How Cognitive Distancing Works in Stoicism

Updated October 17, 2023

Pretty much everyone has, at some point in their lives, dealt with a situation where their emotions got the best of them. One powerful Stoic technique you can use to ensure you don't let your passions control your reactions is known as cognitive distancing.

In short:

  • Cognitive distancing is stepping away from the way that you think and feel and separating yourself from your own judgments.

Rather than acting rashly, you can take the time to turn what appears to be a concrete problem into a much more abstract situation. Through this process, you can gain a greater objectivity surrounding your current circumstance.

Let's take a closer look at exactly what cognitive distancing is and how it works in Stoicism.

What Is Cognitive Distancing?

Cognitive distancing is a modern term for a technique that was employed by the Stoics thousands of years ago. This is a tactic that is used in cognitive behavioral therapy, but you don't need the help of a therapist to benefit from the practice.

Marcus Aurelius would often refer to the practice of distancing oneself from one's own beliefs and opinions as the "separation" of our judgments from external events.

One of the Stoic quotes that best exemplifies the main point behind cognitive distancing is the following from Epictetus:

epictetus image and quote cognitive distancing

“It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about things."

- Epictetus

This is a practice that you can use in just about any situation-- no matter how big or how small. Essentially, it is a way to zoom out from our current circumstances and step away from our immediate reactions. Through cognitive distancing, we can obtain a more objective and calm perspective.

"If someone irritates you, it is only your own response that is irritating you. Therefore, when anyone seems to be provoking you, remember that it is only your judgment of the incident that provokes you."

- Epictetus

There are several different ways to go about practicing cognitive distancing, which we'll discuss in the next section.

"Nothing outside the will can hinder or harm the will; it can only harm itself. If then we accept this, and, when things go amiss, are inclined to blame ourselves, remembering that judgment alone can disturb our peace and constancy, I swear to you by all the gods that we have made progress."

- Epictetus

The Different Types of Cognitive Distancing

In the world of psychology, there is a similar concept to cognitive distancing that is referred to as psychological distancing. Within this academic field, four different types of distancing have been identified, which serve as a great jumping-off point for understanding the different ways you can utilize cognitive distancing. In psychological distancing, it is understood that people's perceptions about things can differ based on where they fall on a spectrum within each of these categories.

  • Time: One way you can create distance between yourself and what is currently going on is through the lens of time. Something that feels like the end of the world right now likely won't feel that way in a month, a year, or a decade. Imagining yourself contemplating the same situation in the future can help you gain the perspective you need to act in a virtuous way.
  • Space: Another way you can separate yourself from your current circumstance is by imagining yourself further away from where you are now physically. This could mean picturing yourself flying above the situation in an airplane, viewing the planet from space, or even considering how you would see the same circumstance if you were back in your hometown.
  • Social: We can also create space between ourselves and current events by separating ourselves from the people around us. Finding a quiet place to work on cognitive distancing can be critical to ensure you're really gaining all of the benefits of the practice.
  • Hypothetical: Another way we can distance ourselves from our current situation is by visualizing different potential hypothetical occurrences. These could be different hypothetical occurrences in your own life or in the larger world around you. Using negative visualization (premeditatio malorum) can help you gain perspective on what's going on right now.

How to Practice Cognitive Distancing

When you practice cognitive distancing, you're separating yourself from your own thoughts, reactions, and ideas. You're stepping away from the tunnel vision that can occur when emotions are high and feelings are overwhelming. Rather than letting your passions determine what you say and do, you give yourself the opportunity to take a breath and examine the situation from additional vantage points.

Let's take a look at how exactly you can practice cognitive distancing to help you gain greater control of those things you actually do have control over-- internal events.

Familiarize Yourself With Stoic Concepts

Before we look at the specifics of practicing cognitive distancing, the first thing you'll want to do is familiarize yourself with some of the basic concepts of Stoicism. If you're completely new to Stoicism, check out some of these posts:

One of the key ideas behind cognitive distancing is the idea of the dichotomy of control. This is, in essence, the notion that there are some things we are in control of in our lives and some things we are not in control of. According to Epictetus, internal events fall in the former category, while external events fall in the latter.

marcus aurelius image and quote cognitive distancing

"If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment."

- Marcus Aurelius

By choosing to focus on the things that are actually in our control, we can walk a path to a peaceful, virtuous, and good life. On the other hand, though, if we fixate on things that are out of our control, we're likely doomed to a life of anxiety, dread, and chaos.

"Wherever I go it will be well with me, for it was well with me here, not on account of the place, but of my judgments which I shall carry away with me, for no one can deprive me of these; on the contrary, they alone are my property, and cannot be taken away, and to possess them suffices me wherever I am or whatever I do."

- Epictetus

The wisdom of the ancient Stoics can help us step back and gain self-awareness in our own thoughts and impressions. With this self-awareness, we can make better decisions and actually choose how we act and react rather than being pulled around by external events and our own emotions like a puppet.

"Today I escaped all circumstance, or rather I cast out all circumstance, for it was not outside me, but within my judgements."

- Marcus Aurelius

Finding a Quiet Spot Away From It All

When we're caught up in a whirlwind in our minds, one of the hardest things to do is often just walking away. We feel like we need to make a decision right now; we need to act right now.

In reality, the first thing you want to do when you are being overwhelmed by emotions, negative thoughts, or other problematic internal states is to find a quiet place where you can be alone.

Depending on your situation, this might mean sitting on your couch or heading to a bench in a quiet park. Maybe the only place you can really get away from it all is sitting in your car. Wherever this place is, make sure you have the privacy you need to really focus.

Stepping Back

Once you have situated yourself in a quiet place where you can be alone, it can be useful to utilize some breathing techniques or other relaxation methods. It can be so difficult to calm yourself down when caught in a mental or emotional storm, and giving yourself a few minutes to simply relax can really go a long way.

"It is within our power not to make a judgment about something, and so not disturb our minds; for nothing in itself possesses the power to form our judgments."

- Marcus Aurelius

In the following sections, we'll take a look more specifically at some of the ways you can step "back" or "away" from your own thoughts and feelings. The point is, though, that the entire purpose of this practice is to gain some space from your current internal state. As the Stoics would say, what is upsetting you is your own internal experiences and judgments, not the actual event or occurrence to which you are attributing those internal judgments.

Writing Down Your Thoughts

One really useful way you can gain some perspective is to write down your thoughts. You can do this on a piece of paper, on a whiteboard, or on a computer (but make sure being on a device with access to the internet won't be too distracting.)

I will keep constant watch over myself and — most usefully — will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil — that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.”

- Seneca the Younger

The Stoics were big advocates of journaling-- Marcus Aurelius' Meditations was actually just his own personal diary, while Seneca is said to have written every night.

Viewing your own thoughts on paper (or wherever) can be tremendously useful when it comes to gaining some distance from them. Sometimes, it's almost as if the thoughts in our heads need to go somewhere to stop swirling around in there.

Adding a Prefix

Another way you can gain some distance from your thoughts is to state them to yourself (either out loud or in your mind) with a prefix. For example, you might start a statement by saying, "I notice that I'm thinking right now..." and continue on with how you're feeling.

Even something this simple can go a long way in helping you step back a little. By putting even that small amount of separation between you and your thoughts, you are acknowledging that you aren't your thoughts. You can, therefore, witness yourself thinking and become self-aware of the internal events you are currently dealing with.

Talking About Yourself in the Third-Person

It might seem silly, but talking about your thoughts and feelings in the third person can be a powerful cognitive distancing technique.

For example:

  • Rather than saying, "I'm just feeling so angry about what my boss said," you can "John (or Sophia or Mike, etc.) is feeling angry about what his boss said."

All of a sudden, you are no longer staring at your own thoughts with your nose up against the glass. You are observing the thoughts and beliefs of another person entirely. This can open up new pathways in your mind to understand what you are currently going through and give you the space you need to make a deliberate decision about how to act.

Reverse the Roles

You can also imagine that the exact same scenario is playing out but not for you-- for one of your closest friends. How would you advise them? What questions would you ask them?

Sometimes, we are so much less forgiving with ourselves than we are with other people. It's true Marcus Aurelius does tell us to be strict with ourselves and tolerant of others. At the same time, imagining that we are in a position to act as a sounding board to a friend can actually give us a great deal of perspective.

Cultivate Detached Curiosity

No matter how open-minded we think we are, the truth is that most humans are pretty fixed in their beliefs. We might not even realize that certain ideas dictate the way that we think about things, the way that we feel about things, or the way we react to things.

"Be not too hasty either with praise or blame; speak always as though you were giving evidence before the judgment-seat of the gods."

- Seneca the Younger

Though this can be hard at first, consider working on cultivating a sense of detached curiosity. Step back and look at the situation as an outside observer and, with a nonchalant and outcome-independent attitude, consider the pros and cons of a thought, action, or reaction that is relevant to your current situation.

marcus aurelius image and quote cognitive distancing

"Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance - now, at this very moment - of all external events. That's all you need."

- Marcus Aurelius

As you are going through this exercise, notice when you are reluctant to write down or contemplate a particular vantage point. It is likely here that the most important information is hidden. It can be so difficult to confront ideas that counter those we believe so deeply, but it is precisely in recognizing these thoughts that we can grow and learn to act more virtuously in every action.

Imagining You Are Somewhere Else

When we are dealing with a difficult situation, it can be hard to see beyond what is currently going on. The emotions inside you grab a hold of you, and your thoughts are spinning endlessly around in your head. The situation is, as far as you can see, the most important and dire thing that has ever happened in the history of your own life and perhaps the history of humanity itself.

Hold on. Take a breath.

  • Imagine yourself somewhere else entirely. If you're dealing with a stressful situation at work, picture yourself on a remote island far from the irritating sounds of your office. If you're in a fight with your spouse, picture yourself on a multi-mile hike through the forest.

How would you see the same situation if you were elsewhere? Would it even matter to you? Or would it be a passing thought that you move beyond quickly?

Shift Your Perspective

How many different ways can you come up with to look at the same situation?

marcus aurelius image and quote cognitive distancing

"Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth."

- Marcus Aurelius

Let's say that you lost your job today. You are devastated and totally unsure of how you are going to make ends meet. Your ego is bruised, your credit card debt is haunting you, and you fear the disappointed look you'll get from your spouse when you share the news.

  • This sounds like a terrible situation. But what if it wasn't? What if this is the best thing that's ever happened to you?

Try making a list of the wide variety of ways you could view this circumstance. Maybe you hated your job, and you've been waiting for the right time to start your dream business. Maybe you loved your job, but you had gotten complacent, and this is the kick in the butt you needed to get your engine running.

This is a creative exercise, but one that can be seriously useful even in the most dire of circumstances. Let yourself be as outlandish as possible, turning a truly horrific event into something that will open up tremendous potential down the road. By letting yourself really imagine all of the different vantage points, you all of a sudden are able to grasp a much more objective perspective on your current situation.

Float Above the Scene

One really powerful way to step back from your current mental state is to picture yourself floating above what's going on.

“One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamor of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Sometimes, we are so in our heads that we don't even realize we're in our heads. We are consumed by our thoughts, our anxieties, our fears, our anger, and so on, in a way that almost alters our experience of the physical reality around us.

  • If you have followed the first piece of advice in this section and found a quiet place to sit, though, an outside observer would simply see a person who is silently contemplating something.

For this tactic, you'll want to try and imagine yourself floating above your current scene. You are a person sitting where you are, quietly thinking or writing. Zoom out further, and you are a person in a room, in a house, in a neighborhood, in a city, and so on. Keep going until you are a part of a larger, bustling, fascinating, and busy planet.

All of a sudden, whatever it is that you're currently dealing with seems much lighter. You can see the patterns of activity as people wake up on one side of the globe and get going with the day while others are eating dinner and relaxing before bed. You can see the way traffic filters in and out of cities as the day goes on. Furthermore, you remember that you are part of a larger reality-- a reality that the Stoics believed was rational and ordered-- and a part of the larger story of Fate itself.

Switch Up the Time

You can also gain distance from your current thoughts and experiences by playing around with time.

"Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away."

- Marcus Aurelius

There's a good chance that you've already experienced the following scenario in your life: an event occurs, and it feels like the end of the world-- you don't know how you'll manage to go on. A few years pass, and you look back at the situation with a detached perspective, wondering why you even thought it was such a big deal.

"The passing minute is every man's equal possession but what has once gone by is not ours."

- Marcus Aurelius

How would you see the same situation in a week, a month, a year, or a decade? What if you were nearly one hundred years old and on your deathbed? What's the likelihood that you would even remember what's currently going on in your life?

marcus aurelius image and quote cognitive distancing

"How very near us stand the two vast gulfs of time, the past and the future, in which all things disappear."

- Marcus Aurelius

Imagining yourself in a different spot on your own historical timeline can do wonders for your ability to gain some space from a situation. All of a sudden, you can see what is happening with an objectivity that simply wasn't possible before.

The Benefits of Cognitive Distancing

There are a lot of reasons why it's worth taking the time to practice cognitive distancing. When we step back and view the situation we're in and how we're feeling from different angles, we can avoid two unappealing yet unfortunately common outcomes: reacting emotionally and thoughtlessly or avoiding taking action in an important situation.

Gives You Perspective

The most obvious benefit of cognitive distancing is that it gives you perspective. You are able to reframe a situation you're in with a greater sense of abstraction. All of a sudden, things that were hidden from you when you were deep in an emotional storm become clearer.

Allows You to Choose Your Response

Not only will you gain invaluable insight from cognitive distancing, but it can also change your life for the better by allowing you to actively and deliberately choose your response.

  • You don't have to let your emotions get the best of you. Of course, you also don't want to suppress your emotions-- that's not good either.

By practicing cognitive distancing, you can give your emotions the space and recognition they need without allowing them to control you. You can take the time you need to decide the proper way to respond in any given situation. You can incorporate all sorts of other perspectives and information that aren't available to you when you're overwhelmed by emotions.

Helps You Make Better Decisions

Research has found that practicing cognitive distancing can also help you make better decisions. As you might imagine, this can have a pretty powerful effect over the course of your life. With each decision you make with a more objective perspective, you are able to make more progress toward the life you want to live.

Makes You More Creative

Cognitive distancing is also a creative exercise. This is an opportunity to stretch out the boundaries of your mind to think outside the box. By taking something that felt very concrete and making it more abstract, you can ultimately find creative solutions to your problems and generally get your creative juices flowing.

Helps You Grow as a Person

The more you practice cognitive distancing, the more second nature it will feel when you're dealing with a difficult situation or overwhelming emotions.

  • Self-awareness and the ability to be objective about our own situation, after all, is a habit. The more we practice it, the more naturally we turn to it when the time comes.

When you really think about it, you probably don't want to look back at your life and see that who you were was composed of a sequence of events where you let your emotions get the best of you. Most of us hope to accomplish something more, to pursue our goals, and to become wiser along the way.

Practicing cognitive distancing can be a powerful piece of your self-growth puzzle. Over time, you'll realize that things you would have been bothered by in the past don't rile you up in any way. This frees up time and headspace to focus on what really matters-- growing as a person and fulfilling your purposes.

Using Stoicism For a Better Life in the Modern World

It really is remarkable to realize that the ideas of wise men from thousands of years ago can still be so applicable to our daily lives. There are countless examples in the world of Stoicism in this regard-- cognitive distancing only being one of them.

By practicing one of the exercises the Stoics would use-- zooming out and gaining perspective on our thoughts and judgments-- we can make better decisions, take control of the things we have control over, and lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

If you're eager to learn more about the ways that Stoicism can help you lead a good life, make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog!

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Written by: Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and has always maintained a deep interest in the question of how best to live one’s life. She hopes to help others understand how they can apply Stoicism in their day-to-day lives in order to become the person they want to be, embrace the present moment, pursue their purposes, and rid themselves of unnecessary anxiety.

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