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How to Handle Difficult People Like a Stoic

Follow these three principles to guard your equanimity.

Key points

  • The philosophy of Stoicism offers greater flexibility in how you respond to challenging people.
  • It teaches that your interpretations, rather than events themselves, are the true source of upset feelings.
  • Peace of mind comes from redirecting your energy to the things you can actually control.
Source: RomanSamborskyiShutterstock

On a recent road trip with my wife and kids, I found myself being tailgated by an apparently angry and impatient driver. I was going a few miles per hour over the speed limit as I passed a semi on a long downhill stretch through the mountains; when I pulled into the right lane, the driver accelerated past me, blowing his horn for about 10 seconds.

I felt my sympathetic nervous system turn on, and resisted the urge to give him the finger or to passive-aggressively honk a "friendly" beep-beep in return. For several minutes afterward, I was silently seething. It felt like he had gotten away with something, as if I had lost and he had won. Each time I replayed the prolonged honk I felt angry and humiliated. Part of me really wanted to chase down his car and pay him back somehow, but I knew nothing good would come of it.

You no doubt have had similar encounters with obnoxious or pushy people, whether on the road or elsewhere. These episodes are a perfect opportunity to practice the principles of Stoicism.

1. Judgments, Not Events, Disturb People

As I ruminated on what had happened, I had to wonder: What had that pushy driver actually done to me? The idea that he had "humiliated" me or "won" was based on multiple layers of interpretation. The facts were much simpler:

  • A driver wanted his car to go faster than mine was going.
  • He drove close to my bumper when my car was blocking his way, apparently angry and annoyed.
  • As his car passed mine, he pressed on his horn for several seconds before speeding away.

The powerlessness and sense of victimhood that I felt were not part of the events themselves. Nothing says that honking without retribution equals "winning."

As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote in Enchiridion nearly two millennia ago, "It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them."

A few pages later he adds: "Another person will not hurt you without your cooperation; you are hurt the moment you believe yourself to be."

It wasn't the driver's actions that upset me, it was the meaning I gave to them. When someone does something that offends you, ask yourself what is fact and what is interpretation.

2. Don't Give Your Peace of Mind to Others

The judgments you make drive your emotional reactions. If you want to "win" against others, guard your equanimity. The only way I would lose to that honking driver was by losing my peace of mind.

Why give difficult people power over how you feel and what you do? Your emotional equilibrium is not to be entrusted to the actions of others. You can let people be rude or unreasonable, without acting as if your only recourse is to get upset and respond in kind.

Remind yourself that no one else is responsible for your emotions. "So when we are frustrated, angry, or unhappy," wrote Epictetus, "never hold anyone except ourselves—that is, our judgments—accountable." When you do, you'll discover true freedom in how you choose to respond.

Arena Creative/Adobe Stock
Source: Arena Creative/Adobe Stock

3. Focus on What You Can Control

The Stoics recognized that peace of mind is found by focusing on what you actually are responsible for. Epictetus advised asking yourself, "'Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?' And if it's not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, 'Then it's none of my concern.'"

That means the things other people think, feel, and do are excluded from your concerns. It doesn't mean you're indifferent to other people, but if you make their responsibilities your own, you'll multiply your misery.

Unfortunately, we often practice anti-Stoicism. We give most of our energy to what others are doing, stewing in our outrage ("They said what?!") and trying hard to force them to change. In the process, we neglect the responsibility we have for ourselves, as if other people are making us behave in a particular way.

If you wish to suffer less, practice treating irritating people like a Stoic would. Recognize that the person is irritating only to the extent that you allow them to be. "Irritating" is a judgment, and your judgments belong to you. Own your reactions. No one can force you to feel or act in ways that you're not willing to.

The battle that really matters is internal. Make a determination to wrestle only with the things you're free to control, and let go of the rest.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: AstroStar/Shutterstock


Epictetus (2008). Discourses and selected writings (R. Dobbin, Ed. & Trans.). Penguin Classics. (Original work from early second century CE)

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