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The pressure and encouragement to think positively and see the glass as “half full” is everywhere you look. We are constantly cautioned that negative thinking is one of the greatest causes of anxiety.
To an extent, this can be true; however, it is more a matter of how you go about it and what you do with those thoughts.
Those who practice Stoicism have long believed that a practice called Premeditatio Malorum, or the premeditation of evil, can actually help give you greater peace of mind, more resilience, and a greater sense of gratitude when executed properly. Let's take a look at this concept.
What is Premeditatio Malorum?
Premeditatio Malorum is basically negative visualization. It is the practice of imagining the worst possible outcomes of a situation in order to strengthen yourself against hardship.
This is meant to allow you to keep a clear head should the worst occur, instead of being at a complete loss about how to solve the issue. It is similar to the practice of Inversion, which is practiced by many of the greatest minds in a variety of fields.
With inversion, you approach a subject from the opposite angle. For example, you are starting a new business venture and you naturally want it to succeed. Instead of sitting down and thinking about what you need to do to succeed, you instead think about what could happen that would cause you to fail.
What could competitors do to threaten your success? What decisions might you make that would not be beneficial?
Once you identify the things that could make you fail, you are in a position to find solutions in advance, or even avoid the issue entirely. You gain more control over your eventual success. This is Premeditatio Malorum.
How Stoics Came to Embrace This Concept
Stoics believe in the quote “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.” They know that bad things are going to happen to everyone at one point or another. The universe doesn't pick and choose.
Stoics also believe that there are three kinds of situations in your life. These are things you can control completely, things you have partial control over, and things you have no control over. You may not always have control over events in your life, but you do have control over your response to these events.
In Stoicism, it is believed that the worst reactions to events are experienced when they come as a surprise. You are thrown off balance and may need time in order to cope. If, however, you have already prepared for these events, you won't be surprised. You will be able to remain calm and clear-headed.
With awareness, you may be able to prevent some events. With others, you can at least gain an idea of how to alter your plans or at least understand that the event is a natural part of life, not something meant to directly harm you, and you can move forward without allowing it to completely destroy your thinking.
Many people think Stoics are negative, but this isn't the case. They don't advocate dwelling on the negative, but instead, they choose to allow the awareness of the inevitability of some misfortune to prepare their minds to handle the negative in a positive way.
In the end, you are calmer and more confident in your ability to deal with hardship.
Why Positive Thinking Isn't Always Effective
Giving yourself a positive pep talk does have an important role in your life. It can help alleviate depression and calm anxiety. However, consistently telling yourself everything is going to be okay creates a situation where you don't prepare yourself for the inevitable losses in your life. As we discussed earlier, nothing lasts forever.
People get sick, animals pass away, or you may lose a job. The universe is balanced and there are positive as well as negative events, many totally out of your control. When you don't prepare yourself for the negative, it hits you over the head and knocks you down.
You feel helpless and even lost. It is good to expect the best, but it is also important to prepare for setbacks.
How to Practice Premeditatio Malorum in Your Life
“Wish for the best, expect the worst” ….
Premeditatio Malorum is most often done during meditation. It is possible, however, to go through the process by journaling if that is easier for you to accomplish. You can use a pre-designed meditation or simply create your own script. A word of caution is needed, however.
If you are subject to extreme anxiety, you should undergo this process with a professional or a trusted friend who can help ground you. It might be too easy to dwell on the negative portion and not move on to the solution part.
This is not meant to be something that makes anxiety worse. In time, you will be able to go through the process on your own. Like all skills, this gets easier the more you practice it.
So, let's take a look at three ways you can introduce this practice into your life.
Step 1. A Daily Ritual
This is the best place to start as it involves things you may have more control over. Take fifteen minutes each morning to go over the things you need to get done during the day. Maybe you need to get the kids to school and get to work. Is there a big meeting you need to attend?
You know how you want the day to develop, but what could happen to change that? One of the kids might be ill and you need to find someone to watch them while you are at work. Traffic may make you late for your meeting or you might get there and find out your computer has lost the documents you need to make a presentation.
Once you have determined what could go wrong, imagine yourself dealing with the situation. What can you do as a Plan B or even Plan C? In the events listed here, you could make sure you have someone who can come without advance notice to stay with your child.
You could plan alternate routes to work and could make sure you have hard copies of all your documents. With those things in place, you may be slightly annoyed at your plans going awry, but you will know you have solutions that will keep you on track and help you navigate successfully.
Step 2. Contemplate the Loss of Possessions
We all have things that mean a lot to us. Our jobs, our homes, or items that hold sentimental value. What would happen if you lost these things? Your first answer might be that you wouldn't survive… but that isn’t true. Prepare yourself by sitting down at least once a week to meditate on this.
First, picture yourself losing the thing you treasure. Is there anything you could do to make sure you don't lose it? If so, you can start putting those plans in place now. You may never need to act on those plans, but they are there if needed.
Next, picture yourself a week, or a month after losing them. See yourself coping with the loss and realizing that life continues.
Doing this once a week helps you realize that possessions are just that. They aren't your life. They can be replaced. You also have partial control over them. You can keep valuables in a bank safe, make sure you do what is necessary to keep your job, and budget for house payments.
You can purchase homeowner's insurance to prepare for some losses. Knowing you have control can help you get through any losses.
Step 3. Nothing Lasts Forever
This is the most difficult exercise, and it is one most people ignore. When we know that nothing lasts forever, this has to include life itself. People get ill or they simply get older and eventually death visits us all.
This includes you. This is one of those situations that you have no control over and have to rely on controlling how you react when something like this happens.
While preparing in advance won't make the event any less sad, it will help you know that if someone you love passes, you will go on. In the event of your own death, you can prepare in advance to help provide for those you leave behind. This will allow you a matter of peace.
Another thing that will be accomplished by facing the fact that you could lose a person is that you start to feel more grateful for their presence in your life. Say you have an argument with a parent or your spouse. You want to walk away.
However, if you take the time to realize how quickly they could be taken from your life forever, you start to think about whether what you argued about is really worth walking away from. You start to see what good there is between you.
This doesn't mean you have to stay in an abusive situation. Sometimes, walking away is what is needed for your own safety. It is simply a matter of understanding that temporary upset isn't worth throwing everything away.
You become grateful and can start interacting with everyone as though this may be the last time you see them.
Benefits of Premeditatio Malorum
There are a few benefits of Premeditatio Malorum. One is that the more you practice it, the better you become at handling hardships you may not have ever considered. As you gain confidence in your ability to handle hardship, this confidence naturally starts to carry over.
Another benefit is increased resilience. The more prepared you are, the better you are at changing direction or moving onto a second plan. You start to feel like you can handle things without going into a panic because you have prepared in advance. You know that the world will not fall apart, and you know that the universe isn't directly targeting you.
A final benefit of this practice is the increase of gratitude you find in your life. You may not have managed Plan A, but thankfully this or that didn't also happen. You start to feel gratitude for the people and things in your life on a much greater scale than before, because you understand that they won't be there forever.
Final Thoughts on Predmeditatio Malorum
Positive thinking has its place in our lives, but we need to be realistic… and the reality is that not everything turns out as we want it to. By taking the time to add the practice of Premeditatio Malorum to your life, you will be able to live a happier life.
Your disappointments will seem less like let-downs and more like “minor setbacks” you can learn from and surpass.
Your sense of gratitude will grow, as will your resilience. You will not be blind-sided by misfortune, but instead take measures to get around roadblocks or know you have a plan to deal with them in a calm manner. For more insight into Stoicism, check out these quotes that explain the philosophy deeper.
At first appearance, this philosophy may seem less positive than many… but once you realize that life isn't always unicorns and rainbows, you will find it is in our darker moments that we learn and grow the most.