The great stoic philosophers have left behind heaps of wisdom for us to explore, but one of the most powerful techniques they have gifted us is the practice of negative visualization.
Negative visualization is a technique that dates back many thousands of years, used by philosophers like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. The core of the idea is to visualize negative outcomes in your life.
You contemplate what you have and visualize your life without them. Imagine life without your significant other or without your job or without your health, so on and so forth.
It’s like asking yourself the question what if in all facets of your life: your creative pursuits, your startup, your life decisions. What this isn’t is an exercise in torturing yourself just for fun. There is actually tremendous value in using this technique. Here are three reasons why you should start using negative visualization.
1. Appreciate what you have
First and foremost, this technique makes you quickly appreciate what you have in life. Your health, your family, your opportunities, and more.
Realizing that you are blessed and have a lot to be thankful for, can easily put things in perspective.
2. Understand the possible outcomes
Second is the ability to set expectations upfront and be far more honest with yourself. What could go wrong? How would you handle such scenarios? Can you overcome or plan for them?
This practice is called a pre-mortem in the business world, but the idea is the same. When you prepare for the worst, you are in a better place to deal with disaster if and when it does arise.
3. Realize it’s not so bad
Finally, this practice can help you realize the things that you are afraid of are not as bad as you made them out to be. What if you lost your job? What if you had to move to a much smaller apartment? What if your work turns out to be a failure?
We build up our fears to the point that they are larger than life. Confronting them and even temporarily experiencing them, can help you overcome such barriers.
“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation,” he wrote to a friend. “. . . nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned — and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.”
Seneca in Letters to Lucilius
Negative visualization is a powerful technique that we could all benefit from now and again. So how do you do it?
Whenever you start a new endeavor or start to get overly attached to something or are afraid of doing something, use negative visualization to ground yourself and understand what you are facing.
Play through the different scenarios or outcomes you may face, the fears that are in the back of your mind, and come to terms with them.
Epictetus describes the practice in this way:
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.
Do this for every act, so that if any hindrance does emerge, you can think: I did not prepare myself only to undertake the act, but also for this hindrance that has occurred, and also to handle this hindrance virtuously & keep my will conformed to nature — and this will be impossible if I become vexed.
The key is to mentally prepare not only for what you expect, but also for what can go wrong, the unexpected.
Furthermore, it is best to engage with this technique in a place of comfort. After all, you want to mentally prepare for the worse, but you don’t want to ruin your mood or state of mind. Being in your home or office, allows you to come back to your current life and not linger too long on the possible negatives you envisioned.
The practice of negative visualization is a useful one, but something we hardly ever do. Give it a try yourself and see how thinking of the worst case scenarios can actually empower you.