Stoicism and Intrusive Thoughts

In spite of the well-documented influence of Stoicism on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), practicing Stoicism while struggling with mental illness can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. This conflict is usually the result of widespread misinterpretations about the nature of Stoicism (i.e. confusing little “s” stoic behavior with Stoic philosophy). We are not wired to be unfeeling or completely indifferent to suffering. Likewise, even with immense discipline and strength of character, thought disorders and other manifestations of mental illness are rarely in our control.

Intrusive thoughts, for example, can be difficult to reconcile with Stoicism. Common in individuals who suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, and other disorders, an intrusive thought is any sort of unpleasant thought or idea that worms its way into your head and refuses to let go. Most people experience bizarre or troubling thoughts throughout the day (i.e. violently hitting a coworker who annoys you, or unusual sexual thoughts that you would never act on); however, most are able to ignore them, or chock them up to random neural activity. Intrusive thoughts become a psychiatric concern when, rather than shrugging them off, a person is unable to let go of these thoughts. They may obsess on them night and day, wondering if these unwanted visitors are indicative of their character.

No amount of reason or rationality can “cure” intrusive thoughts. Thankfully, we can apply the principles of Stoicism to ease and moderate our symptoms as best as we can.

Myself and many other people with diagnosed and undiagnosed psychiatric conditions frequently struggle with such intrusive thoughts. They replay in my mind like a movie scene stuck on repeat, and sometimes make it very difficult for me to have normal conversations. On better days, I am able to make fun of these thoughts and dismiss them as my mind throwing an unwanted bacchanal orgy. On the worst of days, I shut away from the world for fear of acting on these thoughts.

The funny thing about intrusive thoughts is that rationally, I know that I would never act on these thoughts. However, mental illness isn’t exactly known for respecting reason or intelligence. This is why many bright thinkers of the ages struggled with mental illness. No amount of reason or rationality can “cure” intrusive thoughts. Thankfully, we can apply the principles of Stoicism to ease and moderate our symptoms as best as we can.

Before proceeding, a disclaimer: I have a Bachelor’s in Psychology, and continue to research this field as often as I can. However, I am not a qualified mental health professional, and this post is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health conditions. I am merely writing from my own experience and what has helped me. If you are struggling with intrusive thoughts and feel that they are significantly impacting your life, please reach out to a mental health professional if you are able to do so. This article is not intended to be a substitute for therapy or psychiatric treatment.

Although I find frequent comfort in the writings of Marcus Aurelius, I am often troubled by one of his more famous quotes: “The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” It should be noted that this quote is not meant to specifically apply to intrusive thoughts. However, as someone who struggles with them, I wrestled with this quote for a long time:

If thoughts determine character, then do my intrusive thoughts taint my character? If my thoughts affect my very soul, then how can I hope to be a good person?

I became obsessed with these questions, fretful that my striving to be a virtuous person was futile in light of my often-unvirtuous thoughts. The cause of my distress is due to the common misconception that many sufferers have about these thoughts: because I think this, I must be a bad person.

This conclusion is a common logical fallacy among many sufferers of mental illness. We often look for evidence proving that we are bad, twisted, awful human beings, and it is very easy to interpret bizarre and unwanted thoughts as damning indicators of perversity. I blame Freud for this, as his theories on human sexuality refuse to die and continue to convince millions that we all secretly want to have sex with our parents. Frankly, it’s also just fun to blame Freud for everything; he was a strange fellow.

At the end of the day, however, intrusive thoughts are not supposed to be indicators of our virtue. Whenever I experience these thoughts, I am repulsed by them, and have no desire to act on them at all. As a matter of fact, the power these thoughts hold over me stems not from my desire to act on them, but from the amount of mental energy I spend engaging with these thoughts. If you are a person with a conscience and moral compass, you believe that assaulting a coworker or molesting a child is a horrible thing to do, and would not dream of acting on it. Furthermore, if you were to act on it, you would be wracked with guilt for harming another human being, and would try your very best to not cause harm to others going forward.

Why, then, is it so hard to uphold the same train of logic with our thoughts? And this is where mental illness complicates the truth. When our brain wiring complicates our ability to reason, then our reason seems like madness.

How, then, can we practice Stoic thinking when our own wiring works against us? I don’t believe that there is one simple solution to this quandary. As stated earlier, therapy and psychiatric intervention is usually the most advisable course of action for any manifestation of mental illness. While Stoicism has greatly improved my ability to see my intrusive thoughts as unworthy of my attention, cognitive-behavioral therapy has been the best foundation for addressing harmful thought patterns. Stoicism can be an excellent supplement to therapy and medication, but it is not intended to replace comprehensive treatment.

When our brain wiring complicates our ability to reason, then our reason seems like madness.

That being said, there are many Stoic practices that can be beneficial to anyone who is distressed by their intrusive thoughts. Most of these practices can be found in other religious and philosophical traditions as well, as ancient wisdom is not limited to one practice.

  1. Focus on your actions in your daily journaling habits

It is a popular practice in the Stoic community to journal in the morning and evening, focusing on what actions you can take to better yourself. When you focus on your actions, it can be easy to redirect your energy spent on your bad thoughts into making sure your actions are aligned with your principles. I strongly recommend checking to ensure that your journaling is practiced in a moderate and healthy way so that you not become hyper-fixated on your transgressions, real or imagined.

Explore the Stoic virtue of temperance in this realm, asking yourself: how can I exude temperance in my journaling habits? How can I continue to ensure that my actions are virtuous without obsessing about them excessively? What thoughts do help me exercise virtue, and how can I take these healthier thoughts to heart?

2. Meditate on humility rather than ruminating on self-hatred

I came across this excellent quote from the Catholic saint Vincent de Paul concerning the intersection of humility and truth: “Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.” When you ruminate on how terrible of a person you are, remember that these ruminations lead you away from the truth. When we actively practice humility, we take energy away from these lies that bog us down. We can retrain our thoughts to see our shortcomings through a more realistic, objective lens, rather than a worldview of loathing.

Humility is a challenging virtue in practice, but it absolutely worth pursuing. If you find yourself struggling with self-hatred and wish to learn how to redirect your thoughts, there are many spiritual advisors and practices to explore as a complement to therapy.

Above all else, remember that your intrusive thoughts are lies; the real truth lies in virtue.

Memento Mori, friends.

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