letting Go of What People Think: Authenticity
  2. Letting Go of Perfectionism: Self-compassion
  3. Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness: Resilient Spirit
  4. Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark: Gratitude and Joy
  5. Letting Go of the Need of Certainty: Intuition and Trusting Faith
  6. Letting Go of Comparison: Creativity
  7. Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-worth
  8. Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle: Cultivating Calm and Stillness
  9. Letting Go of Self-doubt and “Supposed To”: Meaningful Work
  10. Letting Go of Cool and “Always in Control”: Laughter, Song, and Dance

I will now take you guidepost by guidepost to find stoic thoughts and philosophy that are buried in the meaningful writing of Brené Brown. By no means am I trying to one-up her work. Our modern lives are more hectic, stressful, and anxiety-provoking than ever (doesn’t every generation say that?) and everyone is seeking new ways to manage and even rule over the stress and strain. I look to make the connection between what she has so magnificently discovered and described for more than a decade and how stoics (and even non-stoics) could use it to lead better, healthier, and more joyful lives. Or eudaimonic lives in the parlance of stoicism.

Guidepost 1: Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think.

Brené Brown’s first guidepost demands from us to be truer to ourselves. Not to hold back from opening up to those who are closest to us: spouses, siblings, parents, children, good friends. When we reveal ourselves at the right moments, we will find joy and satisfaction.

She uses the term authenticity and describes it as a quality that we are either born with or not, but as something that we must practice, “a conscious choice of how we want to live” (p. 49). Brown continues that we are authentic on some days and not on others. Importantly, we act authentic in front of some people and less so in front of others. Based on her research, she came up with the following definition:

Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” In more detail, she sketches being authentic as being courageous enough to be imperfect, recognizing that all struggle with the vulnerability of being authentic (and hence, imperfect), and connecting with others best when we believe that we are enough

p. 50

When we are being our true selves, those who know us might be confused, she writes. Questions like, “What if I think I’m enough, but others don’t?” or “What if I let my imperfect self be seen and known, and nobody likes what they see?” Brown stresses that this act of authenticity is audacious—and might meet with rejection by people close to us. In order to lead a Wholehearted life, we meet with resistance. People will find it strange, unusual, even scary and will want us to return to the way we were before. Do we want this?

The price of giving too much value to those opinions, and after all, that is what they are, can make us experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief (p. 51). We have no control over what others think about us and how they would like us to be. We should be on our guard. Otherwise, we will go back to being miserable. This desire to be accepted by others is very much a part of human nature. But is it what we really want?

These questions and concerns about being authentic very much coincide with the Stoic school of philosophy. Giving people control over how we should be and act leads primarily to unhappiness. With this first guidepost as a starting point, I would like to show what Stoicism can do for you. For those not already familiar with Stoicism, I will over the course of this article introduce important pillars of thought from the school.

In Stoicism, there are a few primary maxims that we learn early. One is the dichotomy of control. The Stoic teacher Epictetus (or Arrian, one of his students who recorded Epictetus’ lectures) felt this to be a pillar of Stoicism that both his Discourses and Enchridion open with it. “Some things are within our power, while others are not.” Connecting this to Brown’s first guidepost, she recognizes something that any modern Stoic learns early: We do not have control over what others think of us.

The philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius states it slightly differently in his Meditations:

If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your judgment about it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgment at any moment

Meditations 8.47

2. Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism.

The prokopton, or practicing Stoic, is necessarily imperfect. The sage is a model to live up to. For the Stoics, Socrates fits the bill of being a sage. Quite possibly the Sage. He was a man who lived virtuously. The virtuous person perfectly incorporates the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. For Socrates and the Stoics these virtues came first and foremost in leading a good life because when practiced in the best way possible, we will fulfil all four. Socrates (and historical figures like Buddha and Jesus Christ and I’m sure others from religions I’m less familiar with) did just this. With his persistent questioning, he wanted to lead others to recognize their imperfections—and according to Plato’s testimony, Socrates even would discover his own shortcomings.

Why should we find our deficits?

Brown writes that “[p]erfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance” (p. 56). But at what cost does it come if we seek the praise and liking of those around us—and even of those we don’t know? When “What will they think?” drives our actions and behaviors. The Stoics warn exactly against this and the dichotomy of control exists to remind us of this. If we act in virtuous ways, then the thoughts, opinions, and judgments of others are unimportant because in virtue, we are doing that which is only good.

The difficult part is that we will constantly face situations where we make difficult decisions, often at the spur of the moment. Perfection is not possible, only a guidepost, using Brown’s terminology, that can lead us to make the best possible decision. A Stoic sage will be able to practice all four virtues listed above. All at the same time. We honestly can’t do that but we seek to practice all four as often as possible and in as many cases as possible so that our lives are eudaimonic.

3. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness.

One objection people frequently throw at Stoicism is being exactly that: stoic. A cold-hearted, emotionless machine. You might notice the small difference here. The first time it’s capitalized and the second time not. Stoicism does not demand or even desire people to suppress their emotions, the so-called stiff upper lip. This is being stoic with a small ‘s’. Emotions are a part of the human experience. There are good emotions with happiness and joy at the forefront. There are also bad emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, etc. It is interesting that the list of perceived bad emotions is much greater.

It has been shown that humans magnify bad things and events while we tend to underplay the celebratory ones. After all, for much of human existence on Earth, dangers such as predators, illness, drought, etc. have far outweighed the parties, like killing a large animal to secure the existence of family. Even in ancient Greece and Rome, the possibility of a sudden death was by no means minimal even if the Romans did much to lower mortality rates in the regions they conquered and ruled, as seen here.

We react to negative and stressful situations in many ways, but they are almost all learned behaviors. Brown brings up the point that we fall into all kinds of addictive behavior when confronted with challenging emotions. There are the usual suspects: alcohol and drugs. But there are many more: shopping, eating, smoking, gambling, gossiping, working, just to name a few. Addictive behavior stems from stress and unease about something. It temporarily numbs the dark, as Brown puts it. It is only temporary, however.

The Stoic virtue of temperance, or moderation, reminds us to avoid excess. Not only should we avoid excessive pleasure, we should also temper the negative emotions and keep in mind that the effects of what we are judging to be bad will not last long. This is a core principle of Stoicism in dealing with difficult situations. Cognitive distancing, which is common in cognitive behavioral therapy, is one such way. Both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius espoused it by saying: “It is not events that upset us but our judgments about events” (Enchiridion, 5). We should keep this in mind so that when confronted with painful, stressful or other challenging situations, we don’t revert to automatic mechanisms and habits that do nothing to ease the discomfort and more likely exacerbate it.

4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark.

Brené Brown brings a very important lesson to the table at this guidepost. In order to be joyful, we must be thankful FIRST. In her interviews with people who were joyful, she discovered three powerful patterns, as she described them (pp. 77-8):

  • People who described themselves as leading joyful lives, without exception, actively practiced gratitude. And they attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practices.
  • The persons described both joy and gratitude as spiritual practices. These practices inextricably were linked to the belief of human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.
  • People were quick to point out the differences between happiness and joy. Happiness was attributable to circumstances [outside of their control] and joy was a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.

The Stoics recognized this in similar ways. Epictetus portrayed it with his broken jug anecdote.

With regard to everything that is a source of delight to you, or is useful to you, or of which you are fond, remember to keep telling yourself what kind of thing it is, starting with the most insignificant. If you’re fond of a jug, say, ‘This is a jug that I’m fond of,’ and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset.

Handbook, 3

When I read this the first time, I thought to myself: How can I equate losing a jug with me losing my child or wife? There is a grave discrepancy between the two! If my child were to die today, I believe I would first be in shock. I might become very angry or grieve terribly long. I might drown that sorrow with alcohol as a way to numb the pain or anger.

The reason why we may resort to numbing is that we don’t recognize many things we should be grateful for. When Epictetus speaks of us losing a jug, it can be relatively easy to say, I can handle that. When in the next sentence, he adds that we should react with similar equanimity should our child or wife die before we see them again, that bit is harder to swallow. What point does Epictetus want to make when he juxtaposes earthenware to close family?

What he wants to do is indicate that we should practice more gratitude. We should celebrate every moment that we have with our family, friends, and even, as perverse as it might sound, the possessions we own. To the Stoic, these are all indifferents, and in this case, preferred indifferents. Yes, we can (and should) enjoy them. We can take pleasure in them. But their existence in our lives does not lie directly in our power. Epictetus reminds us that the ephemeral nature of existence is just that, a part of nature.

Even more importantly, we should remind ourselves that in leading a good life, it is up to us to remember to appreciate those preferred indifferents—and give thanks for them on a regular basis. This is what the subjects in Brown’s interviews do consistently. The reward is leading, in her terms, a more joyful life. A mistake many people make, she adds, is waiting for joy to come before expressing gratitude.

The Stoics followed a similar line of thinking. Show gratitude for what you have at the end of each day. Many therapies request patients to take the time, usually at the end of the day, to journal. Epictetus also asks us to review all things we did during the day and grade it mentally. The grading can be as simple as thumbs up or thumbs down (or somewhere in between) or you can give grades or ratings. Did you help a friend out? Pat yourself on the back. Were you quick tempered with a colleague? Remind yourself next time to pause before reacting.

The ancient Roman Stoics kept this in mind with the practice of premeditation malorum, or visualizing the bad. This works in two ways. By foreseeing the bad, we actually decrease our fear of it. Cognitive behavior therapy works on this precept. “What’s the worst that can happen to me when I give a presentation? Might I embarrass myself? And what if I do? People forget about it fairly quickly.”

The other side of the premeditation malorum coin is that we appreciate more what we have and all the bad things that don’t happen to us.

5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty.

The endless amount of information at our disposal in modern times can be seductive. There is practically an answer to every problem, dilemma, crisis under the sun. At least we believe that most of the time. Google and co. will provide us with the best possible response or solution. For some things this is certainly true: a math equation, a trivia question, a history question, etc.

Yet search engines and the Internet can’t answer with any certainty questions about our future, at least not yet. Which job should we accept? Which car should we buy? Which school is best for our children? We pore over the data. We analyze it. We use due diligence. Only to feel even more uncertain. Lots of research (here and here for a small sample) has shown that our gut feelings, hunches, or a sixth sense often lead to good decisions. Science has only in the last two decades or so started examining intuition more closely. And understanding it.

Brené Brown points out that intuitions are an amalgam of mental processes. It is not just a random choice. The brain observes something, scans its files, and matches the observation with existing memories, knowledge, and experiences. Once it puts together a series of matches, we get a ‘gut feeling’ about what we’ve observed and how to proceed—without a long deliberation process. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann’s distinction between Slow and Fast Thinking is similar.

Stoicism asks its practitioners also to use due diligence. Reason makes humans stand out from all other creatures on Earth. We should use our brains, our cognitive abilities, to analyze and make the best possible decisions under the circumstances. The Roman orator Cicero, who was sympathetic to Stoic ideas and philosophy, illustrated the uncertainty that surrounds the outcomes of decisions once they have been made to that of an archer. She chooses a certain target; she lifts the bow and takes aim; she pulls back the string; she releases the arrow. Once the arrow is flying, however, it is no longer in her control where it strikes. A gust of wind may blow it off target. The target (an animal, for example) may move out of the way. Cicero rightly concluded, “the actual hitting of the mark [is] to be chosen but not to be desired.” “Not desired,” you ask? Yes, because the archer has done all in her power to hit the target but must be ready to accept if the arrow does not hit the mark.

Prepare well, do your homework—then just do it! to quote a sporting apparel company. At some point we have no control and must be ready to accept what fate has in store.

6. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison.

Brené Brown notes that when we excessively make comparisons—not only to others but also to ourselves, we automatically find ourselves in a situation of insufficiency. We never have enough. We are never good enough.

The Stoics were on to this too. In general, we only see and experience impressions of how others are doing. We see others with better cars, nicer homes, more loving spouses. Yet we don’t know by any means if they are actually better off than we are. Money, reputation, and love are to the Stoics indifferents that can have good and bad qualities. The only chief good that a human can possess is virtue. Socrates drove this point home and the Stoics, too.

Virtue is, as Massimo Pigliucci summarizes in his book How to be a Stoic, the only thing that is valuable under all circumstances. Everything else is an indifferent and can be either good and bad, or in the parlance of Stoicism, preferred or dispreferred. It is fine to accrue wealth, but if in accruing it, a multibillionaire slashes thousands of jobs, then she is hardly acting virtuously. Money is a vice in that case. The same is true for love. If we act “lovingly” to gain acceptance, for example, you are using love as a means to an end. The outcome of such behavior is also uncertain. The person whose acceptance you try to win may spurn your attempts anyway, or he withholds the love that he may have returned because he sees through the veiled attempt.

The Stoic says we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Our impressions may mislead or misinform us. Therefore, practice the four virtues: practical wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation on yourself—and only on yourself.

7. Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-worth.

 In modern times, productivity is the measuring stick par excellence. At the workplace; on the athletics field or in the gym; at school. We are being measured against standards that demand we always work. In creating those standards, we often had little input, if any at all. They are imposed on us and we impose them on each following generation.

In guidepost 2, we learned that taking time out is necessary. Even more necessary is taking time out to play and rest. Many mammal species play as part of upbringing. We see puppies, lion and bear cubs, dolphin calves, and monkey and ape species playing as part of childhood—and sometimes beyond. Playing is learning to do adult things (hunt, for example) and be social in a family or clan.

For millions and millions of people, working for the sake of work is a status symbol. We must be busy, or at least look like we are busy. Otherwise someone could overtake us. We respond to the price of believing that someone might get to the finish line (which one we should ask) first by working more and sacrificing most often sufficient sleep. Many studies reveal the deep value and necessity of getting enough sleep. In his New York Times bestseller Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker shows in great detail the benefits of a good slumber.

But not only sleep is critical. In this guidepost, Brené Brown refers to studies that show the importance of play. In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (here is his TED talk on it) Dr. Stuart Brown (no relation to Brené) explains how play actually shapes our brain and helps us become more social creatures.

The Stoics see play also as part of the human experience. The second head of the Stoa, Cleanthes, was a pugilist. Up to young adulthood, Marcus Aurelius, participated in all kinds of sporting activities while being raised. It is necessary to do this, otherwise we may hit a wall sooner or later. Our health may deteriorate, or our social life may suffer. Or both.

8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle.

Anxiety is a curse. Disquietude impacts our mental and physical health. The definition of anxiety in simple terms is to worry about the outcome of an upcoming event. We want something, be it a prize, recognition, or compliments. Yet these are outside of our control, as Epictetus reminds us:

When I see someone in a state of anxiety, I say, ‘What is it that he wants?’ For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters the theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that is something beyond his control.

Discourses 2.13

The dichotomy of control shines its light yet again. We will always want to perform well, but the reactions of the audience are beyond our control. We prepare for the situation. We practice. We stay calm—think of the archer! Emotionally-charged situations are inevitable. Reduce anxiety by remaining calm, breathing, and remembering the reactions of the others is beyond your control.

9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed to”.

A Stoic life requires a few simple things from the prokopton. Live virtuously, for virtue is the highest good—and all else is indifferent. In addition, we should follow Nature. We should do all we can to lead a life that will make the world a better place. Lastly, yes, you guessed it, we should remember the dichotomy of control.

In this guidepost, Brené Brown points out something that haunts most anyone who has self-perception (and that means about anybody beyond the age of 7 or 8): expectations. It begins in the family where parents, siblings, and relatives believe we should act a certain way and do certain things. “Boys play sports,” and “Girls should look pretty,” are typical examples heard in families in many homes. Some of those expectations have changed in families in the last few decades, but family members aren’t the only ones with expectations. Society and culture also drive this (and many similar ones) message home. At times very overtly, but usually those whispers are spoken in more subtle tones.

Eventually, these external expectations become internalized. We tell ourselves stories of what is appropriate, what is possible, what is taboo. Such stories prevent us from pursuing the life that would have true meaning for ourselves: starting a job or career we always wanted to do, pursue a hobby, volunteer. Brené Brown discovered a few things that happen when we pursue meaningful work. The work or activity may face scrutiny. The opinions of others, even insults, lie outside of our control. The decision to pursue an alternative job may not be greeted with enthusiastic support, but the price of not doing so will be disquietude and dissatisfaction. Brown recommends acknowledging those so-called “gremlins” to remove the mystique and power of the fear they create. The Stoics would concur fully with this approach because it will help reduce or eliminate the self-doubts and the “supposed to’s” coming from within and without. When this happens, we will lead more flourishing lives.

10. Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”.

The Stoics understand that humans naturally seek pleasure. This is fine and good because it is an indifferent, preferably a preferred one. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of virtue. This means that we enjoy fun, games, sports, and arts in healthy doses. Indeed, Seneca promotes such behavior for more reserved personalities.

Games will be beneficial; for pleasure in moderation relaxes the mind and gives in balance. The more damp and drier natures, also the cold [i.e., detached, aloof, equivocal personalities] are in no danger from anger, but they must beware the more sluggish faults—fear, moroseness, discouragement, and suspicion. And so, such natures have need of encouragement and indulgence and the summons to cheerfulness

Seneca, On Anger, 2.20.4

Brown refers to something that is innately human. Laughter, song, and dance have one common thread. “[They] create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration, or healing: We are not alone” (Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, p. 118).

We are not alone. We naturally seek social connections. We can pursue positive collective behaviors (which by its nature means not following mob rule mentality, e.g., what is prevalent on the Internet), Brown writes that, “[w]e want to be able to control what other people think about us so that we can feel good enough” (Gifts of Imperfection, p. 121). What is described as teenage behavior often continues into adult years. Particularly when our own children are present. They find it embarrassing when we dance at a party or sing karaoke. As much as we love our children, we shouldn’t let that stop us from dancing or singing.

This is even more reason to do it. In the eyes of highly self-conscious teenagers, we should use this as an opportunity to talk about it afterwards, use it as a teaching moment. When we show our vulnerability that leaves the impression on impressionable younger people that it is acceptable to laugh, dance, and sing.

Seneca finds the right words about whether we should be concerned that we embarrass or shame ourselves: Who is not aware that nothing thought to be good or bad looks the same to the sage as it does to everyone else? He pays no mind to what others consider shameful or wretched; he does not walk with the crowd; just as the planets make their way against the wheel of heaven, he proceeds contrary to the opinion of the world. (On the Constancy of the Wise Man, 14.3-4).

The Stoics and Stoicism tell us to ‘follow nature’ for doing so means we act virtuously. Since we are all for the most part not sages that automatically know how to act in every situation, it’s wise to also to look at what might be holding us back. This is why the work of Brené Brown has great value to me. We imperfect human beings will remain so and by tackling how our imperfections are hindering us from leading more fulfilling lives, that takes us one closer to being sages.

John Kluempers works with PhD candidates and college students in Germany. He helps them prepare for their careers when they attend conferences, i.e., hones their presentation skills and gives them advice on networking in academic contexts. Together with a small group of Stoics in western Germany, he’d like to find more Germans who would find the advantages of stoic eudaimonia.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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