The Post-Traumatic Stoic by Jennifer Hullinger

Having been born to abusive parents, fate was less than kind to me. Mom’s flavor of abuse was of bitterness and blame toward me for being stuck in a bad relationship. She expressed her disdain both passively through neglect, and actively through screaming matches. Dad expressed his resentment much more physically. The pungency of his words had a lengthy shelf-life, and he often dealt in bruises, gashes or broken bone. Most of their energy was spent lashing out toward each other than raising a daughter, which was both a blessing and a curse. They can’t abuse what they aren’t paying attention to, but still a lonesome existence. Some of my earliest memories were of Mom and Dad fighting. Trying to find sleep during shouting is a difficult task, one I rarely managed. Our extended family either couldn’t help the situation, or simply refused to even acknowledge it was happening.

In my youth, an ability to distinguish between good reasoning and the irrational had yet to develop. There was little strength within me to grasp anything that would help break my chains.There seemed no way of escaping this terrifying situation. All a child can do is endure, and perhaps seek an explanation, if not a way of coping with such a broken spirit. As I grew older I became quite influenced by my father’s religious discourse, reading the Bible often. Most of the time this was a form of punishment for behavior he deemed sinful, but honestly it was a brilliant way to pass the time. I secretly enjoyed this penalty. There are profound lessons in the Bible, some I still not only utilize, but appreciate: 

“Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse.

Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you.

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.”

Proverbs 9:7-9

This passage made me realize that correction was not about bruising my ego, but an opportunity to achieve a growth in virtue. I still consider this passage when someone sheds a light upon an error in my thinking. Of course, it’s one of many portions of the text that I find useful and wise. However, there seemed to be something missing. What of the values I cultivated through my life’s experience? Despite the plethora of wisdom offered in Proverbs, I could not bring myself to agree with statements like:

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.

Punish them with the rod and save them from death.

Beat them with the rod, and you will save them from Sheol.”

Proverbs 23:13-14 

Being hit as a kid was a traumatic, and very damaging to my emotional and physical wellbeing. I cannot in good conscience advocate rod usage of any sort as a productive discipline tactic. Upon reading this, I felt my thirst for wisdom had to be quenched from multiple founts of knowledge as opposed to one. Guidance suited for my personal experience needed to be further studied, and from as many sources as possible. Perhaps I could even find one that agrees with my principles regarding corporal punishment. However, while still living with Dad, my philosophical education was limited to Biblical or Bible-adjacent sources until I reached around thirteen years of age. 

In the forefront of this development, Mom frequented hospitals with various injuries courtesy of Dad’s rage. Typically the injuries were a broken rib or two, but if she “made him” really angry, he would inflict worse. Apparently the rod is not merely a utility for the discipline of children, but wives as well. Between these visits, Mom and I would run to the safety of her parents for a brief period of time, usually a weekend. After hearing his pleas for forgiveness, and inevitably our return, she would typically succumb. This pattern repeated until one fateful day, we left him and never returned.

Finally, after divorcing Dad, Mom decided to continue her college education. I was enrolled in public school again, which was pretty exciting for us both. We were able to bond over studies, pour over literature, and critique each other’s poetry. Mom and I deeply connected on this level, and whenever either of us found thought provoking text, we would read and discuss the material. The door opened wide; I couldn’t wait to walk right through to finding the key to personal freedom and contentment I so desperately needed. I had not anticipated just how many wonderful thinkers there have been throughout history. This was especially fun when she was taking History of Philosophy, or the semester I attended Applied Ethics. 

However, years of bondage and living in terror got the best of Mom, and she became more of a friend than a moral authority who provided a safe and loving environment for a child. She spent a lot of her time at various bars, sometimes having me tag along with the insinuation that it was a girl’s night out, but in truth I was her babysitter. She would get drunk, go through boyfriends like water, and leave me to fend for myself, sometimes for as long as a month. If I hadn’t made friends at school, I probably would have not had enough food to eat during the times mom would disappear.

Dad was no longer in the picture at all, and we were essentially isolated from the rest of the family still. As Mom took out years of frustration and trauma on me, emotional abuse didn’t cease, only the flavor changed from bitter to downright melancholy. She even revealed that I was the result of guilt she felt over an abortion long before her pregnancy with me. Basically letting me know, for sure, that neither one of my parents wanted me. The logical conclusion I came to at that time was: my mom suffered abuse because of me, a perception that rooted me in deep despair for years to come. Anger consumed my heart and haunted my soul. The particular wisdom I required would not arrive on my horizon until right after my marriage inevitably failed because I had not yet reigned in my feelings of rage and emptiness. Upon going back home to Mom, head hung in shame, with wrath still gripping my heart, I stumbled upon a passage in this book Mom had on her shelf called The Enchiridion, by Epictetus:

But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

When I read this passage, it wasn’t some moment of clarity, but only furthered my rage. How dare he suggest that no one had harmed me! Whether out of my control or not, it still hurt. Who was this man to dare to deny me my suffering!? In a huff, I decided right then I was done with Stoics, and they had nothing to offer me in terms of real wisdom.

As time passed, and events progressed in my life, including university, a couple of kids, and the death of my mother, I stumbled across Stoic thought once more, rather by accident. By this time, I had already sought therapy to help me cope after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder around thirty years old. The clinician recommended a psychological treatment called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This method, developed by Aaron Beck and inspired by Epictetus, works through emotions by questioning the thoughts behind them.

CBT challenges belief systems that are based on cognitive pitfalls such as catastrophizing, or generalizing. The goal is to realize how closely tied these set beliefs are to our perception of the world. Suddenly you see how important it is to pay attention to how you come to conclusions, and how the can often be in error. Why feel upset about a belief justified on a generalization, or any irrational, faulty opinion? Was fascinating to me how such a successful coping strategy was molded from Stoic reasoning. 

Enticed by how helpful CBT had been for me, I rethought my assessment of Epictetus, and upon discovering he had been a slave, embarrassment overwhelmed me. In my rage, I failed to see the ingenuity of the claim that provoked so much fury, and the reason for my reaction. Of course, the irony of getting offended by someone telling me that it was my view of things that offended me was not missed in retrospect. Still grants me a good chuckle looking back. Was only my view of this passage that bothered me. It just goes to show that sometimes the most important message of wisdom one can receive for their life struggles takes not only being offered, but also being prepared to accept. Often the most necessary step to take to avoid faulty reasoning is the most challenging, first you gotta be ready to admit you made an error. 

For years, the dominant motivation I utilized was fury, but I had grown so weary of this destructive dynamic. It was exhausting, and not at all making circumstance any easier. What kind of example did this offer my kids? I had to change; something had to give, if not for me, but for them. If there’s any type of therapy that offers tangible results to souls suffering from traumatic experience, it begs for attention. I can say, without hesitation, that CBT was a very successful tool for my healing process. However, it is best to talk to your clinician to see if this method would be appropriate for your own mental health care.  

After exposure to more Stoic application, my interest in the topic piqued. I began exploring other Stoic sources. A friend of mine referenced Seneca’s On Anger.  After reflection on this text, finally weary of my wrath, it seemed the next necessary step was to heed Seneca’s advice on avoiding rage. Having seen how untethered anger can manifest in adults, and the damage it can cause to others, the notions expressed in this essay felt so serendipitous.There was no way this rotten vice was going to be passed on to my children, and honestly I think perhaps my parents had fallen prey to their passion rather than merely inflicted pain upon me. 

The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition, because reason goes for nothing when once passion has been admitted to the mind, and has by our own free will been given a certain authority, it will for the future do as much as it chooses, not only as much as you will allow it.

On Anger, Section 8

This definitely highlights what I had found true of anger: it takes over the better parts of the person, the loving, caring, more reasonable ones. If I was going to conquer this passion, I had to rein it in before it began. But what of the powerful feeling I got from choosing anger as a motivator?

Finally, I ask, is anger stronger or weaker than reason? If stronger, how can reason impose any check upon it, since it is only the less powerful that obey: if weaker, then reason is competent to effect its ends without anger, and does not need the help of a less powerful quality.

On Anger, Section 8

After On Anger I couldn’t get enough of the Stoics. Knowing I had the power to stop my anger before it took over was a life-changing realization. In traffic, waiting rooms, when my toddler would throw a fit – any chance I got to practice stifling the rise of anger I took it. Instead of anger being a source of my weakness, I decided to allow it to be a source of celebration. This built up my sense of confidence, which obviously never can change the past, but did give me better tools to deal with the challenges my past offered. The dichotomy of control was a principle that opened my horizons:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, chapter 1

Seems like such a simple and obvious solution, but one I had completely missed through my struggle: focus on what you can control, and don’t worry so much about what you cannot. This is a practice that is constant in life, and while it’s not easy, this does place things in perspective. This notion of tranquility through acknowledging limits of my control, and sustaining focus upon thought quality pulled me out of the nagging despair I felt the majority of my life.

 Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things… An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

Epictetus, Enchiridion chapter 5

My entire life, I had given in to the notion that just because my parents treated me badly, I was worthless and unworthy of love. No wonder I felt so disturbed, angry, and unhappy! Instead of responding to a life I was actually granted, this projection dominated my view. After years of struggling with rage and powerlessness, arose an unfamiliar feeling of contentment in this realization.

Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived… Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.

Epictetus, Enchiridion chapter 42

“It seemed so…” to me. Am I actually able to achieve happiness despite what fate had so coldly given me? I think so, and since beginning to put Stoic philosophy into practice, there have been some significant changes in my life. I no longer fly off the handle when circumstances don’t go the way I wanted them to, and give less significance to actions that are not my own. My concerns about gossip, hardships, illness and death are lessened significantly. These days, my focus tends to be on how I may think and act better. At times, I even find peace in moments, especially when striving toward values learned from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. One of the most important life lessons gained from my study of Stoic philosophy was to accept life as is.

To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Although I am no Sage by any measure, after years of clinging to a negative and defeatist view of life, Stoicism has helped me let go of one toxic element of life at a time. When successful in the practices learned from Stoic philosophy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I have reason to be proud of myself. Failure serves as a reminder of how important it is to be mindful of our own thoughts and actions. I still have a long road ahead of me to achieve anything resembling tranquility or Stoic right reason, but hopefully fate shall grant me the joy of breaking a very damaging, violent cycle.

Jennifer Hullinger is a mother of two, avid reader, and lover of wisdom. She runs a Youtube channel, Missus Snarky, where she and her friends share their political and philosophical views. Jennifer attended Sam Houston State University in Texas where she studied Psychology and Sociology, and has a real passion for knowledge. 

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

3 thoughts on “The Post-Traumatic Stoic by Jennifer Hullinger”

  1. Yes, I couldn’t agree more. This piece is inspirational. Experiential writing at its very best. Thank you for inviting us into your life. Best wishes on your Stoic journey.

  2. How easy could this have been to write? To share? Not very much would be my answer. Jennifer, with this piece, you help me to remember the teachings of the Stoics. I am happy to know you are getting so much from this ancient yet relevant and timeless philosophy of life. Thank you again for sharing your story.

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