Two disparate events moved me to write this week about the drawbacks of stoicism.
First, I completed a round-trip of some 15 hours duration to have Daisy’s (my dog) lameness properly diagnosed by a specialist vet who, rather inconveniently, lives in another country. It turns out that she’s been hiding multiple significant musculoskeletal issues (stoically) for the majority of her life.
Second, I received a question from someone worried about their alcohol consumption whilst simultaneously downplaying its significance (stoically). On the same day, I read Laura Kennedy’s piece about growing up around addiction. It made me think about how agency is frequently overlooked and misunderstood in terms of its importance to long-term and sustainable change and how stoicism gets in agency’s way.
My friend, Martin, now twelve years in recovery, was someone I lost touch with during the decade in which his addiction took the strongest hold, a time during which he displayed no agency at all.
When we did finally catch up it was following his cancer diagnosis. He’d been told that if he didn’t stop drinking he’d be dead in six months.
I asked him what he remembered about receiving such traumatic news.
“I decided that I’d stop after five months and give myself a whole month to sort things out.”
He thought for a moment, then added,
“The truth is that by that time, assuming I was still alive, I’d have told myself it was too late and just cracked on with the vodka.”
It might seem odd to equate active addiction with stoicism but a stoic is someone who represses emotion and, if you’ve ever hung around with an addict, you’ll know that to be an eternal truth.
The addicts I’ve met use or drink to suppress emotion.
For most of us, the thought of imminent death would provoke some sort of emotion so Martin would have needed to repress it to continue with his self-destruction.
The end of destructive stoicism and the beginning of agency came when he decided, quite reasonably, and presumably having thought about it for a bit, that he didn’t really want to die.
The stoic repression of emotion can have several damaging impacts.
First, it prevents you from seeing, understanding, and therefore accepting and loving your true self. (How can you love someone you don’t know?).
Second, it prevents friends and family from loving you because they can’t get past the impenetrable but wildly unhelpful boundaries you have erected to avoid feeling the things you don’t want to feel.
Third, it does you emotional damage because, if you can’t feel anything you can’t know when you are suffering harm. A numb hand thrust into a roaring fire still burns.
When the car arrived to take Martin to rehab he had his foot on the pedal bin in the kitchen as it waited, open-mouthed, to receive the empty vodka bottle he was in the process of draining.
That was the end of destructive stoicism and the beginning of agency. The belief that he could get sober and the resolve to do so has carried him for twelve years and provided the foundation for the charitable work he does these days helping others into sustained recovery.
In therapy, despite the sometimes ferocious dogma attached to specific modalities, research suggests that clients themselves are responsible for 40% of successful outcomes.
The support networks they have in place, their sense of responsibility for their own life, and their belief that they can address the problem are worth more than the theoretical approach, the therapeutic relationship, or the expertise of the therapist.
Using agency effectively sits in between damaging stoicism, manifesting as a denial that change is necessary, and adopting a position of “victim” where agency is not even recognised as an option let alone employed.
The person who wrote to me about their relationship with alcohol asked about what strategies they could use to manage their destructive drinking (and cocaine use) so that it wouldn’t negatively affect their job and relationships.
I told them that no such strategies exist as far as I am aware and that only through a full acceptance of the problem, a belief that they can address it, and a resolve to do so (with help) would move the needle.
I have no idea how my answer landed, but I have learned I rarely get a second go at telling the truth in such situations.
Men, in particular, find it hard to acknowledge anything they perceive as emotional frailty and in that regard, the phrase “Man Up” has a lot to answer for.
It is illustrative of the misguided notion that repressing emotions stoically is always something to be celebrated.
The real struggle for men in the past few generations hasn’t been about repressing emotion but rather balancing the best of what it is to be masculine with embracing the personal growth and transformation that can only come from exploring and sharing emotion and vulnerability.
“Man up” is a phrase not used in therapy for a reason.
So it is agency that leads us into the light more than stoicism ever will.
You can feel as broken as you like but if you can find the agency to make change there will never be a shortage of people waiting to support you, however long and arduous the road.
Going into therapy, joining a peer support group, reading a Substack about recovery. They’re all examples of agency.
Stoicism, on the other hand, can look like pushing yourself to run after a ball when your legs hurt, hiking up and down hills wagging your tail when your body doesn’t much fancy it, and walking for miles and miles when you’re in more pain than you’re letting on, until a vet in Scotland finally discovers the truth about you, and provides the opportunity for some affirmative action so that you don’t have to keep pretending.
Dogs rely on us for their agency toward recovery but humans don’t have that excuse.