I am in favour of stoicism. Learning how to think rather than just feel, to make choices based on balance & priorities rather than just impulse & reaction saved my life. I believe that as we age, learning to be more stoic helps us be more effective in the role of the parent, the role that helps manage and balance families & communities.
Being forced to be stoic, though, is not a good thing. In a story about children raised in Scientology, Rolling Stone reveals the cost of demanding stoicism from children. While adults who enter the program want to be able to not be controlled by emotion, deciding to accept the continuous, grinding demands for discipline & compliance, the children they brought with them never signed up for this rigidity, nor did they need it.
For these now adult children, getting together to mirror each other, affirming their experiences is vital, just as Bessel Van Der Kolk explains in “The Body Keeps The Score.” Their stories of being unable to easily interact with others who had a childhood, those who don’t understand how existing under fear and threats everyday could have shaped a life.
For me, though, it makes perfect sense. While I didn’t have a mindset forced upon me, I quickly learned that the only way to protect myself in a family lead by two people with Asperger’s Syndrome was to become stoic, controlling my feelings and using my head.
“Everybody who comes in here explains how people did hurtful or stupid things to them,” a therapist told me. “The difference is that you go on to explain why they made those choices, explaining their thinking and the pressures they are under.”
Yeah. I had to model others in my head just to keep myself safe and sane.
The cost for that, though, is very similar to the price the children of Scientology paid, a lost childhood. Just feeling, trusting, exploring, playing, never was safe.
To me, it felt like a life lived backwards, learning to be stoic first and then trying to go back to learn trust, including trusting my own feelings. Because I was so out of synch with people around me, though, they had no idea how to engage me.
Stoic behaviour ends up demanding more stoic behaviour. Because sounded strong, well balanced & smart, people assumed I had no emotions, so they dumped their own drama onto me. If I then tried to show my feelings, they got upset, assuming I should be the stoic one, taking the brunt.
This cycle continues to this day, with me offering my hard won knowledge, people feeling threatened and then acting out, even if they claimed to be a safe person creating a safe space. I know I can’t react by showing emotions because they will see that as me denying my better training.
For mental health professionals, teaching stoicism is a key part of the process, helping people move away from emotional reactions to considered responses. Our freedom does lie in the moment between stimulus and response, so learning how to be beyond old, knee-jerk habits is vital to making better choices and creating positive change.
When you endured compulsory stoicism, though, learning to stay small & controlled, out of touch from your deep human feelings, well, learning more stoic behaviour doesn’t open your heart and unlock your possibilities. It becomes impossible to blossom.
To me, stoicism is like gender; I’m in favour of both, but against them when they are compulsory, forced upon us by dint of biology or family history. We are powerful when we manifest our spirit with thoughts & grace, but we are destroyed when pounded into shape.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
— Gnostic Gospel of Thomas
Stoicism saved me. It also, as part of a family that could only be survived with it, helped destroy me. For decades now, I have been writing to share what I had to stow away, but I know that many find it too intellectual on the surface or find it too emotional and deep.