The word “sensitive” often leads people to images of untempered emotional volatility. They describe someone as “overly sensitive”. A person who gets upset quickly and jumps to over-reactive paranoid conclusions. They take everything personally and leave people walking on egg shells.
The word “stoic” on the other hand is often used to describe someone who is un-reactive; even deliberately cut off from their feelings. A person with a disengaged and stoney faced outward appearance, and an inability to respond emotionally to the world around them. They make people feel judged and inferior for caring about things.
These extreme caricatures might lead us to pit stoicism and sensitivity add odds with each other. You’re either stoical or sensitive, but you cannot be both. Stoicism laughs (inwardly) at sensitivity, and sensitivity pities stoicism.
But this chasm is balderdash. It falsely polarises two close siblings and even distracts us from a liberating truth: Stoicism and Sensitivity are best buddies.
“Be More Stoical”
One reason I think the chasm between stoicism and sensitivity exists is because of how we use language. Stoical and Sensitive are both used as insults and compliments depending on the situation.
“She was so sensitive in the way she dealt with the problem, and brought about the best outcome for everyone involved.”
“It was amazing. Her stoicism in the face of that crisis at work was exactly what was needed to see it through.”
Likewise, they can be used as insults:
“He is too sensitive, he just needs to man up, be more stoical and get on with it like the rest of us.”
“He’s so cold and stoical, never letting anyone see who he is beneath that facade.”
Intention, Control, and Appearance
The insults are generalisations. Whereas the positive reactions are specific. The insults create perceptions, without getting beneath the surface. They use the words to criticise something about the person that has nothing to do with sensitivity or stoicism.
You may have noticed that the positive words are actually different perceptions of the same situation. Stoicism is about exercising control over the things you can influence, accepting the things you can’t, and acting with virtue in order to seek the best possible way for everyone involved.
It is not an outward appearance, but rather a deeply sensitive operation going on within. It’s a way of thinking, responding to, and interacting with, the world so that we can invest our time and energy in things that can be influenced, learning to accept (however hard), the reality of the things that cannot be changed. This is of great importance to sensitive types because it leaves us with a deeper sense of control, and a lessened risk of overwhelm from reacting to whatever sensory input enters our path in any given moment.
Sensitivity and Stoicism: Two Sides of the Same Coin
It is through our senses that we experience the world, and it is through our philosophy (mindset) that we process and interpret the things we sense.
The word “stoical” is often used to positively describe an outward display of controlled calmness. There is a risk however, with holding this appearance as desirable. We don’t go beneath the surface. Instead we jump straight to a “stiff upper lip” mentality.
This is the idea that you should “suck it up”, maintain great self-restraint and display fortitude in the face of all things. The “stiff upper lip” has left many of us Brits (especially men), untrained and unable to access or express how we truly feel. We have been fed this idea that we should be “stoical” and not let things get to us. This kind of denial/suppression doesn’t distinguish emotion, it simply pushes it down a different tunnel. And you can rest assured that it will reappear in some way down the line.
Stoicism is a philosophy of health. It’s a school of thought that transcends religion, race, gender, political perspective etc. And likewise, it doesn’t matter if you’re an introvert, extrovert, and/or highly sensitive person. We can learn to thrive from the inside-out when we take it seriously and apply it to our own lives.
Why does stoicism help highly sensitive people and introverts?
1. A Practical Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Humans are good at making simple things complex. I enjoy getting deep and philosophical, but I also love wisdom and insight that is practical. This is why I enjoy dipping into the words of the Stoics. It applies to everyone and can be understood by anyone, despite our best efforts to make it sound complex.
It’s simple. Accept what you can’t change. Do what is good and right. Hold lightly to your perception about how things and people are…Note I said it’s simple, not that it’s easy!
2. Everything Starts and Ends Within
The good life isn’t about gaining more things (stuff, influence, outward success etc). It’s about self-control, acceptance, and eliminating desire for things that are outside of your influence. As well as fear for losing the things you already have. It’s about bringing our experience of life into the present moment. This kind of life training is done within, and no one can sway you from its path because its yours to own. As such this is the ideal philosophy for introverts and sensitive types.
3. A Philosophy Built on Adversity
Seneca was born a slave, he spent his life battling all manner of ills, and met his death when Nero (to whom he was a close friend and adviser) forced him to commit suicide. Victor Frankl is another voice that springs to mind as an inspiration our modern day. His writing from the time he spent in Nazi concentration camps are full of incredible reflections that share similarities to the stoic philosophers.
It is not a fair weather approach to life. Not something for when times are good. But is consistently practiced in the most testing and adverse circumstances. It both draws from those experiences, and also provides the tools to respond to adversity in the future. As a result it carries credibility and unpicks the cynical inclination we might have to say “it’s all well and good for you to say that, but it would be different if you were in my shoes”.
It’s a practical philosophy that has been tried, tested, and triumphed in the hardest of situations. This is why it’s perfect for introverts and HSPs, because even within the struggles you experience there are so many lessons to be learned and tools to be tested to help you become the best you can be.
4. It Doesn’t Give Control Over to Anyone Else
We may sometimes feel helpless and overwhelmed by circumstances beyond our control. There are times when we say “if only it wasn’t so noisy”, or “if only I was an extrovert”, or “if only I had learned this at an earlier age”, then I would be happy. We lean towards this desire/aversion thinking, in which we blame things that we have no influence over for our situation.
Equally we create wild hopes and dreams that place our happiness and success into the hands of a third party (e.g. winning the lottery). Our “ticket out of here” is dependent on things which we carry no influence.
Stoicism helps us strip away the stuff and identify what we can control in order to contribute to a more meaningful and intentional life. It helps us see the part we play in things, so that we can act with a clearer perspective and do what is good, helpful, and right.
Over to You
Have you ever considered yourself a “stoic”? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please leave your response in the comments below.