When I was a young girl, my father used to read me the poem If by Rudyard Kipling, just as his father used to read it to him. The poem was framed above my little bed and was illustrated with all my favorite African animals — a giraffe, an elephant, a lion, a zebra.
After receiving heartbreaking news from the doctor a few weeks ago, I found myself Googling Kipling in need of his poem’s wisdom. The beginning of the second stanza stood out to me:
If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
Triumph and Disaster, both imposters under a different name. It struck me what a powerful insight about life that was — how we cannot let the end goal, the success story, the dream become our master, just as we cannot be mastered by our sad, unforeseen setbacks. We must continue on, hardened against the highs and the lows.
The following week I found myself reading stories of Ulysses S. Grant and Winston Churchill. I wanted to understand how they endured years of war in the hope that their perseverance through chronic battle fighting might rub off on me. You see, for the past three years my husband and I have been trying for a baby and in a strange way, it is starting to feel like we are fighting our own war where each month is yet another lost battle with no end in sight.
As with Kipling, Grant and Churchill were inspiring. They persevered. They showed grit, determination, and an unwavering belief in both themselves and the cause to which they were dedicated. They were stoic and tireless.
But where I hoped to find a North Star in these stories, I couldn’t help but feel that they were somehow incomplete in their depiction of what perseverance looks like in our modern world and how best to pull it off in the 21st century.
Enduring trials and tribulations while remaining loyal to the end goal requires grit, yes, but I believe there’s more to it than that. It also requires emotional intelligence and connection. It requires empathy and emotional integrity. The classic story trope would have us believe that we either have grit and determination or we’re empathetic and vulnerable with our emotions. We can’t be both.
But of course we can be and indeed we need to be to remain strong in the face of adversity. Which brings me to the aha! phrase that I scribbled in the margin of my book: Stoic Empathy.
When we face adversity, we don’t have to pretend as if nothing is going on in our lives. We can be stoic while refraining from building walls and shutting ourselves off behind smiles and photos that belie our inner state. We can practice stoicism while sharing meaningful stories and owning up about how we really feel to ourselves and others. For it is this kind of empathetic communication that allows us all to be stronger, braver, more connected and happier in this modern world of ours.
Stoicism is defined as “enduring hardship without displaying emotions.” Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share another’s emotions,” and self-empathy is the ability to understand and feel your own emotions. Empathy is really about connecting to others and yourself on an emotional level, that is, a non-superficial level.
There are times when we feel we are behaving stoically and times when we see ourselves acting empathetically, but rarely do we think of the two together. But there are real benefits to seeing stoicism and empathy as symbiotic. I have started to define Stoic Empathy as “a mindset that allows you to endure hardship gracefully while maintaining healthy emotional connections with yourself and others.”
Practicing a Stoic Empathy mindset has helped me to stay sane, functional, connected and sometimes even happy over the last few years of hardship. It has helped me to share with others what I’m going through which in turn often helps them with their own battles. It has allowed me to continue to function in my career and personal life, even at times when disaster strikes forcefully. Of course there are moments when I am overwhelmed with grief and in those times I am able to understand and give myself what I need to move through the emotion and get back on track.
Stoic empathy, even though I had never put words to it before, has helped me through the toughest time of my life. However it is also completely relevant in times of relative peace as well. Actually, when life is going well is the perfect time to practice new mindsets. So wherever you are at the moment, here are some ways you can start experimenting with taking on a mindset of Stoic Empathy and how it can help you grow through hardship with grace.
When we hit a series of road bumps and things aren’t progressing the way we want them to, it is paramount to remind ourselves of what we can and can’t control. This is one of the central maxims of Stoicism and it helps us to keep perspective with our challenges and how we can go about solving them. In order to see things clearly and to access our energy and creativity to find solutions to whatever we might be working through, we need to have a clear mind that isn’t fogged by overwhelming, uncontrollable emotions.
Emotions are purely energy we feel on different wavelengths. Dr David Hawkins studied the energy of emotions for decades. His research points to an energy spectrum ranging from ‘shame’ as the lowest energetic state and ‘enlightenment’ as the highest. When we know what emotion we are experiencing and have the capability of managing the energy it brings appropriately, we can endure hardship stoically.
This doesn’t mean we ignore and suppress emotions; quite the opposite. It means we express the emotion in a way that isn’t projecting it onto another but rather allows the emotion to dissipate on its own and without harm. For instance, instead of lashing out at your partner after a stressful day, you can choose to acknowledge you are feeling frustrated and rid yourself of the energy through another activity such as exercise, deep breaths, meditation, journalling or even doodling.
Stoicism at its heart is about having the strength to tolerate whatever is thrown at us in a graceful manner and grace comes from actively acknowledging and managing the emotions that are bubbling inside of you. That’s where self-empathy comes in.
When we practice self-empathy, we constantly check in with ourselves to see what emotion we are feeling and why. This knowledge is powerful as it gives you the ability to choose how to respond to a situation versus blindly reacting.
There is a tendency for us to approach hardship by cutting ourselves off from our emotions. It seems so much easier to deal with what life throws at you when you don’t have to feel anything, right?
But when we cut ourselves off from our emotions, we are actually suppressing them. Suppression wreaks havoc on our mind and body causing us health issues and often leading to an over-the-top emotional reaction down the road. It also stunts relationships and blocks inter-personal connections from occurring as often as they could.
If we don’t gather and use the information our emotions are giving us, we don’t work through hardship but rather we stay stagnant, ignoring the opportunity it is providing us to grow.
Some people think that suppressing our emotions is what stoicism is — to not let yourself feel anything which allows you not to display any emotions. But true stoics are quite the opposite. They come across as emotionally controlled because they have a learned process of acknowledging, accepting and dissipating the emotion on their own.
Life is full of challenges. Just as you think you’re in the clear, there’s another road bump waiting for you up ahead. If we cut ourselves off from others or become emotionally overbearing with them every time we are in discomfort or misfortune, not only can it do damage to our relationships but it can allow us to form habits that don’t serve us.
When we cut ourselves off from others, we lose a support system that can not only help us get through hardship but can also reminds us of why we want to get through it. Having meaning outside of ourselves can give us perspective and get us out of the dark hole when we feel there is no way out.
On the other hand, when we are too involved with others and don’t have healthy boundaries, their emotions can negatively impact us, leading to burnout and making it hard to work through challenges. Practicing empathy correctly involves understanding another’s emotions so that you can connect with them and possibly help them, it does not involve taking on another’s emotions so that it negatively impacts you.
Stoic Empathy is about being able to gracefully grow through hardship whilst maintaining healthy emotional relationships with yourself and others. This mindset gives meaning to your challenges and helps you not to get stuck in thoughts of ‘why me?’ and helplessness.
Practicing Stoic Empathy during hardship is not easy. There will be days when you want to be in solace and days when you want to lean on others. There will be days when you want to forget and distract yourself and days when you want to talk about your troubles incessantly. There will be days when you are determined to stand up and fight and days when you require pensive thought and rest.
The first step to having a mindset of Stoic Empathy is to understand what it is you need through practicing self-empathy. It involves constant self-awareness both in the moment and in reflection to make sure you’re thoughts and actions are serving you and your mindset of Stoic Empathy. The second step is to do what you need to do to manage your emotions without suppressing or projecting them onto others. And the third step is to not cut yourself off from the world and the relationships that are meaningful to you but to be courageous enough to continue to connect empathetically and gracefully.
Amelia Kruse is a Certified Leadership Coach based in New York City.
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