Impressions: It’s All in Your Head

It’s All in Your Head

Have you ever thought that you saw one thing, only to find out that it was actually something else? For example, you’re out walking in the woods when you see a snake, and you jump back in fear, only to realize that it was actually just a tree branch lying on the ground.


It looks like a snake… but is it?

An impression (phantasia) “is what is impressed into the mind by any of the senses” (from Seddon’s book Epictetus’ Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes). When you experience something, you have an impression. Your interpretation of what happened then becomes an immediate response to your senses. In the tree branch/snake example, your experience began with the impression of seeing something that looks like a snake in the grass.


In that split second between seeing the snake in the grass and then jumping back, you assented to your impression. You completed the mental action of taking what appears to be the case and you decided that that was the actual case.

Next, without even realizing it, you’ve evaluated the situation. Snake in the grass = something to be fearful of. That in turn leads you to act by jumping away from the snake.

Did you ever think there would be so many mental steps between seeing the “snake”  and then jumping back from it? And the irony is that it never really was a snake in the first place, but a harmless tree branch. The good news is that you actually have control over everything that happened in your mind between the time you saw the shape and when you reacted by jumping away. And yes, this all applies to emotional reactions as well.

Today I went to the home improvement store to pick up a paint sample. As I was double-checking the other paint options before ordering my sample, an employee who was up on a ladder stocking shelves said, “Are you finding everything ok?” “Yes, I think so,” I reply. A few minutes later, I decide on the color I want to order, so I walk over to the empty paint counter and wait a while to see if an employee appears. No one does. I see a button on the counter that says “Press here for help from an associate.” So I press the button. Next thing I know, the same employee who had been up on the ladder stocking shelves appears behind the counter and says gruffly, “You could’ve just told me you were ready.” “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know if you were working this counter,” I say. While waiting for her to prepare my paint sample, I go off to browse around the store. The scenario is replaying in my head, and my heart starts pounding, I start to get shaky, and I can feel my face turning red. Why are people so mean? I was just trying to do what the store asked me to do. Why else would they put the button there? From there, the mental dialogue starts spiraling out of control. And now you’re freaking out, Kirsten. You can’t even handle a normal social situation. At that point, I want to escape from the eyes of everyone in the store. I imagine simply walking out on the spot and driving home.

But Stoic training came to the rescue.

To start, don’t allow yourself to be carried away by the intensity of your impression: but say ‘Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are and what you represent. Let me test you.’

(Epictetus, Discourses 2.18)

I take a deep breath. Think for a moment, Kirsten. Let’s look at this objectively. What actually happened? What are the facts? I pressed a button and the employee that came over said I should’ve just gotten her first without pressing the button.

Anything else? Not really… I just felt stupid for not knowing what to do, and then I freaked out because I felt like she scolded me.

wait-a-secondOk, those are your reactions to what happened. But looking only at the facts, you pressed a button and an employee said something to you? …Yes.

So the world isn’t crashing down, and I’m not an idiot. All that happened was I pressed a button and an employee spoke to me. I can handle that.

I head back to the paint counter to see if my sample is ready by now. There I overhear the same employee grumbling and complaining about other coworkers and her opinion of how the store should run.

I let out a huge exhale. Here I had thought that it was my fault for pressing the button leading to this lady scolding me, and that she was somehow mad at me personally. But it turns out that she seems to just be in a grumpy mood with everything. Hmm. So my initial understanding of the situation wasn’t the reality?

Epictetus knew how this worked all too well.

Then, afterwards, don’t allow your impression to draw you on by picturing whatever might come next, because if you do, your impression will lead you wherever it pleases. But instead, you should introduce a fair and better impression to replace the first, and banish this shoddy one.

(Epictetus, Discourses 2.18)

Epictetus warns us not to be carried away by our impressions, and by that he means that we should make accurate evaluations instead of faulty ones.

  • i.e., I shouldn’t have jumped to the idea that I’m an imbecile and that the employee is mad at me.

He urges us to wait a moment and look at the facts.

  • I pressed a button and an employee appeared and spoke to me.

And then we need to act based on the facts.

  • If I pressed a button and an employee appeared and spoke to me, is that really a reason to let my mind start churning and engage in all this negative self-talk? Taking this further, have I actually been harmed in any way? How have I allowed my Virtue to become affected? Stilpo’s words have basically become a mantra for me:

I have all my goods with me.

It’s when we get to this point (evaluating what effect this situation actually had on our Virtue) that the Stoics called “making proper use of impressions.” If we have any hope of obtaining this eudaimonia, Stoic serenity, “happy” life, etc., we must learn how to judge circumstances in exactly this manner.

It is not circumstances themselves that trouble people, but their judgements about those circumstances.

(Epictetus, Handbook 5)

Remember that the insult didn’t come from the person who abuses you or hits you, but from your judgement that such people are insulting you. Therefore, whenever someone provokes you, be aware that it is your own opinion that provokes you. So try, in the first place, not to be carried away by your impressions, for if you can gain time and delay, you will more easily control yourself.

(Epictetus, Handbook 20)

Focus on recognizing your impressions. Make it a practice for one day to dissect each situation in which you find yourself and separate the facts from your interpretation of them. If you find yourself getting upset over something, say “Impression, wait for me a little. Let me test you.” Then take a few seconds to go over the situation to make sure you have the flat facts and that your next actions are based on those facts.

Until next time. Live well.

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