This Surprising Mental Trick Will Help You Distance Yourself from Your Thoughts

"When we judge external things to be good or bad, it’s as though we forget what’s under our control and try to overextend our sphere of responsibility."

PR Image Factory/Shutterstock
PR Image Factory/Shutterstock

Sometimes merely remembering the saying of Epictetus, that “it’s not things that upset us,” can help us gain cognitive distance from our thoughts, allowing us to view them as hypotheses rather than facts about the world. However, there are also many other cognitive distancing techniques used in modern CBT, such as these:

  • • Writing down your thoughts concisely when they occur and viewing them on paper
  • Writing them on a whiteboard and looking at them “over there,”—literally, from a distance
  • Prefixing them with a phrase like “Right now, I notice that I am thinking . . .”
  • Referring to them in the third person, for example, “Donald is thinking . . . ,” as if you’re studying the thoughts and beliefs of someone else
  • Evaluating in a detached manner the pros and cons of holding a certain opinion
  • Using a counter or a tally to monitor with detached curiosity the frequency of certain thoughts
  • Shifting perspective and imagining a range of alternative ways of looking at the same situation so that your initial viewpoint becomes less fixed and rigid. For example, “How might I feel about crashing my car if I were like Marcus Aurelius?” “If this happened to my daughter, how would I advise her to cope?” “How will I think about this, looking back on events, ten or twenty years from now?”

There are several distancing methods found in the ancient Stoic literature. For instance, you can help yourself gain cognitive distance just by speaking to (“apostrophizing”) your thoughts and feelings, saying something like, “You are just a feeling and not really the thing you claim to represent,” as Epictetus in the Handbook advised his students to do.

The Handbook actually opens with a technique to remind ourselves that some things are “up to us,” or directly under our control, and other things are not. Modern Stoics sometimes call this the “Dichotomy of Control” or the “Stoic Fork.” Just recalling this distinction can help you recover a sense of indifference toward external things. Think of it this way. When you strongly judge something to be good or bad, you also commit yourself to saying that you want to obtain or avoid it. But if something is outside your control, then it’s simply irrational to demand that you should obtain or avoid it. It’s a contradiction to believe both that you must do something and also that it’s not within your power to do so. The Stoics viewed this confusion as the root cause of most emotional suffering. They point out that only our own acts of volition, our own intentions and judgments if you like, are directly under our control. Sure, I can open the door, but that’s always a consequence of my actions. Only my own voluntary actions themselves are truly under my control. When we judge external things to be good or bad, it’s as though we forget what’s under our control and try to overextend our sphere of responsibility. The Stoics view only their own actions as good or bad, virtuous or vicious, and therefore classify all external things as indifferent, because they’re not entirely “up to us” in this sense.

From HOW TO THINK LIKE A ROMAN EMPEROR: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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