The Narration Inside Our Heads

We spend so much time inside our heads, thinking about ourselves and what we are doing, feeling, and thinking, that it is easy to imagine that everyone is watching us and thinking about us. We get so caught up in our thoughts about ourselves that we forget that other people probably aren’t paying any attention to us. Most people are probably thinking of themselves the way we are thinking about ourselves. This is a phenomenon that psychologist David Elkind refers to as the Imaginary Audience and author Ryan Holiday writes about it in his book Ego is the Enemy.


We constantly have a narrative about the world playing inside our head. We tell ourselves amazing things about who we are, emphasizing the positive traits we see and like in ourselves and comparing ourselves to others in a way that makes us look amazing. At the same time, however, we are likely to have a piece of ourselves that is overly self-critical, telling ourselves that we are not good enough, that we need to prove that we belong, and scaring us into believing that one mistake will reveal to the world that we are not actually as amazing as we make it look. In his book Holiday describes this phenomenon with a quote from the novelist Anne Lamott who describes this part of our ego as if it were a radio station playing in our head 24/7.


What is helpful from Holiday’s writing is how he breaks down what is really talking place in a tangled mess inside our mind. Describing all of these thoughts and complex emotions he writes, “Anyone-particularly the ambitious-can fall prey to this narration, good and bad. It is natural for any young, ambitious person (or simply someone whose ambition is young) to get excited and swept up by their thoughts and feelings. Especially in a world that tells us to keep and promote a “personal brand.” We’re required to tell stories in order to sell our work and our talents, and after enough time, forget where the line that separates our fictions from reality.”


Our ego buys into the narrative that runs in our mind without question. It loves the thoughts of greatness that we tell ourselves about who we are, but it is constantly acting in fear of losing those stories. Becoming more self-aware and learning that we do not need to constantly build our ego allows us to begin to step back and see the narration inside our heads for what it really is, an incomplete perspective and view of our place in the world. If we can recognize that the stories we tell ourselves are just stories, then we open up the possibilities for us to engage with the world on our own terms, without fear, without a need for self validation, and without the need to be someone that we think will impress everyone else. This allows us to take the small steps and actions that make us feel good and help us to actually accomplish things that matter and make a difference in the world.

How to be a Stoic

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius shares his thoughts, ideas, and perspectives on how to live a complete and happy life. His insights explain the philosophy of stoicism, and the life examples and experiences that the emperor shares allow us to see the ways in which stoicism lends itself to leadership and compassion.  For Aurelius, stoicism was not just a philosophy or a way to look at the world, but rather a way to act and pragmatically approach the world.  One of the best ways to describe this philosophy is in the following quote from Aurelius’ writing, “Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames he fury of the water around it.”


I usually hear people use the word stoic to describe people who simply show no emotions: sports figures who seem to have no reaction to individual plays in a game, poker players who keep the same face throughout a hand, or people at work who seem to be a bit monotone and without passion.  What Aurelius shows us in his quote is that it is more practical to be a stoic and to feel emotion, but to stand strong in the face of he emotion.  The metaphor of the promontory facing rough seas evicts emotion, but the emotions it presents are strength, unwavering support, and  calmness.  Being one who lacks emotion may help you achieve one of those three ideas, but you cannot reach all three without showing some form of emotion.


I think the best way to think about stoicism is not through the lack of emotion, but through the deliberate use and control of emotion.  Stoics may be temperate in their behavior and they may appear as though nothing stirs them, but they do know when to use and direct their passion greater purposes.  Maintaining an even keel in regards to our emotions is a key part of stoicism, but what Aurelius advocates for is not achieving a level-headedness through the absence of emotion.  Feeling and understanding our emotions will help us build empathy with other, and it will drive us to action that is greater than our individual desires. Understanding which emotions and decisions make us great furthers our journey, while letting our emotions drag us around uncontrollably will drown us in the raging tides of reactionary thoughts.

The Breadth of Empathy

When Peter Singer describes empathy in his book The Most Good You Can Do, he explains that there are four separate parts that make up empathy, and that those four parts come together to form two separate categories of empathy. The different aspects of empathy manifest in their own way as we react to others and have different experiences related to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others.


The first of the two larger categories of empathy, according to Singer, is emotional empathy. “Emotional empathy is, in most situations, a good thing, but it is usually at its strongest when we can identify and relate to an individual,” Singer writes.  He describes this type of empathy as our emotional responses to the thoughts and feelings of others. Emotional empathy, he explains, covers empathetic concern and personal distress, two pieces of empathy that mesh our emotional experiences with that of others.  It is our ability to feel compassion and concern for others and their experiences, and our ability to experience the same feelings of unease and discomfort when we are with or speaking to an individual who is going through a challenging period.  It is the mirroring of the emotions of others, and our emotional urge to assist those in need.


Our second category of empathy, as explained by Singer, is what he calls cognitive empathy. While emotional empathy involves the way we feel about others, cognitive empathy involves the way we rationally think about the lives, thoughts, and experiences of others.  Wrapped up in cognitive empathy is perspective taking and fantasy, the former referring to our ability to adopt the point of view of others, and the latter referring to our ability to imagine ourselves going through the same experiences of others. Cognitive empathy helps us see the challenges that many people face, but it does not always help us truly feel the urge to act. Singer writes, “We can have cognitive empathy with thousands of children, but it is very hard to feel emotional empathy for so many people whom we cannot even identify as individuals.” What Singer is explaining is that we may recognize that others do not have water or access to food, but it is hard for us to truly understand what life is like in those circumstances. We may also be dwarfed by the number of individuals who need our assistance, leading us to feel as though we cannot have an impact since we cannot help them all.


Throughout his book Singer argues that the world needs to find a better way to make use of cognitive empathy to change the world. Most people tend to be warm glow givers, or those who donate impulsively to causes that are emotionally charged. Few people can truly bring themselves to make a donation or work for a cause that will help unidentifiable individuals in another country.  Unfortunately, it is those who we cannot see who we can often impact the most. Understanding that empathy can manifest in multiple manners will help us understand how to better connect with those around us, and those living in the world beyond the close boarders in which we typically think and interact.  Singer encourages us to recognize and use both types of empathy to have a greater impact on this planet, and to maximize the decisions we make.  Combining our cognitive with our emotional empathy can help us reach a greater level of catharsis by acting deliberately to use our resources and ability to help those who truly need it the most.

The Emotional Pull of Making Decisions

The Make-A-Wish foundation is a successful charity in the United States which has done a lot of great things for young children diagnosed with life threatening diseases, however, in his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer explains that effective altruists, or a budding group of people who are focused on using their resources to provide the greatest value to people who need it the most, do not find the charity to be a place where they should focus their money when they are trying to change the world or do something truly great for other people.


In his book Singer explains the value of Make-A-Wish, the value of the emotional fulfillment people receive when they participate in Make-A-Wish events, and what pulls us toward the charity to make donations. The charity is focused on children who often live in our community and who do not have the opportunity to live a full life with the joys that we have experienced in ours. When Make-A-Wish stories air, we see an individual child and are able to connect with their story possibly even identifying a piece of ourselves in that child and their story. Making a donation satisfies a core part of who we are, and we get to see the children who actually benefit from our donation.


However, effective altruists likely would not find the Make-A-Wish foundation to be the most impactful place for their donations. Singer explains it this way, “Effective altruists would, like anyone else, feel emotionally drawn toward making the wishes of sick children come true, but they would also know that $7,500 could, by protecting families from malaria, save the lives of at least three children and many more.” The $7,500 figure is the average cost according to Make-A-Wish of fulfilling a wish. The argument for Singer and effective altruists is that we could use the money that we direct toward providing one child with a very special day, and save the lives of multiple children.  An effective altruist would argue that saving a life is more important and provides more positivity for the world.


Continuing on and writing about a Make-A-Wish recipient nick-named Batkid, Singer writes, “Why then do so many people give to Make-A-Wish when they could do more good by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, which is a highly effective provider of bed-nets to families in malaria-prone regions?  The answer lies in part in the motional pull of knowing that you are helping this child, one whose face you can see on television, rather than the unknown and unknowable children who would have died from malaria if your donation had not provided the nets under which they sleep. It also lies in part in the fact that Make-A-Wish appeals to Americans, and Miles is an American child” Singer shows us that we are more likely to make donations that will remain close to us and benefit those who look like us. We are less likely to feel the same emotional pull when considering a donation to a charity that helps people in a different culture far away from us who do not dress, act, or look very similar to us.


By pausing and reflecting on how their money is used, effective altruists are able to reason past these shortcomings of the human mind. Our biases limit our donations and create a prejudice against making donations and helping those far away from where we live. Singer contrasts effective altruists against average donors, “Effective altruists will feel the pull of helping an identifiable child from their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is the best thing to do.” He shows that effective altruists are truly focused on finding the best use for their extra resources and finding the best way to help people. They focus and reason through their donations, avoiding the emotional pull of spontaneous donations. All of their daily actions align one way or another with their philosophy, helping them do the most good possible. In this way, and effective altruist is able to ensure that the donations they make will help shape the world for the better, save lives, and reduce global suffering.

How Being Outraged Can Boost Our Self Esteem

Throughout his book Considerations, author Colin Wright reflects on ideas that seem to align with stoicism and his book, which is a collection of essays on various daily topics, connects with many themes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.  A common idea between the two works is the thought of self awareness, self-control, and understanding that you do not understand everyone’s perspectives and thoughts.  When writing about our anger and the way we occasionally show our passion through outrage Wright states:


“On a personal level, outrage makes us feel superior.  By becoming indignant, we’re drawing a line in the sand and declaring ourselves to be on the right side of a given issue.  We’re saying, “How horrible this situation is, and how capable I am of declaring right and wrong, and passing judgment on those involved!””


Wright continues to explain that this type of outrage is nothing more than a self esteem boost for ourselves because it raises us along a slope of moral righteousness from which we are able to display and pronounce our superiority over those in the ‘wrong’ camp. Our ranting and explosive attitudes release energy and captivate the attention of others, giving us an additional boost by holding people’s attention.  As this continues, being right or wrong does not matter, and we simply become outraged on moral issues so that we can continue to gain an audience and flatter ourselves. The more people pay attention to an outraged individual, whether they agree with them or just want to see someone bellowing out their beliefs, the more that individual feels supported.


I think that both Aurelius and Wright would argue that it is better to turn ourselves inside and reflect on that which makes us irate before making a public display of our feelings. By better understanding whatever it is, we can better react to it, and perhaps understand other perspectives surrounding that which angered us. Aurelius would certainly argue that nothing should push an individual to the point of outrage, since it is likely outside our control and influence, and since the thing itself likely does not make us any worse off. Both Wright and Aurelius would understand that the best way to handle or change that which has angered us would be to use our anger in a moderate manner by taking positive steps to improve the world around us by changing that which we can control.  Anger is a normal human emotion and one that can motivate us and push us to action in many positive ways, but using anger to increase ones platform does not help us grow or improve society. When we use anger to place ourselves on the moral high ground, we divide our society and polarize the thoughts at hand.