Premeditatio Malorum: Stoic Practice of Negative Visualization

— by Dr. Sandip Roy.

Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium, embraces the idea that nothing untoward can truly disturb the wise person.

So, Stoics train themselves to stay calm when things go unexpectedly wrong. But they don’t learn to predict the future.

Instead, they learn to build resilience and readiness to handle life’s uncertainties.

They use a powerful mental tool known as Premeditatio malorum, or the pre-meditation of evils, to avoid being rudely shocked by adversities and hardships.

We can apply this unique meditative strategy in our modern lives to avoid the anxieties of an uncertain world. And keep our cool when things get rough.

Premeditatio Malorum - premeditation of evils
“Premeditatio Malorum” = living through artificially created difficult situations

Key Takeaways

  • The Stoics practice “Premeditatio Malorum” to prepare for obstacles and reduce the mental toll of unpleasant surprises.
  • Ancient Stoics trained themselves on how to handle adverse situations by living through artificially created challenging times to the best of their ability.
  • Modern Stoics can use the power of “Negative Visualization” to imagine a tough time and go through the associated difficult emotions and thoughts to prepare for possible adversities.
  • Premeditatio Malorum cultivates wisdom, resourcefulness, and resilience, enhancing one’s ability to adapt and cope while maintaining a kind and balanced attitude.
  • The premeditation of evils does not mean desiring adversity or inviting misfortune — it only means anticipatory preparation for potential hardships.
  • Negative visualization is also not about being pessimistic— it rather fosters a proactive, positive mindset that allows calm and wise responses in challenging situations.
  • Premeditatio Malorum can help us cultivate gratitude for the present moment. It helps us recognize life’s fragility, develop a sense of perspective, and appreciate our current blessings.

Premeditatio Malorum: “Pre-Meditation of Evils” (Stoic Exercise of Negative Visualization)

Premeditatio Malorum or futurorum malorum præmeditatio is the Stoic practice of visualizing future worst-case scenarios. The idea is to mentally prepare for unforeseen setbacks so that the pain is less intense, and the recovery from the difficult event is faster.

Premeditatio Malorum is a Latin phrase that translates as — to pre-meditate on evils or to ponder on misfortunes in advance. It originated with the Cyreanic philosophers and was later adopted by Stoic philosophers.

Ancient Stoics often created and lived through artificially created negative events to prepare for the worst while still being grateful for what they had.

Seneca wrote, “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”

His goal was to live like a poor person for a certain amount of time, to break away from his habits of indulgence and comfort.

Seneca writes to his advice-seeking friend Lucilius that hardship is more damaging when it is unexpected than when it is expected.

“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.” — Seneca, From A Stoic, Letter XCI

So, we should “project our thoughts ahead of us,” that is, prepare for hardships in advance so that we can handle them better when they occur.

Epictetus says,

“Is he [a wise and good man] surprised at anything which happens, and does it appear new to him? Does he not expect that which comes from the bad to be worse and more grievous than what actually befalls him?” — Epictetus, Discourses

Even Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher king, practiced “premeditatio malorum”:

“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left, and live it properly. Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: ‘Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?’” — Marcus Aurelius

Premeditatio Malorum or Negative Visualization

In another of his most famous quotes, Marcus Aurelius recommends this morning practice:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they cannot tell good from evil. … And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.” — Marcus Aurelius

William Irvine was the first to call it Negative Visualization.

The Stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value— that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique— let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus. It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.

— William Irvine (A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy)

Beneficial Effects of Negative Visualization

The main benefit of imagining the worst-case scenario is that we are making it less likely to bulldoze us if it happens. Since it builds resilience to bounce back stronger after the hard time passes, it helps us live more worry-free lives.

Premeditatio Malorum has several beneficial effects:

  • Negative Visualization prevents us from over-relying on what we might believe to be a fail-safe, perfect plan.
  • Premeditatio Malorum includes planning a way out of a bad event. So, it is a risk management tool designed to minimize unexpected, negative-outcome events.
  • When we consider the negative outcomes and identify all potential pitfalls, we can have a plan B or C to re-route a disastrous result.
  • It can boost our emotional resilience, decrease stress and anxiety, and help us keep our emotional distress under control when some of life’s worst events happen.
  • Pre-studying of a bad future helps mentally minimize the fear of fear (phobophobia).
  • Negative Visualization can help give up False Expectations based on Wishful Thinking. It encourages us to imagine that our worst fears come true, and practice facing their reality than denying them. It helps us feel proud of our endeavors when we succeed, but also not despair when our efforts fail. When you give up false expectations, this leads to happiness by motivating you to do your best and setting realistic goals.
  • It can improve our happiness and life satisfaction, increase self-control and optimism, and make us mentally strong enough to handle an actual distressful situation. It teaches us to focus on what we can control, such as our thoughts and actions.

Successful people for centuries have mentally prepared for the worst outcomes so that they don’t lose their hope and courage.

Premeditatio Malorum: “The Pre-Meditation of Evils” (Stoic Exercise)

How To Practice Negative Visualization (Premeditatio Malorum)?

Here’s how you can practice negative visualization, or “premeditatio malorum”:

  1. Find A Peaceful Spot: Choose a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for about 5–10 minutes.
  2. Deep Breathing: Close your eyes and take deep breaths, focusing on the air movement through your nostrils, to clear your mind of other thoughts.
  3. Reflect On Worst-Case Scenarios: Think of a potential disaster, or what could go wrong in life, like losing your house to a fire, being forced into exile, or facing an unexpected severe illness or early death-like situation.
  4. Focus On The Details: Imagine your life as if everything went wrong—your investments fail, you lose your job, and your friends and loved ones are gone.
  5. Deepen Your Adversities: Imagine these tough situations turning more sour, more difficult to handle, or receiving additional bad news. Think about how this would make you feel and what emotions it might bring up.
  6. Consider Being Robbed of Your Joy: Picture a good event in your life and then imagine it being abruptly taken away or canceled, and the disappointment that follows.
  7. See Yourself Responding Calmly: Picture handling these adversities with composure, using qualities like patience and wisdom.
  8. Plan for Post-Loss: Visualize planning your next steps after losing something important, even if it means starting from the bottom, like losing your home in a natural disaster.
  9. Visualize the Days Ahead: Anticipate the subsequent days’ challenges, like tough meetings, ridicule from others, or starting new projects. See yourself handling them to the best of your abilities.
  10. End with Gratitude: Close the session by appreciating the good things you have in your life and reminding yourself that external events don’t control your inner peace.
Premeditatio Malorum Stoic Exercise

Psychology of Negative Visualization

Repetitive thought (RT) is when we repeatedly think about the same thing. Examples of such thinking include worry, rumination, emotional and cognitive processing, mental simulation and rehearsal, reflection, and problem-solving.

The effects of RT depend on the types of thoughts we have, the situation we are in, and how we think about things.

This study found that when people repeatedly focus on their flaws, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.

The same study also found that the good effects of repetitive thought are:

  • recovery from upsetting and traumatic events,
  • adaptive preparedness and anticipatory planning,
  • the adoption of health-promoting behaviors, and
  • depression recovery.

Notice that the research is about repetitive thoughts. So, when someone repeatedly engages in negative visualization — frequently imagining their failures and flaws — it may lead to low mood, performance anxiety, and loss of self-confidence.

It is safe to say that premeditatio malorum can be used occasionally to get its benefits. The ancient Stoics used to practice it only a few times a year.

Recent psychological research tends to show that people who are able to accept unpleasant thoughts and feelings, without being overwhelmed by them, are more resilient than people who try to distract themselves or avoid such experiences, through strategies such as positive thinking.

— Donald Robertson, author of How To Think Like A Roman Emperor

Final Words

People wrongly assume that negative visualization is a pessimistic mental habit. They mistakenly believe that deliberately making ourselves feel bad by visualizing negativity in our lives can cause problems, such as staying stuck, procrastination, indecision, and inaction.

But it’s not about that at all; it’s more about preparing for the unknowns of life and avoiding unexpected challenges that could sabotage our peace of mind.

Imagining the worst possible situations and planning to overcome them, is usually more effective than positive imagery, since it gives us a better chance of recovering faster and stronger from bad events.

Finally, did you know that the Stoics can experience the full range of emotions? It may come as a surprise that they can experience and express joy like the rest of us.

√ Also Read: What does Amor Fati or “love of fate” mean?

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