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What Would Seneca Do (WWSD)? Two Kinds of Fear and the Practice of Authenticity

It’s critical to understand fear as a force separate from us. Only then does it become possible to study it, learn its habits, and even use it.

Fear can motivate us or destroy us—you choose

Two key definitions: ego anxiety and discomfort anxiety.

To distinguish the two, Albert Ellis—founder of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT)—wrote in 2003:

Discomfort anxiety (DA) I define as emotional tension that results when people feel (1) that their comfort (or life) is threatened, (2) that they should or must get what they want (and should not or must not get what they don’t want), and (3) that it is awful or catastrophic (rather than merely inconvenient or disadvantageous) when they don’t get what they supposedly must.

Ego anxiety I define as emotional tension that results when people feel (1) that their self or personal worth is threatened, (2) that they should or must perform well and/or be approved by others, and (3) that it is awful or catastrophic when they don’t perform well and/or are not approved by others as supposedly should or must be.

Each is undergirded with a complex of shoulds and musts, and reinforced by magical thinking in the form conjecture about all the terrible things that might happen “if”.

Here’s the thing: it’s not the fact of these states, emotions, and thoughts that’s the problem. It’s our systematic avoidance of them that conditions us to see them as exactly that: a problem or a threat to the status quo.

The way out is the opposite of avoidance. Call it systematic exposure—and, in his Moral Letters to Lucilius, the Greek Stoic philosopher Seneca advises making a practice of it.

I am so firmly determined, however, to test the constancy of your mind that, drawing from the teachings of great men, I shall give you also a lesson: Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”

It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes. Such is the course which those men have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

Seneca insists that, should Lucilius practice facing the discomforts of poverty in times of abundance and comfort, he might effectively immunize himself against his own shame and fear in the harder times.

So whether it’s fear of poverty, cold, the disapproval of our family and community, or the pervasive fear of an enemy that has us in it’s grip, we, like Lucilius, have a choice: on the one hand, a path of increasing authenticity and freedom; on the other, a path of self-censorship, fear, and restricted options.

I talk quite a bit on this blog about Stoic philosophy, fear and authenticity. If you liked this post, you can read similar entries here.

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