Social Anxiety

Stoicism in ordinary life

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

🏛️ Theory

Social anxiety is normal.

In early history, when humans lived in small bands, a severe loss in reputation could put everything on the line. Many hypothesize that we care so much about our reputation because primitive human’s social standing was a matter of life or death. 

Today, losses of reputation are rarely that serious. But it still matters. A good reputation can reap rewards and bring about positive feedback loops, while damaging reputations – justified or not – can move a life onto a dispreferred path.

These realities often result in social anxiety. Our desire for approval and fear of social ostracization leave many feeling nervous.

The Stoics saw social anxiety as beginning from this desire: a desire for things that are out of our control.

As Epictetus said:

Whenever you see someone who is pale from anxiety then just a doctor infers from somebody’s complexion ‘that man is suffering in his spleen’, you should declare likewise ‘That man is suffering in his desire and aversion; he is not at all well; he is feverish.

Discourses 2.13

The root of the problem lies in our desires. By investing our well-being in others' attitudes, we’re letting them hold us hostage. Our happiness is tied to their psychology. Needless to say, this is not a good position to be in.

When his students worried how they would be seen socially – in the political and social scene of ancient Rome – Epictetus jolted his students out of their predicament with the caustic reminder:

No good man turns pale and trembles and says, ‘How will he receive me, what sort of a hearing will he give me?’ He’ll act, you slave, as he thinks fit.

Discourses 2.13

Coming from a former slave, this has a bite.

The Stoic ideal is to act well, regardless of how the other person reacts. Your thoughts shouldn’t be based on what someone else can give you.

What other people think matters – but primarily as input for deciding what the right thing to do is. Other people’s opinions can guide, but the Stoic never lets them stand in the way of happiness. Anxiety is normal. A Stoic accepts feelings of nervousness when they arise, listens to them when they’re useful and always acts with virtue.

🎯 Action

Whenever you encounter social anxiety, remind yourself what is up to you and refocus your attention.

My colleague Michale Tremblay, an expert in Epictetus, goes deep into Epictetus’s advice in our podcast on social anxiety here:

📈 Last letter, I asked What is the most important subcomponent of courage? – here are the results:

What is the most important subcomponent of courage?

🟨🟨🟨🟨⬜️⬜️ Endurance (22)

🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩 Confidence (26)

🟨⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ Nobility (6)

⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ Vitality (3)

🟨⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ Industriousness (7)

⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ Other (3)

There were many great comments too.

For example, Umade selected Endurance and said:

You can respond courageously; however, if you do not fight to the end the initial response matters not.

Melanie selected Confidence and wrote:

To do a courageous action that requires personal skills, one must be confident that she/he is capable of doing it, and stick to the action until the end. Confidence is important in performing value assessments, as we need to believe in our skills to evaluate/assess the situation to decide what to avoid, which courageous action should be undertaken.

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