Negative Visualization

On the utility of imagining the worst.

There's a practice in Stoic philosophy called negative visualization. The basic idea is you imagine something awful, try to feel its full awfulness, then return to your present place of non-awfulness, or at least lesser awfulness. For example, you might imagine that someone you love has died. You might even imagine them dying in front of you. I'm doing it right now, and it's awful. But they didn't die. They're not now dying. And from that "new" knowledge comes renewal. It inhabits the space only briefly occupied by the fleeting awfulness, and leaves me feeling more appreciative for everything and everyone I already have and am.

Another thing negative visualization does is it prepares you for those times when things do actually get worse. Because they will of course get worse. And when they do, you will have had a taste of that experience, or one like it, already in your mind. Because you were the intrepid traveler who went straight to those harsh places regularly. And in doing so, chances are you will have already made those comparably worse situations slightly better. Not only because you'll have prepared yourself for them, but because in preparing yourself for them you’ll also likely have adjusted some of your behaviors and habits in the time intervening.

Returning to my earlier example: If you imagine a loved one dying, your inclination when you see them next will probably be to be kinder, more loving, more patient, more forgiving, and so on. And when they do die, or when you do, even the experience of death will be better (i.e., death too could always be worse). Because your time together will have been, you guessed it, made of moments when you were kinder, more loving, more patient, more forgiving, and so on. In other words, you will have been less of an asshole. And you will then be free to ride the ether, or to do whatever is done when death becomes us, with fewer ghosts and regrets trailing you.

I was thinking about all of this today on the heels of another thought I had about aging. In my mind, I'm neither young nor old. But I'm old enough to know the feeling of things starting to rust, wheels starting to fall off. When I look behind me, I see many things I should have appreciated but didn't. And when I look up ahead, I see the things I should appreciate now and still can. It's really just another form of negative visualization. But rather than imagining something awful, we're just paying closer attention to something inevitable. And this can reanimate us wherever we are now. And that place need not be somewhere better for us to make it fuller. But by making it fuller we do make it better.

In the townhouse where I used to live, I had a whiteboard that I kept behind me at my desk and almost never used. At my new home, I keep the whiteboard in front of the wall opposite where I sit, so it faces me and I face it. I've started writing things on there to help keep my 1980-model mental train on its tracks. This usually equates to short lists and reminders. There are two reminders there now, both of which are relevant to what I’ve written here, and both of which, I must admit, I'm reluctant to share. Not because they're precious or private or anything. But because I have a strong distaste for vacuous “positivity porn,” and I don't want to throw any more plastic into that particular ocean.

(Incidentally, I just searched "positivity porn" to find some examples that might ease my reluctance, and Google threw back nothing but links to actual porn videos categorized as positivity porn. First of all, I didn't know that was a thing, and now that I do I don't feel a need to know anything more about it. Second, I'm now less sure that the positivity porn I was referring to is a thing. So, to be clear, an example of what I meant by positivity porn is something gross and useless like, "Dark clouds bring rain, but rain makes the grass grow.")

So in the event that my reminders strike you as banal and useless, you have my sincerest apologies. But they proved useful to me several times this week, so I will leave you with them now.

Most days, the only real change that occurs between your best and worst moments is the one that occurs in your mind.

Pay attention to people older than you. And to people younger than you. And to people the same age.


  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

  • From the chapter Negative Visualization in the William B. Irvine book just noted:

    By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent. We will no longer sleepwalk through our life. Some people, I realize, will find it depressing or even morbid to contemplate impermanence. I am nevertheless convinced that the only way we can be truly alive is if we make it our business periodically to entertain such thoughts.