Finding Strength in Recovery through Stoicism

stoicism in addiction recovery

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is a centuries-old philosophy that teaches the development of self-control and fortitude to overcome destructive emotions. The Stoics believed that peace of mind is achievable through understanding our emotions and behaviors so that we can develop self-restraint and achieve a “passive” reaction to external things or events.

The Four Virtues of Stoicism

Stoicism strives to teach people the values of temperance, justice, courage, and wisdom. These four traits are essential in all situations and every aspect of our lives. 

Courage: The stoic philosopher Seneca once commented, “You have passed through life without an opponent. No one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” The stoics believed that misfortune helps us to cultivate unbreakable courage in the face of adversity. Those of us who have struggled with substance abuse or mental health disorders know that mustering up the courage to recognize these issues within ourselves and taking steps to remedy them is the first battle we wage. 

Temperance: The philosopher Aristotle talked about the “Golden Mean.” Courage is a spectrum; on one end is cowardice or the lack of courage, on the other is recklessness. Thus, we should strive for the golden mean; moderation. This is where the stoic virtue of temperance is needed. The stoics believed in doing nothing in excess, rather doing the right thing, in the right way, in the right amount. Stoicism also asserts that people can make small changes rather than taking on “herculean” changes. It’s as simple as making small adjustments and developing healthier habits. 

Justice: The Stoics believed that justice is the highest virtue. To the stoics, justice simply means doing the right thing. Stoics believe in recognizing the world and people for what and who they are, but to also realize that one person does have the power to change what they see as unjust. In terms of recovery, justice should be given to ourselves. We must do what is right for ourselves. That is the self-care we often talk about. 

Wisdom: Stoics believe in cultivating courage, temperance, and justice, but how do we know what is courage or recklessness, what is right and what is unjust, where is that healthy balance? Wisdom helps provide the answers to these questions. In the case of recovery, there is a vast amount of information available about substance abuse and recovery but it is important to distinguish the good from the bad information. It is not good enough to acquire information, we must acquire the right information. 

Four Stoic Practices for Recovery

How can we put Stoicism into practice for recovery? The stoics had many ways of “practicing” or cultivating stoic virtues. A couple of these, you may already be familiar with:

  1. Journaling: The greatest Stoic philosophers created their legacy by leaving a wealth of writing behind. Regardless of their walks of life, journaling was the practice that they all shared. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor, Epictetus was a slave, Seneca was a power-broker and a playwright, yet each of them set aside the time to commit their inner thoughts to writing. In many forms of recovery, we will be urged to write or journal. Writing is the best way to learn about ourselves. Marcus Aurelius often journaled at the end of his day, saying the sleep which follows this self-examination is “particularly sweet.” Journaling gives us a way to rid ourselves of negative emotions and stresses in a constructive way. 
  2. Training Perceptions: To a Stoic, there was no good or bad, only perceptions. In other words, everything that happens is an objective occurrence, we assign our perceptions to it which makes it either good or bad in our eyes. In this respect, the Stoics believed that every opportunity was a good opportunity. In terms of recovery, this is an especially helpful idea. Instead of seeing relapse as a failure, we should view it as an opportunity to learn our triggers or to find more effective coping strategies. We must train ourselves to see things as opportunities rather than obstacles. This means tapping into our wisdom, pursuing courage, and doing right by ourselves.
  3. Take the View From Above: Often referred to as Plato’s View, Stoics believe we should periodically step back and see life from a “higher” perspective. This practice is similar to the concept of “Be Still” in mindfulness-based therapies. The view from above should give us a perspective of how “small” we are and how inconsequential most events truly are in the bigger picture of our lives. It helps us realize our interconnectedness with humanity. The practice of viewing from above is especially helpful in group therapy settings or peer-based recovery models. We are able to take a step back from our own concerns and help others in need.
  4. The Duality of Control: You may have already heard the Christian mediation, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” This “prayer” explains the duality of control; for everything we can control, there is something we definitely cannot. In recovery, we seek to focus on things we can change. For example, we cannot change the past, we cannot change the fact that we have a substance abuse disorder or mental health disorder, however, we can make the change towards sobriety. We can change our old habits into new healthy ones. We can change our perceptions. We can change ourselves.

Stoicism provides us with tools and concepts to help us live a life of moderation. It gives us the devices necessary to cultivate wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Many of these stoic virtues can be found in substance abuse therapies. At Avalon Malibu, we strive to help our clients cultivate their best lives. Our skilled and professional staff will provide you with the tools necessary to make better choices, gain a healthier perspective, and give you a sense of balance they may have lost. Avalon Malibu specializes in treating  people with co-occurring substance use and behavioral health disorders. Located on the majestic coast of Malibu, California, our program offers a wide variety of treatment options to provide you with a personalized rehabilitation experience designed to meet your unique needs. We will provide you with support throughout your entire recovery journey, even as you return to the community. If you are suffering from substance abuse or mental health disorder, call us at (844) 857-5992.


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