It’s How You React

“When you are distressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgment of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.”


External things happen, whether we want them to or not. Life events occur at their own discretion, despite our futile attempts to control them. Change never ends. Fate is always twisting.

When something external is stressing you out or making you sad, in truth it’s not actually that thing which is causing your emotions to run strong — it’s how you react that is causing you to feel raw.

Remember, if you’re anxious about something, then it’s probably in the future and of course you have no control over that. And if you’re depressed about something, then it’s likely in the past, and that’s not something you can influence either!

So what can you do? You can realize that it’s not the external events that are making you feel this way, it’s your judgment of them, and how you react to that. And that’s something you do have control over: your reaction.

In The Daily Stoic today, we’re given the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt and how he was presented with a life event which might have brought any of us to despair — he was diagnosed with polio just as he was about to reach his lofty personal goals. But he chose to judge this external thing as a mere speed bump, nothing that could slow him down in any real way. He decided how he was going to react. Now that is real power.

For although we must always accept and understand the role that we were given to play, it doesn’t mean we have to go meekly into the night. It doesn’t mean we have to give in, or stop trying to transcend. “Let’s not confuse acceptance with passivity,” says author Ryan Holiday.

Rather, we must focus on what we can control, and where our true power comes from — our ability to choose how we react.

My reaction caused the stress

Earlier this week, I found myself wracked with stress and anxiety.

The holidays are basically here already, and with two young children and big trips to plan for in December and January, suddenly my to-do list is a million miles long and feels never-ending.

On top of that, it’s Q4 and as anyone who has ever worked in the corporate world will tell you, that’s the craziest quarter of all. And I work in digital advertising, and that is definitely the insane time of year for marketers. It’s when grown adults cry under their desks.

All of this threatened to overwhelm me. It felt like a black wave about to swallow me up.

And then… it hit me. All of these requirements, to-do lists, obligations — they were all of my own making. It was me who decided they were so important, even the work things. And it was me who was freaking out about them, that was my (unconsciously) chosen reaction.

What if I just decided that they weren’t so critical? After all, the only thing I can control is how I react to each of these things on my list. What if I just reacted with a “nope, not today” or “nah, this can wait”. Or even a “is this really so important to get done this week?”

Suddenly I felt a lot better. I had control back — over my reaction anyway. I rejected the stress by de-prioritizing these items, and simply let these things go, and pushed them into next week if necessary. Freedom! And it was right in front of me the whole time.

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