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The Stoics called this technique premeditatio malorum.
Modern motivational speakers and self-help gurus warn against entertaining the worst possible outcomes or dwelling on negativity, but for the Stoics, this activity actually had some value.
The idea is that you occasionally spend a short amount of time imagining in detail the negative things that could happen in life.
By doing so, you generate a renewed appreciation for all the things you do have.
It’s like you recalibrate, remembering what’s important and putting your current concerns and worries into perspective as you find more gratitude for what is already working well for you.
More than this, though, negative visualization is intended to put you back in control and take the sting out of worries and anxieties.
When we insist on avoiding any negative premonitions at all, we don’t give ourselves the chance to plan and prepare for them, and in a way, we give them more power over us.
In his 45 BC text Tusculan Disputations, Cicero explains, “I am ready to borrow of the Cyrenaics those arms against the accidents and events of life by means of which, by long premeditation, they break the force of all approaching evils.
And at the same time I think that those very evils themselves arise more from opinion than nature, for if they were real, no forecast could make them lighter.”
In his letters to Lucilius, Seneca echoes this sentiment by saying, “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”
Elsewhere, he writes, “I will conduct you to peace of mind by another route: if you would put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen will certainly happen.
Whatever the evil may be, measure it in your own mind, and estimate the amount of your fear.
You will soon understand that what you fear is either not great or not of long duration.”
But this technique is not just for use when times are tough, but when things are going well, too.
In Epistles 18.6, he says, “It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.
In the midst of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers, throws up earthworks against a non-existent enemy and tires himself out with unnecessary toil in order to be equal to it when it is necessary.
If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes, you must give him some training before it comes.
In other words, if we wish to be mentally tough and resilient, we need to train ourselves to endure possibly negative outcomes, just as an athlete trains themselves to be strong in the face of physical adversity.
Granted, the Stoic mindset can seem a little alien at times, and their advice may sound strange to modern ears.
Exactly how can you apply negative visualization in your own life—and how is it different from simply catastrophizing?
Think of the aim of the exercises as three-fold.
When you practice negative visualization, you are:
Increasing gratitude for what you have right now.
Desensitizing yourself to adversity and increasing your tolerance and resilience to it.
Allowing yourself to prepare for negative outcomes.
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Categories: Voice over Work