Why I Don’t Like “Negative Visualization”

Photo by Zan Azahiro

I delve into stoicism deeply, and consider it as an important part of my personal philosophy.

Ryan Holiday’s work introduced me to stoicism (The Obstacle Is The Way is excellent). His Daily Stoic Journal had re-ignited my love for journaling, a practice I had abandoned some two decades ago. I am in my third Daily Stoic Journal now (one lasts for a year).

While I find stoicism to be practical and useful, there are a couple of things that I am not in full agreement with.

For example: negative visualization. Stoics recommend the practice of expecting bad things to happen so that when bad things do happen, they are not caught ill-prepared.

My take on visualization is remarkably different from convention. I find visualization to be a double-edged sword – if done wrongly, it causes more harm than good.

(For example, I have doubts about visualizing success – which I think could be counter-productive in many ways).

This morning’s Daily Stoic Journal question was about negative visualization:

Have I thought about all that might happen?

I have always cautioned about the problem of over-concern – occupying our mind with all that might happen is the surest way to bring needless reasons to be anxious into our consciousness.

We should, of course, be prepared to handle challenges as they come. And they will surely come – but it’s impossible to know how they will come – in what shape or form. It’s impossible to think about all that might happen – to assume that one could is foolhardy.

There Are Things That Are Just Better Not To Think About

Emily Oster, an economics professor and author Cribsheet, a book on “relaxed parenting, from birth to preschool”.

In the final chapter of the book, she told an interesting story about the time she was about to take her daughter to France.

Worried, she asked her doctor about what would happen if something bad took place. What if she got stung by a bee? What if she’s allergic? What if, what if, what if?

The doctor replied: “I’d just try not to think about that.”

Quite the opposite of what a Stoic would do, to think of all the things that could happen!

Oster realized that she could get caught up in every little decision and miss the joy of parenting.

This is true, of course, across other aspects of our lives, not just parenting. We can get caught up imagining multiple What-If scenarios and miss the joy of living.

Being purposely ignorant about our lives can be dangerous, especially if practiced as a habit. However, if all you do is to worry about every single bad thing that could possibly happen, there’s no way you can have serenity in your life.

I have grown to accept that I cannot control everything. In fact, I cannot control most of the things that are going to happen. And that’s completely alright.

Amusingly, Oster’s daughter did get stung by a bee in France. “And it was totally fine,” she quipped.