In the dictatorship of positive thinking and sweetened motivational quotes, it is not well seen to focus our attention on the negative. We avoid negativity like the plague and try to exorcise pessimism from our lives. However, centuries ago the Stoics had another approach. They thought that we need to prepare for the worst in the best way, so that problems will not take us by surprise.
Unlike the general visualization approach that focuses on inducing a positive psychological and physiological response, Praemeditatio Malorum practiced by the Stoics, considered a negative visualization technique, imagines the worst outcomes in realistic life scenarios to desensitize us and prepare us for deal with real life losses, cope with problems, and even induce feelings of gratitude for life.
In fact, the Praemeditatio Malorum is not a pessimistic reflection, but a practice of vitality and gratitude. Its goal is not to overwhelm us with the countless misfortunes that could befall us, but to prepare us to deal with them by stripping them of the shock of the unexpected. What this technique really seeks is to develop a vision of reality as it is, without sugarcoating.
The origin of the stoic technique Praemeditatio Malorum
Negative visualization, or futurorum malorum præmeditatio, is a method of askēsis that arose with the Cyrenaic philosophers, but was adopted and popularized by the Stoic ones. In fact, the technique became popular with the publications of Seneca’s moral letters.
However, the expression was taken from a phrase by Marco Tulio Cicero, the Roman politician and philosopher, who said: “præmeditatio futurorum malorum lenit eorum adventum”, which means: “foreseeing future evils alleviates their arrival”. As a result, the præmeditatio futurorum malorum became one of the most popular spiritual exercises for the healing of the soul of the Stoic school.
The most important of the ancient Stoics, Chrysippus of Soli, described it as a proendêmein technique that allows us to get used to things that are not yet, behaving as we would as if they were really happening.
A later Stoic philosopher, Posidonius of Apamea, explained the concept of proendêmein: the ability to presentify (proanaplattein) future evil, in the form of a trace or image that is always available, before it occurs.
The availability of the bad future in the form of an image allows us to familiarize ourselves with that misfortune, so that we are not taken by surprise if it occurs. That image, the tupos, anticipates the bad future by making it present. Most importantly, however, the level of refinement and credibility of that image must be such that when evil does occur in the future, it becomes almost irrelevant.
The purpose of negative visualization, therefore, is to protect ourselves from the consequences of the irruption of an unexpected evil. In fact, as Seneca said, “The effects of what is not expected are more crushing since the weight of the unexpected is added to the disaster. The unforeseen has always intensified a person’s pain. For that reason we must make sure that nothing takes us by surprise. We should be projecting our thoughts into the future at all times to account for every possible eventuality, rather than thinking that events will simply take their course.
“We must anticipate all the possibilities and strengthen the spirit to deal with the things that could happen. Try them in your mind […] If we don’t want to feel overwhelmed and stunned by unusual events, as if they were unprecedented occurrences; we must rethink the concept of luck more comprehensively.”
The power to make the future present
The intensity of the negative visualization can range from something as minor as imagining missing the train to a much more serious problem, such as imagining the loss of resources, status, health, or even life.
The strength of the Praemeditatio Malorum lies in the Stoics’ conviction that most events are not as terrible as we imagine. In fact, Psychology has proven that we are tremendously inaccurate when it comes to estimating the degree of happiness or suffering that events can cause us.
The Stoics believed that much of our suffering and pain stems from our view of events. They thought that inexperienced men had a distorted view of reality, which they saw as more threatening and hostile than it really was. In fact, Seneca said that “There is no one less fortunate than the man whom adversity forgets, since he has no opportunity to prove himself.”
With Praemeditatio Malorum, the Stoics managed to purify the event of the poisonous residues of that bad hermeneutic and returned it to the person neutralized and weakened in its destructive power; that is, reduced to an almost indifferent state.
For this reason, Marcus Aurelius recommended: “Start each day by saying to yourself: Today I will meet with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill will and selfishness.”
It should be noted that although it seems that Praemeditatio Malorum is an exercise oriented towards the future, it is actually a technique that tries to neutralize its negative effects by making it present in an orderly and coherent set of images or tupos.
The effective praemeditatio is one in which the future becomes present in the most realistic, hard, certain and immediate way possible. Nothing is saved. The worst scenarios are evoked and reproduced in detail to prepare the mind. Therefore, that future thus becomes hyper-consistent by virtue of a powerful act of presentification.
This hyper-coherence has a paradoxical therapeutic property: annul the poison injected into the things that happen to us by a hermeneutic generated by fear. It is a violent and uncontrolled reaction when adversity takes us by surprise.
According to the Stoics, anticipated evil is not a possible evil, but a certain evil, it is not a future evil but an evil that is already real, it is not an evil in process, but an evil already accomplished, but above all, it stops being bad. The person who is prepared for the worst will always have more answers and tools to face it than the person who thinks that everything will turn out well.
How to apply the Praemeditatio Malorum?
Seneca affirmed that it is better to prepare for the worst in good times: “It is in times of security when the spirit must prepare for difficult times; while fortune is granting you favors, it is time to fortify yourself against its rebuffs […] because when fortune is kind, the soul can create defenses against its fury”.
“Rehearse in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All these human concepts must be in front of our eyes […] “Take a week in which you barely have food, that is cheap and mediocre, you dress very poorly, and ask yourself if that is the worst that could happen to you”.
Therefore, it is about doing exactly that: Thinking about the worst that could happen when we face a new project, are about to start a new relationship or go through some turning point in our life. We can even make a list of all the things that scare us for the future, such as losing a job, a breakup, or an illness.
Then, we must ask ourselves: What is the worst that could happen if…? The key is to unleash the pessimist that lives in us, but without becoming catastrophists. When we visualize what is the worst that could happen to us, we do two things: Anxiety is reduced because we rationally understand that almost nothing is as serious, irresolvable, or catastrophic as it seems, and second, it encourages us to look for possible solutions.
However, the true teaching of this negative visualization technique is that each day is a gift to be thankful for. Visualizing the possible unexpected of life thus becomes an act of gratitude and detachment that makes us more resilient, preparing us for the future. Well, after all, that’s what it’s all about: Living without letting fear paralyze us. If something has to happen, it will happen. But if we are prepared, we can mitigate its impact.
Alessandrelli, M. (2020) Praemeditatio malorum. In: Istituto per il Lessico Intellettuale Europeo e Storia delle Idee.
Miller, S. A. (2015) Toward a Practice of Stoic Pragmatism. The Pluralist; 10(2): 150-171.