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Good vibes for negative thinking?


It's called negative visualization...and it aint all bad!


There's a silver lining in this thought process. The Stoics knew it. They accepted the reality that bad things happen to good people (and bad people too). They used mental imagery to prepare themselves for some big misfortunes: like reversals of fame, fortune and wealth; deteriorating health; and the certainty of death. Stoicism encourages us to confront our fears and focus on our response to an event rather than the event itself. It is meant to take the sting out of the inevitability of such grave misfortunes and prevent us from being overwhelmed.


Acknowledging this stoic technique, Albert Ellis, founded Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and used mental imagery to help his patients discover coping mechanisms for their fears and anxieties. REBT is the precursor to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT): one of the most popular psychotherapies used today.

For the Stoics, negative visualization (contemplation) infers reasoned thought - a controlled intellectual exercise allowing you to face your fears in detachment - in advance. This mental preparation enables you to face your fears calmly, without anxiety. Should misfortune occur, you will have robbed it of its shock value, as it will not be able to take you by surprise, or leave you without recourse.

There might be less money in my future. What can I do now, to prepare myself for life with less money?

So, what would the Stoics do?


Acknowledge that good fortune is not guaranteed; it is not everlasting. Don't take anything for granted!


Prepare for the loss of things you value, as fate may deprive you of them. Contemplating life without the things you have, will help you appreciate them more.


Consider ahead of time what negative events might happen to you, or your loved ones. Doing so will help you enjoy the company of friends and loved ones today, as tomorrow is not guaranteed.

Look for role models who have endured similar misfortunes and emulate their virtuous behaviour.


Contemplate a course of action to prevent or mitigate the effects of any

misfortune. Doing so may actually help you avert the misfortune, or - at least - lessen its impact. Conversely, should the worst happen, it may help you accept the event as an inevitable part of the course of nature.

This stoic exercise can be done anywhere, anytime. The only thing it requires is a commitment to seriously imagine what it might be like to be deprived of something you have become accustomed to. In fact, Seneca encourages Lucilius to build a relationship with poverty by preparing for adversity - while one has the luxury of being secure. (Letter 18, Letters from a Stoic)


The stoics made it a practical test of will by physically depriving themselves. Seneca called it a genuine trial - not an amusement. They would restrict themselves to coarse rations and meagre attire for up to a week. It allowed them to be comfortable with poverty, forestalling the blows of fortune, should their fortune be reversed. This exercise in self-control helped to convince them, they could be happy without riches.

Praemeditatio Malorum (Premeditation of Adversity) its extreme

The Stoics acknowledged that death was inevitable and part of the natural process: just as we are born, so too shall we die. Although it seems morbid, contemplation of death and serious injury had several positive effects:

  • it helped remove the fear of death.

  • it reinforced their belief that serious injury did not have the power to change who they were.

  • it encouraged stoics to live honourably and appreciate each day, as tomorrow is not guaranteed.

  • it reminded stoics to enjoy their time with friends and loved ones, while they still had time to do so.

  • it encouraged stoics to lead a virtuous life, so that in reflection they would have few regrets.


Bottom line: contemplating the possibility of death tomorrow, helped stoics live better each day.

In Discourses 2.5 [12-13], Epictetus acknowledges the inevitability of death and his desire to meet death without fear or blame. Knowing he is not immortal, but merely a human in something much bigger than himself, he likens himself to an hour of the day: "like an hour I must come and like an hour I must go". For Epictetus, it matters not how he goes...he knows he must go.

With proper mental training Epictetus encourages us to make the best of what lies within our control: "if  I am to die now, then I shall go to my death. If later, then I shall dine, as the time has come to dine." (Discourses 1.1 [31-32])

It is important to note that the Stoics were not cold-hearted pragmatists. They too felt grief, but they used reason to curtail its hold over us. In "On Consolation to Marcia" Seneca cautions against a prolonged crippling bereavement that closes us off to those still living with us.

Using a similar strategy for dealing with grief after the death of a loved one, they would contemplate a life without their loved one - ever being born. Drastic? Yes! But, it was intended to help them realize that they should be thankful for the time they did have with their loved ones. 

NOTE: As this may seem harsh to some, it is important that you seek professional help if your grief is unrelenting and unbearable. Remember, this is a "philosophy of life" espoused by ancient Greek and Roman Stoics: it is not psychiatric counselling. If it helps, good; if not, get the help you need.

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