Home truths. Harsh truths. Strong medicine. Metaphorical invasive surgery. Different terms alluding to the same thing: the category of advice that will make you question your beliefs. The personal stuff that you weren’t quite ready to face. The interruption that doesn’t tap you on the shoulder to get your attention so much as whack you on the back of the head with an open palm.
In real life, it’s usually the last resort – the most direct way of setting someone straight when more sensitive approaches haven’t worked. It’s politely coughing, then noisily coughing, then “Stop smoking, you’re killing us both!”
On social media, it’s just another type of post. Read too many of them and you’ll come to understand that you need to turn your life upside down immediately. You’ll compare yourself to an implied ideal and envy how an anonymous avatar has life all figured out.
Except no one has it all figured out. Even social media accounts with tens of thousands of followers, believe it or not. That will never not be true.
I’m not suggesting you won’t find useful areas for self-examination on social media or elsewhere online, but harsh truths aren’t for every day. Just like in real life, strong medicine should be reserved for the harder to treat issues just like strong cleaning agents are reserved for stubborn stains.
The polite cough will be enough most days if you’re paying enough attention.
Limiting Your Dosage
So, while there’s a dearth of strong medicine at our disposal, especially online, we have to employ the Stoic virtues of discipline and moderation in our consumption of it. We have to be selective and deal with one issue at a time.
If our dosage is too high too often, we’ll experience unwanted side effects.
There are things we want to hear and things we need to hear. Hearing what we need to hear is ultimately of most benefit to us, of course, but hearing it every day will burn us out if it’s continually hitting us at our core and challenging our own view of ourselves.
Hearing it less regularly, however, maintains its impact. It gives us the kind of short, sharp shock that can re-awaken us from a state of complacency.
For example, lost in our own comfort zone, we might need to be told that we’re:
- Wasting our potential
- Too afraid of failure and rejection
- Trying too hard to make everyone like us
- Spending too much time on unhealthy habits
- Holding on to a relationship that is hurting us
- Focusing too much on things we can’t control
- Not spending enough time with our loved ones
- Not taking enough responsibility for our own problems
One dose at a time, strong medicine like this can have a profound effect.
Taking The Medicine
When we resolve to apply discipline and moderation in our consumption of strong medicine, (the truths we seek rather than the ones that come to us in real life) we create enough space to work on our issues a little at a time.
We can examine the advice, objectively decide if it applies to us, and then use it to become a better version of ourselves.
Perhaps we update a list each time we encounter an interesting (yet challenging) piece of advice, then set a monthly reminder to examine one item on the list. Whatever we do, we maintain a distance at first. We prevent an emotional reaction.
“No great thing is created suddenly,” said Epictetus. “Any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”
The same goes for us. Slowly, steadily, intentionally, we can become our best selves.
But what do we do with strong medicine once the prescription has been filled? How do we extract the healing without getting the bitter aftertaste as we work through our list?
This is where the other two Stoic virtues – wisdom and courage – come in. Wisdom to interpret advice the right way and courage to do what needs to be done.
Here are some things we can do to deal with harsh truths in a calm, detached way:
1. Remove the value judgement
When we come across a harsh truth, or when someone gives it to us, we are immediately aware of its harshness. It questions our beliefs or behaviour in a way that might offend us.
When Stoics seek to get to the truth they remove value judgements. We can do the same here.
If we remove the “harsh” value judgement from harsh truths, we’re literally left with just a truth. We get to the heart of the matter without the manufactured emotion presenting itself as a side effect.
2. Don’t take offence
We take the truth we’re left with and we examine it. But we should actively try not to take offence.
By taking offence, we get in our own way. We harm our own prospects. We block our own growth.
We should, however, take it personally. Personally in the sense that we take time to determine if it applies to us. We need to honestly admit to ourselves if it’s information we can use to improve.
Like Marcus Aurelius, we discard “harsh” and make truth our business:
If anyone can convince me of an error, I shall be very glad to change my opinion, for truth is my business, and nobody was ever yet hurt by it. No; he that continues in ignorance and mistake, it is he that receives the mischief.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.21
The problem is it usually makes us look out when it should make us look in. It makes us put on a front and attack the external world that dared bring this information to us. It should make us curious, excited even, to examine it internally and see if we might benefit from it.
And remember, someone who knows you well and has the courage to give you an important truth at the risk of offending you probably cares for you a great deal.
3. Remember that discomfort now will help in the long-term
We can deflect all criticism, refuse all truth and advice, and persist in willful ignorance. We can take the easy option and lie to ourselves for a false sense of short-term security. To follow this path we have no choice but to accept that what we’re ignoring will compound and hit us all the harder in the long-term.
But the short-term security isn’t all that secure. We won’t just forget. Remembered criticisms will stifle us and make us engage less and less with life in order to avoid more criticisms.
Instead, we can act now. We can take the bitter shot of medicine and deal with our truth and go on engaging with life. Once dealt with, we can put it behind us. The sting of the remembered criticism becomes the gratitude of the remembered improvement.
4. Practice compassion when advising others
If we find ourselves in a position to give advice to someone else, to tell them a truth, we should remember the previous points from their perspective.
We don’t need to tell them “I’m going to give you a harsh truth”, we don’t even need to tell ourselves that’s what we’re doing. It’s a truth, that’s all.
We’re not trying to offend. There’s no aggression, only compassion:
“If you must be affected by other people’s misfortunes, show him empathy instead of contempt.”Epictetus, Discourses 18
We care, so we supply strong medicine as soon as we can in the hope that the person will accept it and reap the long-term benefits. If not, at least we tried our best.
If a man is mistaken, instruct him kindly and show him his error. But if you cannot convince him, blame yourself, or not even yourself.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.4
The ability to turn harsh truths into truths is almost a superpower. The less disturbed we are by hearing what we need to hear (while having the wisdom to objectively decide if it really is something we need to hear), the more mental space we create to improve ourselves.
If we take the offence out of it, and see it as something that can be turned to our benefit, we’ll cultivate a much stronger peace of mind.
And, experiencing the benefit of strong medicine every now and then, we might even come to enjoy hearing such truths.