Negative Visualisation: How to Practise Gratitude Like a Stoic

Epictetus and negative visualisation

Epictetus, a former slave and Stoic philosopher who, like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, recommended meditating on the worst-case scenarios.

Negative visualisation might sound like an oxymoron at first. How could something negative be helpful? Well, in short, negative visualisation is a philosophical mindset and a coping mechanism developed by ancient Roman philosophers like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. It’s a Stoic principle, and it can help you cultivate gratitude in your life. (The method actually originated with the Cyreanic philosophers, but was later adopted by the Stoics.) The practice has also been referred to as premeditatio malorum (“premeditation of evils”). Seneca discussed it in his Moral Letters to Lucilius.

Let’s take a look at what the practice of negative visualisation involves and what its benefits are. what it is, and why you should utilise it.

The Basics of Negative Visualisation

Negative visualisation is the practice of visualising negative occurrences in your life to increase gratitude and appreciation for the things and people you have in your life. It involves visualising in great detail things such as:

  • Losing someone you love
  • Losing a job or position
  • The death of a loved one
  • Being alone
  • The worst-case scenario

Even though it seems like it would cause more harm than good, this philosophy has been shown to remind us of the things we cherish but take for granted. Focusing on the negative outcomes of realistic life scenarios can also desensitise you or psychologically prepare you for real-life losses. The philosopher William B. Irvine states in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy:

Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.

In practice, this technique can range from meditating on small losses to catastrophic ones. Seneca, for instance, advised Lucilius to meditate on death, and Epictetus – as reported by his students in his Discourses – recommended reminding oneself of the impermanent nature of things and the mortality of all living creatures. As the latter said, “Hold death and exile and all that seems dreadful before your eyes every day, but most of all death: and you will never think of anything bad or desire anything too much.”

Memento mori (“remember death”), or the contemplation of death, is a form of negative visualisation, and it can make you grateful for being alive right now, as well as better prepare you for the inevitable. The problem is that we have a perennial aversion to the subject and fact of death. Seneca wrote in his consolation to Marcia that “so many funeral processions go past our houses, but we don’t think about death.” We often don’t reflect on and fully accept that death will happen to us and others.

A less morbid example of negative visualisation might include taking note of your romantic relationship, which you feel fed up buy; after failed attempts to rekindle the joy and ease present at the beginning, you can instead try to meditate on the imagined scenario of your life without this person. This may lead to the realisation that the love and affection you have for the person still very much exists, leading to the commitment to make further efforts to sustain the relationship, rather than end it due to boredom or the natural ebb and flow – the ups and downs – of a relationship. 

(If you practise negative visualisation for a strained relationship and you don’t feel deeply saddened by the thought of losing the person, well, that’s probably a sign that what you need is not gratitude but serious consideration of whether the relationship is worth continuing.)

How to Practice Negative Visualisation to Cultivate Gratitude

So, how can you practice negative visualisation? Is it for everyone?

These are good questions. Negative visualisation may not be for everyone, especially if you have a tendency to panic or have intrusive thoughts. It’s best to practice these exercises with a trained therapist if you have anxiety or a panic disorder, as imagining the worst-case scenarios may lend itself to catastrophic thinking (ruminating on these worst-case outcomes), which is characterised by heightened levels of anxiety.

If you do think you would benefit from this practice, here’s how to go about it:

  1. Think of something or someone in your life that you’d like to have more gratitude for. It could be a person or a situation, such as your wife or a position at work that you’ve grown tired of.
  2. Think of a situation where this person or position is removed from your life at force and without your knowledge. Imagine your wife leaving you overnight and taking your children. Imagine your boss firing you out of nowhere. Imagine yourself losing your best friend to a disease.
  3. Consider how you are feeling in this scenario. Do you feel sad? Do you have any regrets? Do you feel relieved? Are you more grateful for the place this person or thing has in your life?
  4. Make a decision on how to move forward. Depending on your response to the exercise, do you wish to continue the relationship or position, or do you believe you would be better off without it?
  5. Increase your gratitude for the things that continue to serve you. If you have experienced a heightened sense of need from this exercise, it’s time to practice gratitude. If you’re concerned about your relationship, take extra steps to foster closeness.

Negative visualisation isn’t meant to cause you harm. It is simply a practical technique to help you change your mindset and move forward in life. 

Both ancient and modern Stoics advise practising negative visualisation daily at a set time, such as early in the morning or late at night. Marcus Aurelius, for instance, advised, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.”

Why Practice Negative Visualisation?

The reasons someone may practice negative visualisation can vary, depending on the person. However, as already mentioned, it is mainly to be used as a tool to cultivate gratitude for the various aspects of your life, as well as to prepare you for any losses or hardships to come, increasing your resilience. As Seneca said, “Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation.” Epictetus made a similar observation when he said:

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.

Sometimes, negative visualisation brings results you weren’t expecting. Here are some of the top benefits of this form of meditation.

It Brings Appreciation to Your Life

The most important benefit of this exercise is the fact that it allows you to appreciate the things and people you have more than before. If you do the exercise correctly, it will often cause deep feelings of love or necessity to come to the front of your mind.

These feelings of gratitude can be difficult to find in your day-to-day life, especially in relationships. After being in a relationship for a long time, you can become accustomed to the positive parts and more partial to the negative ones.

Negative visualisation shows you the positive against the negative and reminds you why you started the relationship in the first place. If you are performing this exercise in regard to a position or a job, it can remind you why you work hard and bring a newfound energy to your duties, especially if you are motivated by the fear of losing it.

It Helps You Not Take Things for Granted

To expand on our previous point, negative visualisation helps you to avoid taking things for granted. You may find yourself enjoying the comforts of your relationships, friendships, or a certain position. Perhaps you’ve recently come into a lot of money and have started to spend it with disregard.

Acting recklessly or not appreciating what you have can, over time, cause you to lose it. That’s why negative visualisation is so important.

It Helps Reduce Anxiety Over Time

Being able to expose yourself to the worst-case scenario is also important. It increases your resiliency to difficult thoughts and feelings and can even reduce intrusive thoughts or fears. In fact, it’s so effective that exposure therapy utilises it as well to help clients manage conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and eating disorders. (Visualisation is just one of many techniques you can use to overcome various forms of emotional distress.) 

It Makes Setbacks Less Surprising and Easier to Bear

You will be better equipped to deal with difficult situations and suffering if you have in mind all the possibilities of what may occur. As Seneca wrote:

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.

In Letter 76, Seneca remarks:

If an evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes. To the fool, however, and to him who trusts in fortune, each event as it arrives “comes in a new and sudden form,” and a large part of evil, to the inexperienced, consists in its novelty. This is proved by the fact that men endure with greater courage, when they have once become accustomed to them, the things which they had at first regarded as hardships. Hence, the wise man accustoms himself to coming trouble, lightening by long reflection the evils which others lighten by long endurance. We sometimes hear the inexperienced say: “I knew that this was in store for me.” But the wise man knows that all things are in store for him. Whatever happens, he says: “I knew it.”

It Helps You Let Go of What Needs to Be Let Go Of

Negative visualisation can also give you the opposite result. It may show you that your life truly would be better without someone or something in it (as we saw earlier in the case of relationships). And this is ultimately positive, too. If you’re in an unhealthy relationship or a position that is no longer serving you, it’s better to let go. If you feel relieved in your exercise to imagine your life without something, perhaps that means you no longer should have it in your life.

Another term for ‘negative visualisation’ could be ‘visualisation reminder’. It serves to remind us of what we value the most deeply and what no longer serves us. 


This article was developed in partnership with BetterHelp. All views expressed are my own.

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