Overcoming Habituated Standards

How Stoicism can help us change our ways

Three things before diving into this edition of Practical Stoicism

(1) Addiction cannot be cured by Stoic practice. (2) Addiction can be prevented by Stoic practice. (3) Recovery from addiction can be aided by a Stoic practice.

Lest I be unclear: one cannot “Stoic” themselves out of physical or chemical dependency any more than one can “Stoic” themselves out of clinical depression or bipolar disorder. Stoicism can help people struggling with such conditions, but it cannot be a stand-in for professional help, medical intervention, or appropriate pharmacological treatment.

Let me also draw a distinction between sorts of addiction — and, by that, I don’t mean, for example, alcoholism vs. opioid addiction. I mean, instead, substance addictions vs. pathological behavioural disorders vs. Non-pathological behaviours that one feels are compulsive.

Recovery from substance addictions can be aided through Stoic practice but are not cured through Stoicism. This is because the root of substance addiction isn’t mental, it is physical and physiological.

Overcoming pathological behavioural disorders can be aided through Stoic practice but are not cured through Stoicism. This is because the root of pathological behavioural disorders is a fundamental disfunction with the brain.

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Non-pathological behaviour can be cured through Stoic practice

I want it to be very clear that the “addiction” we’re discussing in this edition is the latter-most listed above: non-pathological behaviour which feels compulsive. Not drug addiction, not alcoholism, not ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, or Schizophrenia — only non-pathological behaviours which feel compulsive to those struggling with them.

Non-pathological behaviour is behaviour you have habituated through repeatedly making the same choice in similar scenarios. Eating unhealthy food, hanging out with toxic people, playing video games too much, consuming too much pornography, masturbating too frequently, interrupting people when they’re talking, talking over people, being self-centred, etc. This is behaviour that feels addictive because you’ve made it easy to do by doing it over and over again until your relationship with it feels more rooted compulsion than in choice.

Have you ever decided to go to bed early, knowing you need to catch up on sleep, only to find yourself, hours later, laying in bed, watching Netflix, YouTube, or TikTok unable to breakaway and do the thing you know you’re supposed to be doing? That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about today — habituated behaviour that we feel helpless to stop expressing.

Apologies for the lengthy preamble, but I needed to do it before talking about Character, which is at the root of compulsive behaviour.

Character

Character is the name we give to the essence of someone’s nature. It is a reflection of their habituated standards. When we say a person is kind, we mean they have habituated a standard of kindness. We expect them to be kind, because we believe they are kind. It is the same with any other attribute. When we say a person is miserly, we mean that they have habituated a standard of miserliness. We expect them to be miserly, because we believe they are miserly.

Importantly: person’s character isn’t just whether they’re kind or cruel, charitable or miserly, brave or cowardly, or any other opposite pairs of habituated standards. Instead, it is all the things that they are all at once — all aspects of our character composes the entirety of our character.

This is very strongly linked to the concept of Virtue in Stoicism because if someone possesses Virtue (the knowledge of how to live excellently), this possession is reflected in a sort of mastery of every single Subordinate and Cardinal virtue.

One cannot be Good if one is not entirely Good

Since to be Good, in Stoicism, is to possess Virtue, then to be Good is to be perfectly brave, perfectly temperate, perfectly kind, perfectly charitable, and perfectly every other Subordinate and Cardinal Virtue.

Why?

Because one cannot possess the knowledge of how to live excellently and then be anything less morally perfect (recalling a recent previous edition where we learned that one only does what they believe to be correct or right). The Stoics expect a sage to be Good, because they believe a sage is Good. And Good, to the Stoics, meant being morally perfect, which was a logical consequence of possessing the knowledge of how to live excellently.

You and I are far cries from morally perfect.

I got pissed off at an omelette this morning when I tried to flip it in the pan and, instead, wound up flopping onto the stove top. No one here is an exemplar of moral perfection — not by a long shot — but we need this understanding of Character and moral perfection in order to understand what we’re actually trying to achieve when we take on the task of overcoming non-pathological behaviours that feel addictive.

We are trying to change a single habituated standard within an seemingly-infinite multitude of habituated standards — and the reason that’s important to understand is it allows us to see what a seriously difficult quest we are setting out on. It’s never just one thing we’re trying to improve, it’s everything.

In order for us to become perfectly Brave, for example, we must also be perfectly Just. For, if we aren’t perfectly Just, we can not know the difference between Just bravery and unjust bravery. If we were not also perfectly Temperate, how could we know when was the appropriate time to be Brave? And it is like this all the way through the list of Subordinate and Cardinal Virtues. Perfection in one virtue requires perfection in every other virtue.

So when we are attempting to change our habituated standard of being short-tempered, or of doom scrolling instead of sleeping, or of being miserly instead of being charitable, we are, necessarily and terrifyingly, forced to confront the proposition that in order to change anything we’re imperfect at, we have to address everything else we’re also imperfect at (which is, literally, everything else).

This is the character development equivalent of going to the supermarket for “one thing” and then realising, once you’ve plopped that one thing into your basket, that you actually needed everything else.

…and a bigger basket, Sheriff.

Character is holistic, not atomistic.

If you’re trying to overcoming a short-temper, for example, you’ve got way more to do than just try to be more patient — and the fact that contemporary “Stoic Influencers” don’t tell you this is the reason Stoicism has become associated with emotional suppression. Because when you don’t have a holistic understanding of what it means to change a habituated behaviour (standard), the only thing you have left to tell people is to suppress their emotions and “suck it up, buttercup.”

Luckily, though, you’re subscribed to Practical Stoicism — so you’re going to get a lot more than that.

Changing our habituated standards of behaviour

It starts by admitting and accepting that we are unjust, cowardly, miserly, unwise, impatient, angry, and bad egg flippers — that we are entirely imperfect.

Once we’ve admitted and accepted this, it’s time to excavate our character and start connecting the dots we find.

I’m happy to offer myself up as an example. Why did I get angry about the egg I flipped? Let’s excavate!

I had just cleaned the cooktop and counters and the egg was for my wife, who is pregnant. My first thought was, “Now I can’t use the egg because it might have residue from the cleaner I just used.” Then, “I have to cook another egg, but that means I have to throw this egg out.” My wife is very conscientious about food waste, and if I threw the egg out I felt certain she was going to say something negative about me throwing it out.

The idea of this as yet totally imaginary lambasting over an egg I was cooking for her in the first place irritated me because it made me feel unappreciated. The result? I cursed at the floppy omelette and felt irritated in a way that was externally noticeable.

If I were to excavate this failure of morality I believe I would find, at its root, a fear of not being appreciated. That might mean the key to changing my habituated standard of being short-tempered isn’t in “learning to calm down” or “doing Yoga” or “taking a deep breath and counting my blessings”, it is, instead, in exploring my need to be appreciate for my contributions to my family, and what I’m so afraid of not having that appreciation.

If I did that, and I have, what I would find is that my wife does appreciate me — a great deal — and that her attitude towards food waste has absolutely nothing to do with it. So, then, why did I get mad?

It is common, at least in the case of everyone I’ve ever mentored, that at the bottom of most modern failures of personal morality is, as the Stoics said, ignorance. We believe something that isn’t true, and we’ve internalised that something so deeply that it has become a self-evident truth we can no longer see as a habituated standard… it is simply who we are.

The permanence of this standard is an illusion, but knowing that won’t solve our problems overnight. I’ve done the digging to discover how much I believe my human worth is determined by how dutifully I serve those who depend on me, but knowing this belief is wrong isn’t the same as believing it is wrong.

Knowing is step one, habituating recognition of what I now know is step two, and believing what I know is step three.

These steps require years to take, perhaps our entire lives — and they are taken in concert with other steps we’re taking to internalise other truths — but they are the only steps we can take which lead anywhere worth getting to.

The Stoic approach to changing your behaviour requires that you internalise the belief that you have way more to improve than the one or two things you’re aware of, and that all of those things are intimately related. This is why there are no sages, or why the Ancient Stoics said sages were “as rare as the phoenix” (a mythological bird — and mythological is about as rare as you can get, don’t you think?) — there’s no completing the task of improving yourself, it is NEVER done.

Regardless of how self-evident this truth is, no matter how absolute it is, it is hard to hear and even harder to accept. It’s a life-long labour that you are burdened with if you seed to be wise, and it can feel like an unjust punishment — and there are no shortage of gurus and cult leaders waiting in the wings to save you from having to confront such an endless Sisyphusian life’s work; someone always wants to sell us a shortcut… but there isn’t one.

But take solace in the truth that perfection isn’t the point

This is where I must give you an anti-nihilism pep talk via my very dear friend Thomas Nagel:

Most people feel on occasion that life is absurd, and some feel it vividly and continually. Yet the reasons usually offered in defense of this conviction are patently inadequate: they could not really explain why life is absurd. Why then do they provide a natural expression for the sense that it is?

Consider some examples. It is often remarked that nothing we do now will matter in a million years. But if that is true, then by the same token, nothing that will be the case in a million years matters now. In particular, it does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter. Moreover, even if what we did now were going to matter in a million years, how could that keep our present concerns from being absurd? If their mattering now is not enough to accomplish that, how would it help if they mattered a million years from now?

Whether what we do now will matter in a million years could make the crucial difference only if its mattering in a million years depended on its mattering, period. But then to deny that whatever happens now will matter in a million years is to beg the question against its mattering, period; for in that sense one cannot know that it will not matter in a million years whether (for example) someone now is happy or miserable, without knowing that it does not matter, period.

Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd”, (The Journal of Philosophy, October 1971)

Why did I just share that mind-bender with you? Because it applies, directly, to the question you must have been asking yourself after the previous section:

If I can never become truly good, what’s the point of spending my entire life trying to become good?

You, from a couple of moments ago

If we swap out “what we do” for “achieving sagehood” and “in a million years” for “trying to achieve saghood”, we can adapt Nagel’s argument…

The statement: “achieving sagehood is the only thing which makes trying to achieve sagehood matter” is a statement that can only be true if achieving sagehood without trying is possible. If achieving sagehood requires us to try, then trying to achieve sagehood must matter.

The likelihood of success has nothing to do with whether or not trying to succeed is worthwhile. If the success is worthwhile, then so is the effort.

Take care,
Tanner

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