The power to choose: How Stoicism approaches toxic relationships
- Stoicism is the philosophy that says we should change what we can and endure what we cannot.
- The people who we keep company with are hugely important. They determine our moral compass and even influence how we think.
- The friends you have and the company you keep will make you who you are, so we ought to weigh carefully who they are.
When you rub shoulders with a person long enough, they rub off on you. You start to use the same words for things, you see the world in the same way, and you even start to behave like them. The people we surround ourselves with form who we are, yet we are often peculiarly blasé about it. We should take much more ownership of and give much more consideration to who we keep company with.
This is one of the many practical things Epictetus, and Stoicism generally, can teach us.
You chose to be here
Why do we often treat our relationships as if they’re beyond our control? We say things like, “You can’t choose your family,” or, “He’s my friend; it can’t be helped.” It’s as if to be called disloyal is a slander from which we won’t come back.
But this is as disingenuous as it is unhealthy.
It is disingenuous because, as Stoics and Existentialists agree, there are things in life over which we have more control than we acknowledge. Yes, you cannot choose your parents, but you really don’t “have” to see them every Thanksgiving. Just because you had fun with someone once in your 20s doesn’t bind you together by some vow for all time. You might not be able to pick your work colleagues, but there is no law of the universe that forces you to the office Christmas party.
A huge part of Stoicism comes in recognizing the power of choice we have in our lives. It serves as the slap in the face that tells us, “Don’t blame the world for your decisions.” Stoicism is the philosophy that says we should change what we can and endure what we cannot. And every day, every moment, begins with a choice. You choose your company and friends.
How poison spreads
Keeping bad company is unhealthy to the soul (or our mental health, if you prefer a modern variant). This is because, when a relationship is toxic, or if our company is full of knaves who behave badly, we become knavish ourselves. As Epictetus wrote, “If a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.”
And how true this is. If we spend an evening gossiping and being mean, we also become spiteful and cruel. If our friends have no ambition or mock the aspirational, we will never dare to dream. If our friends celebrate ignorance, we will give no weight to education or learning.
When our friends make us smaller or they dirty and sully us by their nature, we have the choice to remove them from our lives. We cannot (easily) change how someone behaves or how they are, but we can change the attention we choose to give them. We go to the gym to get stronger, we read and learn to become wiser, and we eat well to be healthy — yet, we often give little thought to the impact those around us have on our health and behavior.
Stoicism cuts out the disease
There is a lot of modern scientific backing for what Epictetus was writing two millennia ago. Experiment after experiment has shown just how impactful our social relations are to our moral compass and our values. For instance, we are much more likely to care for the environment if others around us do. On the flip side, adolescents who surround themselves with prejudiced people are themselves much more likely to become prejudiced. It is even thought that the very things, or people, we call virtuous or admirable are determined by our social context. Who we surround ourselves with really matters.
Epictetus advises his readers to seek and choose the company of “philosophers.” By this, he does not mean those professionals locked in dusty libraries and boxy offices. Instead, he means those people who actively want to better themselves — who want to become wiser, kinder, and more fulfilled. They are the ones who make you feel proud about who you are but also who impel you to behave better. They cultivate virtue. They encourage, support, and give advice, but they also call you out when you are going off-course or being an ass. Philosophers, for Epictetus, want you to flourish.
So, perhaps it is time that we all did some relationship weeding in our life. We have great choice in life, and your friends and family are not fatalistically ordained. The friends you have and the company you keep will make you who you are, so we ought to weigh carefully who they are.
Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.