1 In Self-care and self-kindness

The Power of Negative Visualisation

We've all heard positive visualisation is good for us. But what about negative visualisation? Keep reading to find out more about this surprising practice.

If you’ve been around the personal growth world for any amount of time, you’ll have heard heard people extolling the virtues of positive visualisation. From creating vision boards to imagining ourselves succeeding at our most significant goals and achieving all we want to achieve, positive visualisation is often touted as the one-stop solution for getting what you want in life.

While I don’t count myself as part of the positivity police, I connect with the concept of rational optimism. I believe the world is getting better (despite what we see from social and traditional media) and I see the value in embracing the whole human experience. I don’t base my optimism on anything spiritual or metaphysical. Instead, I base it on looking at history, how the human experience has evolved and how lucky we are to be alive today. I feel grateful to live in a time where we have things like local anaesthetic, antibiotics, the internet, easy travel, and all the comforts and privileges of modern life we often take for granted.

Today, I want to talk about a thought exercise that has helped me feel genuine appreciation and gratitude for what I have. It’s been especially helpful when I’m experiencing comparisonitis or worrying about trivial things. And it doesn’t involve resorting to spiritual bypassing or blind positivity. It’s much less promoted but arguably far more powerful than its positive counterpart: negative visualisation. If this doesn’t sound quite as fun as imagining your wildest dreams coming true, bear with me! In this post, I’ll show you how and why this kind of visualisation can be so rewarding.

What is negative visualisation?

This idea comes from the Stoics and is simple (not easy, but simple). When we engage in negative visualisation, we imagine losing everything and everyone we have. We imagine experiencing loss we hope we will never encounter and our worst nightmares coming true. We spend time thinking about what it would be like to lose our family, home, job, pets, car, and anything else that is important to us.

No, this will not feel good—in the short term, anyway. But there is a sense of reward and satisfaction that comes from doing this, which I’ll explain below. For now, I invite you to think about what would be part of your negative visualisation: what in your life do you fear losing the most?

How does negative visualisation help us?

We are all susceptible to something psychologists and philosophers call hedonic adaptation. This describes our ability to return to a base level of happiness despite major events or changes in our lives—good and bad. While this can serve us in some situations, on a day-to-day level, it can lead to what’s called the “hedonic treadmill.”

As William B. Irvine writes in his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy:

“As a result of the adaptation process, people find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill. They are unhappy when they detect an unfulfilled desire within them. They work hard to fulfill this desire, in the belief that on fulfilling it, they will gain satisfaction. The problem, though, is that once they fulfill a desire for something, they adapt to its presence in their life and as a result stop desiring it—or at any rate, don’t find it as desirable as they once did. They end up just as dissatisfied as they were before fulfilling the desire.”

Negative visualisation helps us counteract this adaptation process by reversing it. Imagining losing everything we already have helps us feel happier with our lives right now, rather than base our happiness on goals, gains and goods in the future. It helps us forestall “when…then…” thinking that often leads to us deferring dreams, enjoyment and a full experience of life. Examples of this include “When I lose X pounds, then I’ll be able to wear that dress out.” “When I’m earning X amount of money, then I’ll be able to relax.” “When I have X gadget, then I’ll be happy.” You can probably insert examples of this kind of thinking from your own experience here.

Negative visualisation allows us to appreciate everything that’s good in our life now with no need to change anything or be any different. When we imagine losing what we have and our worst case scenarios, we connect to how much the things we currently have mean to us. We appreciate it more than when we take it for granted or focus on how great things will be “when…”.

Negative visualisation also primes us to be more resilient in the face of hardship. When we practice imagining what it would be like to lose the things we love the most, we are more prepared for the experience of losing them. Which we might. After all, this is life, with its twists, turns and unexpected bumps in the road. Making the most of these things while we still have them makes us less likely to regret squandered or misused time with them when we no longer do.

How to practice negative visualisation

In A Guide to the Good Life, Irvine gives the following explanation:

Seneca describes the negative visualization technique in the consolation he wrote to Marcia, a woman who, three years after the death of her son, was as grief-stricken as on the day she buried him. In this consolation, besides telling Marcia how to overcome her current grief, Seneca offers advice on how she can avoid falling victim to such grief in the future: What she needs to do is anticipate the events that can cause her to grieve. In particular, he says, she should remember that all we have is “on loan” from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission—indeed, without even advance notice. Thus, “we should love all our dear ones . . ., but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.” . . .

To see how imagining the death of a child can make us appreciate her, consider two fathers. The first takes this advice to heart and periodically reflects on his child’s mortality. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. He instead assumes that his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second. When he sees his daughter first thing in the morning, he will be glad that she is still a part of his life, and during the day he will take full advantage of opportunities to interact with her. The second father, in contrast, will be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his child in the morning. Indeed, he might not even look up from the newspaper to acknowledge her presence in the room.”

So what about positive visualisation?

Positive visualisation can be helpful, especially if we’re working towards a specific goal, milestone or endeavour, but it’s not in the way we usually think. Studies have shown that visualising a positive outcome isn’t actually helpful. It’s visualising ourselves working towards the positive outcome that makes a difference to our performance.

Positive visualisation is also more popular for the simple reason it’s more comfortable. Telling someone that, to feel better about their lives, all they need to do is imagine losing everything they care about (et voila! Instant appreciation), isn’t the most appealing sales pitch. But, if we’re willing to sit with the discomfort these visualisations evoke, it does work.

So today I invite you to ask yourself: What’s the worst that can happen? Answer the question, go to town, and enjoy the renewed sense of appreciation for and joy in what you currently have. Feels good, right?

Further reading: 3 reasons negative thinking is good for you & how to cultivate a healthy relationship with anger


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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Sara Verrall
    July 18, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    Excellent advice! and so true ~
    one of my cats, Fred, has a diagnosis of a shorter-life thanks to his heart being too big. After my initial devastation at the thought of losing my beautiful boy too early (he’s not even 6 years old yet) I do actually appreciate his presence even more every day. Even when he wakes me at 3 in the morning, I’m delighted to hear his purrs. And it’s given me greater appreciation for his brother, Barney, too. Yes, there are days when living “on alert” for signs of Fred’s deterioration wear my spirits down, but every time I choose to stay home rather than go out I count the extra blessing of those extra hours i’m getting to spend with my cats.
    A friend of mine used to visualise the “worst case scenario” with the result of him not actually venturing out; I tend to be the opposite and think “well, the worse thing probably won’t happen, so let’s go for it!”
    Thank you for sharpening my awareness to the joys of negative thinking!

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