Stoicism, Resilience, and Being the Change you Want to See

Stoicism is a philosophy of life, which it’s been wonderful to teach at Think Inc since 2021. It accepts that in every life, no matter how fortunate, there will be bad times. It asks us to prepare and strengthen ourselves for these adversities, as well as not to lose our heads (or our egos) when things seem to be falling in our laps.

The goal is serenity and wisdom. The way is through accepting what we cannot change, paying attention to what we can, and putting our best effort forwards with everything in between—things, and other people, who we can influence, but can always act in ways we do not accept, and even do not like.

Stoicism has helped people from all works of life throughout history, including many of the most famous leaders in history: from Marcus Aurelius, Frederick the Great, Theodore Roosevelt, Beatrice Webb, and Harry Truman, to James Mattis and Arianna Huffington.

People behave badly everywhere, and they always have. In schools today, and workplaces, forms of bullying (online and live) are epidemic. In 2010, over a decade ago, the Australian Productivity Commission estimated a $36 economic cost to our nation because of workplace bullying (or “mobbing”, as it is now widely called). This is not internationally atypical.

Through managers and workers better understanding bullying, its signs and patterns, these extraordinary costs can be greatly reduced. On the other side, and in the meanwhile, it is vital that workers (and school kids) be educated in how resiliently to handle bullying, so they are not so taken by surprise by it when it happens (which it seems to, to around 10% of people or more at any time), and they do not feel so hopeless, disoriented, and alone.

As I’ve explored in my new book Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond: How to Keep Your Head When Others Around You Have Lost Theirs and Blame You, Stoicism is a philosophical perspective which has an incredible amount to say to bullying targets.

Bullying works by baiting. A person is insulted, sidelined, demeaned, backstabbed, even roughed up, by their colleagues (and it is almost always more than one, a clique), who feel s/he “deserves it”.

When and if they respond emotively, through fear or rage or anxiety, this response is then turned against them, to say “they are not up to the job … not a good fit.” Often, if managers allow this to occur, when they seek help within the formal channels, this only serves to make the situation worse.

But Stoicism tells us that what others do to us, is in their court. If someone insults us, that’s an event in the world. If others believe them, then that too is beyond our control. We don’t have to respond straight away. And we don’t need to respond, as the bullies hope, by showing fear or anger or despair.

Not what happens to us, for Stoicism, but what we do about it is what makes the difference.

If others are criticizing us, and there is justice in the criticism, we need to own that and learn. If they are doing it maliciously, this reflects badly on them, not us. If there is no truth in what is being claimed about us, we need to work out what is the best way to correct the rumors, and show up the lies for what they are. We need to inform ourselves as best we can about the situation we find ourselves in, and what our options are.

Bullying targets often feel shocked, confused, and even traumatized. They have never experienced being the subject of false accusations, which impugn their honor. They agonise over what they could have done to deserve this, when often, really, the answer is that it is less about them, than about the bullies.

Targets feel disempowered. They feel they can’t speak out in their workplaces, without making things worse. They are often isolated and excluded, and lose people who they thought were friends, as the bullying develops.

Stoicism tells us that we each, always, have agency. No matter what happens outside of us, no matter “what the bastards can take from us”. They can temporarily ruin a person’s work reputation through slander. They can set things up so a person’s career temporarily encounters obstacles which may be deeply unfair and unmerited.

But they cannot take away our capacity to think our thoughts, feel our own feelings, and choose our own choices. They cannot change the fact that, as well as being this person in this job, we are all also lots of other things: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, team members… and that these relationships are also sources of strength and meaning, which the bullies cannot touch.

And, of course, they cannot change the laws of the land, which protect peoples’ safety in their workplaces and schools, and give those subject to patterned, unfair and malicious treatment by people who don’t know any better the right to inform themselves, and seek out legal protections and recourse.

Stoicism, Bullying and Beyond is the first book applying Stoic philosophy to the situation of people being targeted by bullies. It sets out twenty exercises to help them firstly take care of themselves, and not let the experience overwhelm them, and secondly, to prepare them for difficult meetings, handling insults, taking action, or moving on from their present role.

“The best revenge is not to become like the person who would harm you”, the Stoic Marcus Aurelius wrote. That’s one of the key messages of the book. The other is that, faced with toxic work situations, a person can still choose to be the change that they would like to see in the world.

It isn’t easy to be resilient in the face of people behaving badly, and environments in which this has been given a free pass. But it is possible, and it is always worthwhile.

Matt Sharpe is instructor for the course, How to Be a Stoic at Think Inc., and his new book, Stoicism, Bullying, and Beyond: How to Keep Your Head When Others Around You Have Lost Theirs and Blame You, is out now globally.