Negative Visualization: The Stoic Practice to Become Mentally Stronger
What’s the worst that could happen in your life?
How would you cope?
Hard to say, right?
Have you ever heard of ‘negative visualization?’ Well, this is one of the most powerful tools in the Stoic’s tool kit. This imagination practice will help you deal with whatever life throws at you. Even with the worst that could happen.
Sure, you can take precautions to prevent bad stuff from happening, but no matter how hard you try, some bad things will happen anyway.
It’s crucial to be mentally prepared for those. That’s where negative visualization enters your life. This simple practice will lessen the impact these misfortunes have on you. You’ll be able to face adversity in a calm and patient way.
You can stay calm when others panic, respond in the smartest manner possible, and at the same time strengthen your values.
If negative visualization was a pill, its demands would skyrocket.
But it’s a practice that requires your effort. You need to be willing to invest a tickle of your time to be able to reap its benefits.
Ready to do that?
What Is Negative Visualization Anyway?
You’ve heard it:
Negative visualization is a powerful tool.
And it deals with one of the most important things for the Stoics: To be prepared for everything that may come.
Think of it as foresight. Before something happens, you ask ‘What could go wrong?’ ‘What obstacle could pop up?’ ‘Where could I face difficulties?’
In this first part, we’ll look at three things: 1. What’s the key idea? 2. Why it wasn’t actually ‘negative’ to the Stoics. 3. Why so pessimistic?
What’s the Key Idea of the Stoic Exercise ‘Negative Visualization’?
“When you are going to perform an act, remind yourself what kind of things the act may involve. When going to the swimming pool, reflect on what may happen at the pool: some will splash the water, some will push against one another, others will abuse one another, and others will steal. Thusly you have mentally prepared yourself to undertake the act, and you can say to yourself: I now intend to bathe, and am prepared to maintain my will in a virtuous manner, having warned myself of what may occur.” – Epictetus
The idea is clear and simple:
You imagine (visualize) possible bad future scenarios in your head so that you’ll be ready when these occur and you’ll be able to stay cool and respond in the best way possible. (Some minor bad scenarios they even practiced – it’s called voluntary discomfort.)
One of the Stoics’ main goals in life was to live according to the virtues wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance (you can read about those in detail here). To be able to live that way they mentally trained themselves. And since it’s relatively easy to live virtuously when life goes as planned, they regularly visualized ‘misfortunes’ such as exile, illness, or death to happen so they’d be prepared to live in a virtuous manner if they actually occurred.
In short, the Stoics used this visualization exercise they referred to as premeditatio malorum (literally, foreseeing bad stuff) to train themselves to be able to stay calm and free from emotional suffering in the face of adversity.
Author and modern Stoic William Irvine called this resilience training ‘negative visualization’. Why this might not be the perfect term we’ll look at under the next subheader.
First, let’s hear out author Donald Robertson why this ‘negative thinking’ could be better than the well-known ‘positive thinking:’
“Recent psychological research tends to show that people who are able to accept unpleasant thoughts and feelings, without being overwhelmed by them, are more resilient than people who try to distract themselves or avoid such experiences, through strategies such as positive thinking.”
Pretty cool, huh?
This works because visualizing negative scenarios will decrease our fear of them and mentally prepare us to deal with the crisis if it occurs. It’s no accident they use this and similar exercises in modern ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’ (CBT).
Why Are the Misfortunes Imagined in Negative Visualization Not Really “Negative”?
The term ‘negative visualization’ can be misleading and risks the point of the whole exercise.
A basic Stoic principle says that external events cannot be negative or positive but only indifferent because they are not under our control. And the Stoics want to focus on what they can control and not let something they cannot control dictate how they feel about their life.
That’s why imagined and real ‘misfortunes’ are not actually negative to the Stoics. Only the reactions to them can be good or bad. This is the reason why they want to prepare so well, so that they’ll be able to respond smartly. They lay their focus not on what happens but on how they respond to what happens. (You can read more about this principle here.)
Basically, the ‘bad stuff’ that we imagine to happen is not actually bad, but our reactions to it make it so. And that’s exactly the purpose of the exercise: to be able to respond calmly to things that are generally perceived as ‘bad’ or ‘catastrophic’.
The Stoics went around imagining that the shit will hit the fan so that they were prepared to stay cool when the shit eventually hit the fan.
This arouses the suspicion that the Stoics were pessimists…
So Were the Stoics Pessimists?
The Stoics went around contemplating worst-caste scenarios.
It’s not far-fetched to conclude that they were pessimists. However, what we find is that the regular practice of negative visualization transforms Stoics into full-blown optimists!
Let me explain.
Or actually, I’ll let William Irvine explain (from his boot A Guide to the Good Life):
“We normally characterize an optimist as someone who sees his glass as being half full rather than half empty. For a Stoic, though, this degree of optimism would only be a starting point.
After expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, he will go on to express his delight in even having a glass: It could, after all, have been broken or stolen… He might comment about what an astonishing thing glass vessels are: They are cheap and fairly durable, impart no taste to what they contain…
To such a person, glasses are amazing; to everyone else, a glass is just a glass.”
Pretty optimistic, right?
What we’ve seen in this explanation is a gained sense of appreciation for what we have. All thanks to imagining bad things to happen. Before we look closer at the benefits of negative visualization, let’s look at another suspicion.
But doesn’t contemplating something bad happening cause worry?
Visualizing some misfortune does not mean to worry about it. Negative visualization is an intellectual exercise and it’s well possible to engage in the exercise without being affected by it emotionally.
Let’s say you learn about hemorrhoids for an exam. Just because you learn and think about them does not mean you will from now on be worried about hemorrhoids. Hopefully.
Quick recap: Negative visualization is a thought exercise. We imagine bad things to happen so that we’ll be better prepared for them when they actually occur. It’s important to remember that for the Stoics external misfortunes were not actually negative but indifferent. And only their reaction to the events could be good or bad. They trained themselves mentally to be able to respond well when adversity hit them. Thinking about negative scenarios does not make you pessimistic, but rather optimistic. You will appreciate the things you have much more when regularly imagine bad things to happen.
How Does Negative Visualization Work Exactly?
Now, how can you use this powerful tool in your own life?
Again, we’ll look at three things: 1. How does this premeditatio malorum work step by step. 2. Why the Stoics thought of everything as borrowed from fortune. 3. Why to think about your own death.
How to Practice Negative Visualization Step by Step
A quick doctors’ analogy:
A postmortem is when doctors try to find out why a person died. They look at the person after the event of death (outside the medical world we might call this a debriefing, wrap-up or review). In a premortem, doctors would try to find out why a person could die, obviously before the patient dies.
Negative visualization is like a premortem. We ask what could go wrong in advance, before we start a trip, or launch a product, or go on a job interview.
Let’s look at the job interview example step by step. Your job interview will take place the day after tomorrow. How exactly do you negatively visualize now?
- Instead of imagining the most likely scenario, imagine the worst case scenario and generally things that could go wrong, even if those things are unlikely to happen (like a dragon eating your CV).
- Think of the bad scenarios as if happening right now, not in the future (the dragon eats your CV right now!).
- Now try to stay calm despite of the bad things happening. What’s the best thing to do in this situation? Focus on what you can do. Panic doesn’t help. (Stay cool and tell the interviewer what happened.)
- (Optional) After visualizing think of how you could prepare for those things. And do it. (Bring your CV not only on paper but also on a hard disk.) Keep in mind that for certain scenarios you can’t prepare but mentally.
You can use these four steps with almost any upcoming event. And you’ll be better prepared, at least mentally.
Most of us have an active (and wild) imagination and negative visualization will be easy. If you have trouble imagining bad stuff happening, then you can observe bad stuff happening to other people and transfer that into your own life.
By the way, you can also use negative visualization postmortem in some cases. Say your grandma died and grief overwhelms you. Then you can imagine that you’ve never had her or never known her. This will give you a feeling of gratitude for the time you knew and appreciated her. That’s called retrospective negative visualization.
How often should we use negative visualization? We can use negative visualization for specific events as the job interview or we can do it periodically with general things we’ll look at right now.
Think of Everything You Have as Borrowed
Everything you think you own is not truly yours and can be taken away at a snap.
It’s true. We don’t own anything. Yeah sure, that car is yours. But is it really? It may break down or get stolen. Your wife, your boyfriend, your lads, your mum, you think you have them, but they’re not forever. The enjoyment to have these loved people is only temporary.
People die. Things break. Possessions get destroyed. Bodies fall apart.
That’s why the Stoics said that everything you have is only borrowed. It’s on loan from fortune, which can reclaim it without your permission – even without advance notice. Baam and gone!
But we forget about that. We take things for granted. We think tomorrow will be the same as today.
- Prepare for our parents to die? That can wait.
- Prepare for our possessions to be taken away? Won’t happen.
- Prepare for our bodies to get sick? Can wait, we’re in great shape now.
The Stoics recommend to negatively visualizing all those things. Imagine your car’s broken down. Doesn’t start anymore. Not too bad, right? What about losing your left arm? Can happen. Sucks a ton. But you could live with one arm. Forget about juggling, though.
But what if shit gets tough? Think about your most important person in your life. Imagine this person is dead. Gone. Won’t come back. What now? All your tears won’t bring her back.
Look, such horrible scenarios would suck a ton. But they’ve happened thousands of time. Why not mentally prepare for these things to happen?
Next time you kiss or hug your best friend good bye, think it could be the last time. How much more will you appreciate this person now? And how much happier will you be the next time you see her?
Before we look at the ultimate negative visualization, namely that of your own death, we’ll look at what may already has come to your mind.
We’d be crazy to wish for such things to happen. But, and that’s important, we’d be equally crazy to think that such things are not going to happen. And we’d be crazy not to prepare for these things to happen. Hear out Seneca on this:
“I may wish to be free from torture, but if the time comes for me to endure it, I’ll wish to bear it courageously with bravery and honor. Wouldn’t I prefer not to fall into war? But if war does befall me, I’ll wish to carry nobly the wounds, starvation, and other necessities of war. Neither am I so crazy as to desire illness, but if I must suffer illness, I’ll wish to do nothing rash or dishonorable. The point is not to wish for these adversities, but for the virtue that makes adversities bearable.”
And if we wish for the strength to bear these adversities, we might want to invest a trickle of our time to prepare.
Contemplate Your Own Death
It’s hard to imagine someone else to be dead. It’s even harder, though, to imagine yourself to be dead.
There’s nothing we fear more than our own death. The Stoics taught that this fear is irrational, nothing but rumors from the living.
Seneca wrote in his consolation to Marcia that “so many funeral processions go past our houses, but we don’t think about death.” Today, we don’t see funeral processions very often, but the news is full of dead people. We’re reminded every day that humans are mortal. And death can happen to us, too, not only to other people.
The Stoics suggest living as if today were our last day. Not to go out and glorify a frivolous lifestyle with junk food, blackjack, and hookers. It’s not about letting yourself go.
The goal is not to change your activities but to change your state of mind while you do those activities.
More important than the length of your life is how well you live it.
For the Stoics, contemplating one’s own mortality and living as if each day were our last is simply an extension of the negative visualization technique. When we go about our day we should periodically pause and reflect on the fact that we will not live forever, that we are mortal, and we might not see tomorrow.
Just as everything else is on loan from fortune, so is our own life. We don’t know how long we are given to keep it. What we know for sure is that it’s not up to us to decide. We can only decide how we want to live right now.
The old Romans had a saying: Memento mori. It means ‘remember you are mortal.’ Regularly contemplating upon one’s own death has many benefits, I wrote in detail about it here.
In that sense, memento mori, my friend.
Quick recap: Any event coming up? What could go wrong? Imagine possible scenarios as if happening right now. Stay calm, don’t get overwhelmed and imagine your best possible response. And optionally you can prepare for the negative things you imagined. You can negatively visualize anything in life: a normal school day, a planned vacation, the loss of all your possessions, or your own death. The Stoics advise to see everything you have as on loan from fortune, which can take it back at an instant. What you have today might be gone tomorrow. Use the negative visualization exercise to prepare yourself for such adversity.
How Does Negative Visualization Make You Mentally Stronger? (The Benefits of Negative Visualization)
Negative visualization requires some effort…
Plus you need to ask yourself some tough questions.
Is it worth it?
Let’s look at five major benefits you can reap from this Stoic exercise.
1. Imagining Bad Stuff Will Make You Appreciate More What You Have
Thinking about all that could go wrong makes you appreciate what you have in life.
When you imagine your best friend to be dead, you will appreciate her much more. The same is true for your possessions, your health, your senses, your limbs, your home, your job, and the world as a whole.
Visualizing things going wrong will help you be grateful for what you have. And you will realize that reality never turns out to be as bad as in your worst nightmares.
By consciously thinking about the loss of your favorite things you will regain the appreciation of them. You won’t take everything for granted any more. You will revitalize your capacity for joy.
Imagine you’re invited for a picnic with your aunt and her family. By thinking about a variety of possible bad scenarios concerning the picnic, you will not be gloomy but delighted at the picnic. Happy to be there, with people you love, eating food you enjoy, feeling the grass on your feet under the sparkling sun. You’re well aware that this picnic might not have taken place for various reasons.
Things could have gone wrong. The weather could have turned. Lives could have come to an end.
Trifles such as rotten strawberries and nagging seagulls won’t even bother you.
Because you remember that everything is borrowed from nature and hangs by a thread. It might be gone tomorrow.
Therefore you’re grateful for the things you have as long as you have them. And at the same time you’re not clinging to them. You’re prepared for things to go wrong and you’re even prepared to lose people you love.
2. Negative Visualization Helps You Be Prepared Rather Than Sorry
We know that misfortune can befall us at any moment.
If misfortune comes, it’s obviously better to be prepared than unprepared. Well, negative visualization helps you with just that.
When you visualize about the things that could go wrong with your job interview, you imagine that bird that shits on your head while walking there. There’s not much you can do about that, but still it’s better if you’ve visualized that beforehand. Because you can stay calm and say in good ol’ British manner, “Oh, that’s rather unpleasant.”
Point is, shit will hit the fan. Difficulties will arise. Obstacles will pop up. Either those will catch you unprepared or prepared.
Whenever you’re prepared, you’re more likely to respond in a smart way. And you and I, we both want to respond in the best way possible. Not like all the people who panic, lose their minds over freckles, and get overwhelmed by banalities.
We’d rather face adversity in a calm, rational, and patient manner. We don’t see any sense in panicking, wasting energy and nerves over something we cannot do anything about. And over something we could have seen coming if we only thought about it once.
The last good Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, prepared every morning for mean people to pop up:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly…”
He prepared himself every morning to meet mean people. He wanted to stay calm whenever he met some annoying person. We can do the same. Instead of getting annoyed by other drivers on our way to work, we can prepare for this to happen and take it with a click of the tongue and say, “Knew this was gonna happen.”
When we practice negative visualization we’ll be prepared for whatever life throws at us, we’ll be able to respond in calm and rational way, and at the same time we’ll strengthen our values. Double win – ching ching.
Seneca said it best, “Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation.”
We never want to get caught by surprise.
3. The Anticipation of Possible Setbacks Will Eliminate the Surprise Factor
“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events.” – Seneca
If we contemplate events in advance, nothing will ever take us by surprise.
And that’s good. Because the surprising hurts (or delights) us doubly. Ryan Holiday put it well in his book The Obstacle Is the Way:
“About the worst thing that can happen is not something going wrong, but something going wrong and catching you by surprise.”
Surprise can leave us absolutely crushed and shocked. This devastation grows the less we have considered an event possible in the first place.
In short: The more something catches you by surprise, the more devastating it will be.
Negative visualization is a great way to prevent this sense of irrational surprise at life’s ‘misfortunes.’
The Stoics point out that by anticipating possible setbacks in life you can take the sting out of them by eliminating the surprise or shock factor.
Life is tough enough already, we cannot afford to be shocked by events we could have foreseen. If you’ve ever watched a soccer world cup final, or any other important sports game, you’ve probably seen many devastated players and fans after the game.
How could they not have foreseen the loss? The chances were 50:50.
I don’t know about you, but as much as I love sports and my favorite teams, I’m tired of wasting my energy on such insignificant events as the results of sports events. One team wins, the other loses. I’m fine with either way.
With a little anticipation, we can resist going to pieces if things don’t go as wished or planned.
4. Vaccinate Yourself with Negative Visualization against Future Misfortunes
Think of vaccines.
What’s their job?
Their job is to make your body able to fight off disease before the disease actually befalls you body.
Now negative visualization is a kind of vaccine. You prepare your mind to deal with something before it actually happens.
If you vaccine yourself against the death of a loved one, this will not magically eliminate the pain when it actually happens. But it will reduce the pain and it will help you deal with the event much better. You’re more resilient from the beginning on. You can endure much more when you’ve vaccinated yourself beforehand.
Negative visualization will lessen the impact of the adversities you’ll face. Any adversities.
Yeah, you heard right. This vaccination is transferable. Hear out author Don Robertson on this:
“Psychological resilience tends to ‘generalize’, so that even situations that are neither anticipated nor directly rehearsed may be experienced as less overwhelming, as long as a wide of variety of other adversities have been anticipated and coped with resiliently.”
Isn’t that great?
You get almost immune to misfortunes of any nature. When you expose yourself mentally to bad things, you build up stronger defense mechanisms and become less vulnerable to future real-life challenges.
If this was a drug, it’d be a bestseller. But since it’s a practice that requires effort from our site, it’s hardly used. Now, I’ve decided long ago to use this sort of drug or vaccine regularly in my own life.
Again, this does not magically eliminate all pain, but it makes many things much much easier to take. Especially small things. They don’t arouse any pain within me anymore. I’m still struggling, but this technique called negative visualization is definitely worth implementing in your own life.
It even diminishes your fears.
5. Imagining the Worst that Could Happen Will Diminish Your Fears
“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” – Seneca
Many fears we have are worse in imagination than in reality. Oftentimes, things turn out to be not that bad.
But tell this someone who’s afraid to their blood…
What’s something that scares you? Spiders? Injections? Stages? Heights?
When you confront these fears in your imagination often enough, they will diminish. Let’s say you’re afraid of injections. Whenever you think about injections you get jittery. That’s why you won’t think about it. Because it makes you feel bad.
So whenever we’re afraid of something we try to think of something else. But this might be the wrong technique. It’s relieving in the moment, but it does not take away our fear.
20th-century philosopher Bertrand Russell said that “every kind of fear grows worse by not being looked at.” He continued, “The proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it becomes completely familiar.”
The solution is not to look away, but to look at it. We need to try to do or imagine what fears us.
Ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen when I get an injection?
Imagine it. I know, it hurts, and it feels weird, and you think you’ll faint.
What’s the worst except for the weird feeling? To faint? So you sit down when they do it. What else? The feeling when the needle enters the vein? Yeah, surely it’s a weird feeling, but mainly because of your imagination. It’s hardly worse than someone tickling your toes.
Go calmly through these scenarios that fear you, and you’ll see this will reduce the stress they cause. Confrontation with your fears in your imagination (or in real life) might help you tremendously.
Suddenly, you’ll look at what once feared you with detachment. It’s become normal.
I remember the first days at my job on the Brighton Pier in the UK. I worked in the candy shop called ‘Sweat Dreams’ and was all alone by myself. I didn’t know if I would get a break. I didn’t know about many things I should have known and I was pretty scared to mess up. I was even scared to go ask someone to give me a pee-break (the toilet was pretty far away). Many times I almost peed myself because I was so scared of asking the Polish supervisors. After a few weeks I couldn’t get bothered. When I needed a pee I asked someone to give me a break or I just went.
When you experience or imagine something often enough it gets normal. No signs of fear anymore. (Except if you’re a cliff diver or a lion tamer, then fear should never leave you completely.)
Quick recap: (1) The practice of negative visualization teaches us to appreciate more what we already have without clinging to it. So that we’re prepared to let go of the things and people we appreciate. (2) We are prepared to deal calmly and patiently with whatever life throws at us. (3) Our anticipation of difficult scenarios takes out the sting of them by reducing the surprise factor. Getting caught by surprise seems to be the main reason why people get devastated. (4) Negative visualization works similar to a vaccine and it improves our defense mechanisms and resilience when misfortunes happen. We can simply endure more. (5) On top of that we can reduce our fears by confronting them through negative imagination.
Now Use Negative Visualization in Your Own Life
There’s one guarantee I can offer you:
Things will go differently than planned, things will go wrong. No matter how hard you try to prevent bad things from happening to you, some will happen anyway. If you’re wise, you’ll prepare using negative visualization.
I said it before, if negative visualization was a drug, its demands would skyrocket.
Since it’s not a drug but a practice that requires effort from our site, demands are close to zero. Only few ambitious and wise people use the exercise.
You can be one of those few.
Here are some ideas that will get you started:
- Do you have any event coming up? Exam, vacation, work presentation, marriage, etc. Ask yourself and imagine: what could go wrong?
- Think about your loved ones. What if they’d suddenly be gone? How would you feel? What would you do? How would you react?
- What about your possessions. What if they were gone? What if your car broke down? What if your house burned down? What if your watch got stolen?
- What kind of people do you meet? And how do you react to those encounters? Do you stay cool or do you swear the hell out of them? What’s your best response?
Remember your own mortality. You are not going to live forever. You can get sick. You can lose a limb. You can get Alzheimer’s. And you will die. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a hundred years.
I highly encourage you to ask you some of those questions right now. Take 15 minutes, sit down comfortably, ask some question, and let your imagination go w-w-w-wild…
You: This 'Stoicism stuff' is not that bad, have some more?
Me: Sure! Here you go: My 13 Favorite Stoic Practices.
I'll wrap 'em as a gift.