Self-defeating targets

Seeking excellence

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

I went in search of myself.


You can hit some targets more easily if you don’t aim for them.

This is especially true for conscious states, like feelings.

Anxiety amplifies if you are stressed over your anxiety. Frustration grows when you become frustrated at the fact that you’re frustrated. Striving after happiness merely makes its absence more deeply felt.

The intention to annihilate negative emotions defeats itself.


Emotions are shaped by our judgments. Different people can be in the exact same situation, yet experience it differently. The circumstances are the same; the interpretations are distinct.

Joy and anxiety derive from distinct kinds of thoughts and beliefs. Anxiety involves the opinion that there's something worth being nervous about–that something worth protecting is threatened. On the other hand, joy involves the positive judgment that the good, wonderful, and enriching is present.

By aiming to remove the feelings associated with anxiety, we need to directly take on the idea that something worth protecting is threatened. We can do that by realizing that this is not so or by removing the threat.

Negative feedback loops occur when our target is: I do not want to experience these feelings. After all, they are the fruit of something more fundamental. By aiming to remove anxiety we reinforce the opinion that anxiety is bad and do nothing to change our circumstances.

There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

Seneca, Moral Letters 13

This phenomenon is seen in the pursuit of happiness too. In Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning we read:

Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.

What do the best archers pursue? They want to be excellent archers. That is the target. The fundamental goal isn’t to feel like an excellent archer. It’s not “I want to win this year’s archery contest.” Their purpose is not subject to internal whims or external fortune. It is simply the desire to be excellent.

🎯 Action

Pause and consider whether you’re pursuing any self-defeating targets. Turn your attention to a self-sustaining one.

🔗 Links

🧘 Mindfulness meditation is essential for cultivating the skill to let negative feelings come, be, and then go. Check out our previous pieces on meditation here.

You can, of course, check out our app. Or listen to many of the free meditations on our expanding YouTube catalog:

🥁 Want to go beyond the basics of Stoicism and join a community of others seriously walking the Stoic path? We’ll open enrollment for our 3 week October intensive soon.

✍️ This piece is adapted from my personal blog. I use that newsletter for more theoretical and exploratory work, as well as sharing what I’m reading.

My speculation about this is that aiming for emotional states goes against the grain of what they're for. Emotional states aim to predict or represent our bodies and the world. On appraisal theories of emotion, emotions are evaluations of situations relative to our goals. But if we're aiming to engineer the evaluations of these situations to feel happy, emotions become less of a signal.

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