Use negative visualization and reclaim your future

Darryl Bachmeier
Jul 8, 2019

Negative visualization is a powerful centuries-old Stoic practice. Learn how it can help you be more content and prepare better for what life throws at you.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you became sick in the middle of a long road trip without any medicine to ease your discomfort? Or maybe you found out - completely out of the blue - that you were being terminated from your job, leaving you in no man’s land?

In situations like these, we tend to have thoughts prefaced with this classic phrase: If only I’d known this was going to happen.

It turns out that the Stoic philosophers used a pretty good technique to solve this problem thousands of years ago. They flipped the classic phrase on its head. Instead of using the phrase “if only I’d known”, they resorted to saying “I know this can (and most likely will) happen”.

In effect, they were practicing ‘negative visualization’, a timeless mode of thinking about future events that can help you feel more comfortable about them. Let’s dive deeper into what it is.

What is negative visualization?

Negative visualization is the practice of thinking about what could go wrong in various aspects of your life and imagining what you would feel and how you would react if that actually were to happen.

This way of premeditating has several important benefits: it makes you appreciate what you currently have, be mentally prepared to face the worst, and take steps to mitigate the damage from any such event in the future.

Renowned Stoic philosophers like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus were known to use this practice in their daily lives. They called it premeditatio malorum, or “premeditation of evils”. This helped them manage their expectations better and avoid receiving ‘unpleasant’ surprises. Because they had already gone over all the worst-case scenarios in their head, they only got ‘pleasant’ surprises.

Why (and how) should you practice it?

In an age when positive psychology emphasizes the benefits of thinking optimistically and avoiding negative thoughts, the idea of negative visualization may seem outdated and counterproductive. However, it is anything but that for several reasons.

Learn to appreciate what you have

We struggle through life in pursuit of goals and desires which we think will make us happy and satisfy us. Once we achieve those goals, we feel euphoric and satisfied - but only temporarily. Before long, our achievements stop giving us the same kind of contentment and we start yearning for more. This is called hedonic adaptation.

Negative visualization forces us to imagine losing things we value the most in our lives such as our loved ones, our job, our health, and possessions. By doing this, we realize the true worth of these things and start appreciating them more, avoiding falling into the trap of hedonic adaptation.

For example, imagine that your grandmother (who you find pretty annoying) were to die tomorrow. Would you still find her annoying today and treat her with indifference? Or would you instinctively start being more kind to her and taking care of her?

In the same way, let’s say that you’re not satisfied with your job because you think it doesn’t pay you well. Now imagine what it would be like if you were let off from your job tomorrow? Won’t you feel that life was much better while you still had the job?

Prepare: mentally, and practically

Another important benefit of negative visualization is that it helps you prepare for the worst that could happen. When thinking about an important future event, you consider all the possibilities where things could go wrong.

Not only does this give you the opportunity to think about the best way to react, but it also helps you prepare and take steps to mitigate its consequences or avoid that scenario altogether. Instead of getting buried under an onslaught of negative emotions and confusion, you are better able to keep your calm and face the problem head-on if it actually happens.

Let’s say you’ve just bought a new car and are excited to go on a road trip with your family. Your car is new, so you naturally don’t expect it to give you any problems during the trip. However, you should still sit down and think of everything that could go wrong: what if you get into an accident along the way? What if someone gets sick? Have you packed a first aid kit for that? What if the weather gets too harsh? Have you checked the predictions and packed the right clothing?

In any case, the least this practice will do is give you a good footing on which to start your trip. You will not have to face any unexpected disruptions and sustain blows to your excitement if you’ve visualized all the negative scenarios exhaustively.

Face the uncertainties of life confidently

We must keep Seneca’s words in mind: “…remember that all we have is ‘on-loan’ from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission - indeed, without even advance notice.”

Health, wealth, love, and family - fortune may take away anything from us whenever it pleases. However, by anticipating these losses and being mentally and practically prepared, we can face the foggy horizon of the future confidently and with full vitality.

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