Practical Stoicism and Negative Visualisation techniques can be used to help you create more resilience and resolve when confronted with life’s problems.
“…remind yourself that the only things you can control are your thoughts and your actions, everything else is uncontrollable”. – Seneca
This article looks 2000 years into the past for advice from Seneca and Marcus Aurelius who were perhaps two of history’s great stoic philosophers and practitioners and first asks you, then shows you how can you do some simple practical stoicism exercises involving negative visualisation to toughen up your resolve by changing the way you think.
You might be thinking “How can Seneca, Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism help me now”? or possibly that there’s no way that something (Stoicism) seen as away of life 2 millennia ago could help you now, but what if I told you that the principles of stoicism were the influence for both Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis to develop CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) which is used to help people change how they think which in turn changes how they feel.
CBT is based on the principle that our emotions follows our beliefs and the judgements we make, so if we change what we believe, then we can also change our emotions that follow.
So by learning some ‘practical stoicism’ you can start to change the way you used to worry, and more importantly how you feel as a result and with these exercises and by making stoicism a tiny part of your life, you toughen up and with this you develop more grit and resolve. Practicing the exercises mentioned later in the article you will develop some stoical habits, and with practice these habits can become personality traits to help you get over the hard times in your past and confront the hard times to come.
Epictetus: ‘Men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinions about events’.
How can Stoicism help you now?
I’m sure you will agree if you dwell on a negative thought, it van start to run away with its self, and you will find yourself creating stories and scenarios around this negative thought that are worse than the original event that caused it, and in this way;
“a single negative event can plant a seed of a negative thought, this then grows until your mind is full of a jungle of negativity and you just feel crap”.
But being stoic is not about denial or suppressing emotion, it’s about being able to challenge abnormal thinking and beliefs that grow these negative thoughts and in this way we can get rid of dysfunctional thinking patterns and emotion.
How to apply Practical Stoicism to your Life.
To apply a bit of Stoicism to your like does not mean you need to put yourself through un-neccessary hardship or dress like someone from Ancient Greece for that matter, it means that in the words of Seneca you can “… mentally check how you will deal with any difficult situations that may well arise…”
This short exercise takes a controlled negative stoic approach to your worries and asks ‘what’s worst thing that can happen’!
Get an A4 piece of paper, turn it on its side and draw 2 lines down from top to bottom, this will give you three columns.
1. In the first column write a list of all of the negative thoughts you can think of at this moment, take some time, get them all down, if you need to get another piece of paper, the main thing is to just make a list write down every thing that is buzzing around in your mind right now,write down everything that worries you at this moment and keep writing until you can’t think of anything else.
The purpose of this step is simple, it’ s all about release, its like letting the steam out on a pressure cooker, it’s about getting some order on all of the things tumbling around in your mind, ‘it’s like doing a brain dump of your worries and negative thoughts’.
2. In the second column write the worst thing that can happen, this sounds simple but it’s not, I want you to force the negative thought to grow, to grow your anxiety until the point where it comes ridiculous and until your worries becomes unrealistic, and until your mind tells you its not going really to happen.
Then take a step back and write down the worst that can happen before things reach the ridiculous, and do this for every worry and negative thought on your list from step 1, and work your way through them all.
The purpose of this step is to take control of your fears, to grow them until they become unrealistic and until they shrivel and feel different, with practice this point moves further away from the unrealistic towards the realistic, and away from the worst likely scenario towards the most likely, and by pushing into the unrealistic you are de-sensitising yourself from your negative thoughts, you are blowing out your negative thoughts.
3. In the third column write down what you would do if the worst thing did happen and what you could do to get you back to where you are now, and by doing so you develop the mental habit of getting back up when you get knocked down.
This step is to helps you develop resilience, and you get some reason back into the hysteria that you have created with your thoughts of impending disaster in step 2, instead in this step you are thinking of practical steps that will help you cope with any eventuality and in doing so in this third step you are moving from problem into solution, and from the negative into the positive.
Practical Stoicism and Negative Visualisation.
If you do this exercise for a week or better two, you will find that in time and this practice you brain changes how it responds to the challenges you confront, you will find the 3 steps happen automatically, you define problems better, and you transition towards positive solutions, with time your brain even skips over step 2, or the ‘worst thing that can happen’ starts to become more like the most realistic thing that will happen.
When confronted by a major decision in life, perhaps when contemplating change, a new relationship or a new job, then this exercise can also come in handy, here you would go through the three steps; 1. write down your worries, 2. consider the worst that could happen, then 3. figure out what you would do to get you back to where you are now.
Next you would do the same for what would happen if you didn’t do that thing, if you didn’t make the changes you need to make and if you didn’t do the thing that fears you, if you didn’t start that new relationship, it you didn’t commit to that new venture and if you kept doing the same things as you are doing now, compare the answers to what would happen if you did and the answers may surprise you!