Adapting Your Thinking with an Ancient Stoic Practice

The following is a guest post kindly submitted by Enda Harte.

You can find Enda online here:

Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.


We’re taking a journey back to Ancient Rome to borrow a psychological manoeuvre from the transcribed handbook of a Stoic Philosopher’s teachings. Epictetus, the former slave drawn to the world of Stoicism during the 1st century AD, popularised a concept entitled the Dichotomy of Control (DOC), and his Enchiridion (handbook) written by his student Arrian begins with a very poignant quotation on this matter:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

So… What is the Dichotomy of Control?

The DOC is one of the core pillars of Stoic practice for use in modern self-improvement. This can be used to assist your way of thinking, and in general, you don’t need to know much about Stoicism to utilise this mental exercise.

*Although we would recommend digesting Epictetus’ handbook for other countless trinkets of wisdom

In essence, it is a concept that divides everything into a few simple factions; Primarily the things we can control and things that are beyond our control. What we can control about a situation includes; our emotions, our reactions and our behaviour.

Everything else, including other peoples opinions we have very little power over. So if we wish to be content we should then focus on the things in our control, namely our behaviours and reactions in everyday life. This is a common theme with most other philosophers and schools of thinking, as they too have shared the sentiment that it is easier to change yourself and your desires instead of trying to change the world around you.

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”

Marcus Aurelius

One thing that is within your control is whether or not you do something in the first place. Whilst achieving a goal is never guaranteed, failing to try ensures that you will never accomplish it. Taking your shot and trying your best is controlling the situation in this instance. If you know you are truly applying yourself and trying your best, you are already using the DOC to take the unnecessary stress off, regardless of the external outcome.

Some would argue (like Professor William B. Irvine) that the Dichotomy of Control is a “false dichotomy” because the phrasing is over-simplistic and ambiguous. Simply stating, “some things are within our power, while others are not” is omitting instances where we harbour some (but not all) control over a situation.

Irvine has since explained it as a Trichotomy; “there are things <that we have> complete control of, things over which we have no control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control”. Despite this critique, Irvine still finds value in the sentiment and, it is still a widely practised concept. At its core, it is a simple yet effective means of living a more contented life by eliminating stress and concern over things that we have zero control over.

Photo by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash

Why Practice the Dichotomy of Control?

“We don’t control our initial reaction, perhaps, but we do control how we respond to it: it’s not what happens first that matters but what you do next.”

Donald J. Robertson

Using the DOC can help reduce undue stress, anxiety, frustration and anger. If we aim to eliminate negative emotions of things that are beyond our control, it will help us have a more positive disposition. In turn, bolstering resilience and getting rid of resentment and prevents others from having the power to hurt us.

Try to think back on the last time you were angry; perhaps a person cut you off in traffic or you got into a heated discussion about politics. The Stoics would argue that it was not the situation that has made you angry, but your own emotions. By letting yourself get irate at something beyond your control you have brought undue anger to yourself and, it’s up to you to calm yourself down, regardless of whether the situation has been resolved or not.

Speaking from first-hand experience, we know how negative thoughts can consume and cloud your judgement of a situation. The best question to ask yourself when you feel overwhelmed is, “can I control the outcome of this situation?” If that answer is no, work towards not letting it affect you the next time a similar situation arises.

Freeing your mind from fixating on things that you have no power over may allow you the time to work on the things you can control. e.g. improving how we react when we feel certain emotions, be that working through anger issues, negative opinions or overthinking scenarios.

Getting Started with the Dichotomy of Control

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”

Seneca the Younger

The Dichotomy of Control is by no means a quick fix to your irritation, it requires consistent practice over a long period, and like all new skills, it is tough in the beginning. It is worth sticking with until each step becomes second nature, and reading this article is a step in the right direction for implementing the DOC. We have spent many years delving into this practice, so here is the most effective method to hopefully get you on the correct path.

Writing and Reflection:

A simple means of practising the DOC in daily life is to write down in two columns things that are in your control versus those that aren’t. When doing this, focus your attention on what you can control, and dispel the thoughts and emotional energy of the things you cannot. Try to choose an event that isn’t too emotionally upsetting if you’re just starting this practice.

Examples of this include; your flight being delayed, giving an important presentation at work, or being more likeable to your friends or colleagues. This exercise is advantageous as it helps give you a clear picture of how you should focus your desires and aversions with the aim of achieving peace of mind. You can also sit in a quiet space and make a mental note of the same sentiments, which is something we’ve often done before or after a stressful event.

Photo by Noémi Macavei-Katócz on Unsplash

Closing Thoughts

This technique will not allow you to just “get over something”, and it is less about drastically changing your thought patterns at the flick of a switch and more about having the power to work on changing the way you think for the better through consistent practice. Essentially think of this as a tool for not sweating the small stuff.

Whilst we’ve taken great value from practising the DOC to deal with everyday irritations, it is not designed to suppress all emotion but to prevent an all-encompassing negative disposition. There will be extreme cases where your efforts may be entirely futile because of the magnitude of the externals you will face.

The Stoics here would actively encourage you to accept the outcome with equanimity toward what happens to you because the ultimate aim of Stoicism is to achieve a fulfilling life through the concept of Eudaimonia (A flourishing flow of life) and in accordance with the universal nature of things.

Special thanks to Brenda Conlon for contributing to this article. You can find our writings here.