The Cup is Half-Empty: The Art of Negative Visualization

Written by: Michael Lucana

I am not known to be a generally positive-minded person. If you were to ask me if the cup was half-full or half-empty I would tell you it’s half-empty. In other words I don’t see the positives in most situations I find myself in, only the negatives. If I’m going to set out on a new task I only see the challenges before me, and the many ways that things could go wrong on the way to my intended goal. This has led to many people calling me “moody” or “negative” over the years, and in the past I would have agreed with them. But as I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve slowly come to regard my negative-minded approach as a virtue of sorts.

The Ancient Stoics were very much negative-minded thinkers as well. They developed the ritual of Negative Visualization to an artform, reminding themselves on a daily basis of the many ways that things could go wrong, of the many challenges they would meet on any given ordinary day. Those negative conditions could be as disastrous as one’s boat sinking, or as mundane as running into an unpleasant person. Here is an example by Marcus Aurelius:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” (Meditations)

This is just one of numerous meditations written by Marcus where he reminds himself about all the terrible people he will have to interact with on that day. Why would he do this to himself? Wouldn’t it make more sense to tell yourself that today is going to be a great day? That everything will work out? I’m sure that I’m not the only that’s been told the same thing in the past.

For the Stoics, the ritual of Negative Visualization was meant to ready them for whatever might happen so that they would not be caught by surprise by dramatic turn of events. After all, one can plan the perfect day, but it is never promised to us, as is shown by experience, that things will turn out the way we want them to. And, for most of us, when we are caught by surprise by events that we don’t plan for, we panic, we freeze up, we fall apart. This is exactly what the Stoics were trying to prevent, as Seneca says:

“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” (Letters from a Stoic)

By utilizing Negative Visualization, a Stoic mentally kept themselves mindful and alert. They were prepared for anything and so would ensure that they maintained their own integrity and were able to navigate through changing circumstances whatever they may be.

So how to go about practicing Negative Visualization?

For myself, this exercise is most effective when I wake up early in the morning before the start of what I know will be a big day. This doesn’t mean that you have to do it in the morning, but definitely prior to undertaking an activity which has some importance to you. What constitutes an important activity? That is completely up to you. We all have different things which make us anxious and which we worry about going right. For some people, it could be going on a first date with someone. For others, it could be making a speech at a meeting.

I’ve written before that my preferred method to conduct many of these Stoic exercises is in the form of a short journal entry and I invite you to do the same. If you have a note-taking app on your smart phone that works just as well. Saying it to yourself in the form of an internal dialogue works as well but I think it is important to stress that there is a difference between simply thinking something and letting that thought manifest in the world in some concrete form.

In this step-by-step exercise I will be using excerpts from Epictetus’ Enchiridion to help show how this exercise can be structured.

First, be clear with yourself about what it is that you are going to do. Picture yourself going to the place, how you will behave, what it is that you are intending to do when you get there. Imagine the people that will be there, how they will most likely behave, what they will most likely say. In a way you are imagining the ideal scenario, how you would like things to go. In ancient Rome, communal bath-houses were very popular and were found everywhere. In the example by Epictetus we are asked to rehearse how we hope things will go when we head out on a trip to a bath-house.

Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to the bath, picture to yourself the typical scene at a bathhouse…

Second, list the things that could go wrong once you get there. This is where you are imagining the things that people might say or do that would not make the situation ideal. If in the ideal situation of giving a speech you had imagined that someone would laugh at a joke you had prepared to open with, now imagine that they don’t laugh or that they sigh. Imagine that there are complaints from people who can’t hear you very well from the back. Maybe the room will be lit poorly. In Epictetus’ example, he imagines that at the bath-house there will be people rough-housing, maybe even fighting, maybe even stealing other people’s personal belongings when they’re not looking.

people splashing, pushing, yelling and [stealing] your clothes…

Third, remind yourself that in your ideal version of events, there is also an ideal version of yourself. This ideal version prepared their notes for the speech they were going to make, they practiced it in front of a mirror or friends, they are ready to go out there and make it happen! This ideal version of yourself is something that you do have control over. While the event itself could always go wrong in a variety of ways, many of which I have asked you to imagine, you don’t have to stress over those details, the only thing you should worry about is how you will respond.

Someone coughs loudly during your speech? Not your problem, you were in the middle of an important topic, continue with it in the precise manner you had planned. You see someone not really paying attention to something you’ve just said? What’s it to you? You know what you have to say is interesting and worth talking about so go on in keep at it. In the bath-house example, Epictetus reminds us in a similar way to make a distinction between the event in question, and what is in our power to control, ourselves. As he says:

…say at the outset, “I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature…which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.”

Another way of saying this to yourself is, “I want to participate in this event, and whether this event goes good or bad, I will not let it control how I behave. Because I will be the best version of myself no matter what happens.” Now, while the Stoics had very specific ideas about what it meant to be the best version of oneself, for the practical purposes of this exercise I leave it up to you to decide what the best version of yourself is.

The speech was not received well? Perhaps you need to work on improving something about it, and you will make efforts to improve yourself based on feedback, but during those minutes while you were up on stage you gave it your best shot. The date was a disaster? Your date was rude? Maybe it’s not meant to be, but you made sure that you were authentic and kind to your date. You maintained yourself. Move on, keep putting your best foot forward. While you may not be able to control how things play out, you are completely in control of how you respond to adapt those situations.

I invite you to try this exercise, to imagine that the cup will be half-empty, and further, to remind yourself that, that is only half of the cup. The other half still has something, the best part actually, the part that you have control over, the part that can surmount obstacles, yourself.

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