Negative visualization, radical acceptance and stoicism

post by Vika · 2015-03-27T03:51:49.635Z · score: 19 (20 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 11 comments

In anxious, frustrating or aversive situations, I find it helpful to visualize the worst case that I fear might happen, and try to accept it. I call this “radical acceptance”, since the imagined worst case is usually an unrealistic scenario that would be extremely unlikely to happen, e.g. “suppose I get absolutely nothing done in the next month”. This is essentially the negative visualization component of stoicism. There are many benefits to visualizing the worst case:

Let’s say I have an aversion around meetings with my advisor, because I expect him to be disappointed with my research progress. When I notice myself worrying about the next meeting or finding excuses to postpone it so that I have more time to make progress, I can imagine the worst imaginable outcome a meeting with my advisor could have - perhaps he might yell at me or even decide to expel me from grad school (neither of these have actually happened so far). If the scenario is starting to sound silly, that’s a good sign. I can then imagine how this plays out in great detail, from the disappointed faces and words of the rest of the department to the official letter of dismissal in my hands, and consider what I might do in that case, like applying for industry jobs. While building up these layers of detail in my mind, I breathe deeply, which I associate with meditative acceptance of reality. (I use the word “acceptance” to mean “acknowledgement” rather than “resignation”.)

I am trying to use this technique more often, both in the regular and situational sense. A good default time is my daily meditation practice. I might also set up a trigger-action habit of the form “if I notice myself repeatedly worrying about something, visualize that thing (or an exaggerated version of it) happening, and try to accept it”. Some issues have more natural triggers than others - while worrying tends to call attention to itself, aversions often manifest as a quick flinch away from a thought, so it’s better to find a trigger among the actions that are often caused by an aversion, e.g. procrastination. A trigger for a potentially unhelpful identity could be a thought like “I’m not good at X, but I should be”. A particular issue can simultaneously have associated worries (e.g. “will I be productive enough?”), aversions (e.g. towards working on the project) and identities (“productive person”), so there is likely to be something there that makes a good trigger. Visualizing myself getting nothing done for a month can help with all of these to some degree.

System 1 is good at imagining scary things - why not use this as a tool?

Cross-posted

11 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-03-27T23:13:16.406Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Two data points: I basically did this in two very difficult life situations and in both cases it worked very well.

1) During a relationship crisis I imagined the worst thing that could happen and what would follow from that. That allowed me to acting instead of staying passive-depressive because of lack of perceived options. Actually the options that sprang to live together with an altered view on the relationship led to sudden surge of high I was quite surprised by.

2) During a loss of employment period I also imagined what the worst thing could happen and realized that I could live with that. Gave me some calm back (but acting from that wasn't needed as an earlier promised job actually materialized.

comment by Vika · 2015-03-28T23:49:44.605Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Did you imagine a realistic or unrealistic worst case in these situations?

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-03-29T19:44:02.610Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't assign probabilities and these words are too vague to decide between. Make your decison:

1) The worst thing I did imagine was that she didn't actually love me (sufficiently to keep our relationship). In my emotional state that was hard enough to wrap my mind around to. Once I did I could compare the reality of her loving me and her not loving me and decide which was real. And in either case I could act accordingly. It was the second.

2) I imagined needing to apply for social insurance. Losing savings and reducing life standards. I decided that even if that happend I could live with it. I didn't need to.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-01T09:46:22.586Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I wrote above that it may work better for optimistic people and not well for pessimistic people, but you know gave me another perspective. It may work for people with actual problems on their hands. If you have an okay life and mostly just anxious that nothing unusually bad should happen, it does not work that well, because you keep worrying about a million things that don't happen.

Montaigne: “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”

At some level having problem is better than not having problems because you see only a few negative outcomes, while with not having problems your mind is free to imagine ANY disaster to worry about.

For example in a relationship crisis one my worry about divorce, but one stops worrying about things like one's partner dying in an accident, becoming forever bed-ridden etc.

I guess a real worry displaces a thousand imagined ones?

As for employment are you sure you did? The worst thing is not having to live a year or two off savings / welfare / loans. The worst thing is never being able to work again.

Example: when my dads business went bust he was like 57. Too early for pension. Had he not had some savings, and nobody will employ an 57 years old ex entrepreneur partially because nobody employs 57 years old people in general but in also because entrepreneurs are too independent. My dad radiated I-am-the-boss from all his pores. Nobody would employ him because they would not think he takes orders from a boss, too independent and bossy to be an underling of someone. Perhaps if a business would have a subsidiary or department that would function very independently he would have been a good candidate to lead it,but his expertise was in construction projects under €2M and in that line of business there is no such thing, everything is led by owners.

Or, like, imagine being a 45 years old COBOL programmer. Sure you could learn something else. But why would anyone hire you and pay you to learn something else when they can get flexible 25 years old minds at half price?

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-04-01T13:07:07.736Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed. I didn't visualize the worst (compare to this xkcd). But it was still some steps worse than the situation at that point already was. And I compared that to subjectively worse situations like my children dying - which would be horrible but I have the vague feeling that it wouldn't cripple me permanently.

comment by JohnBuridan · 2015-03-27T05:51:29.082Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Helping make more accurate predictions about the future by reducing the “X isn’t allowed to happen” effect (or, as Anna Salamon once put it, “putting X into the realm of the thinkable”).

This point, along with your larger module here, is something, I promote often and has helped me and my friends immensely! Just last night, a distressed friend called me and was having a panic attack about a guest-speaker he had invited to his college campus. He was worried this guest-speaker was going to do something morally questionable at another person's expense publicly and that would reflect badly on him and his organization. The speaker did just such a thing a little over a week ago at an Ivy League, so his fear has a rational trigger. My task was to 1) reinforce to him that he is easily smart enough to deal with these challenges and 2) that in the unlikely event of the worst happening he should be prepared. Eventually we got to imagining the worse case scenario, and he came up with a few precautions and fail-safes to protect himself and others.

I am very proud of him. Moral of the story: don't shut down, don't pigeon-hole yourself, think about what is within your power and what is not, prepare your mind and your world for the coming turbulence.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-01T09:41:12.635Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Is it something mainly meant for optimistic people who don't have a generally pessimistic, depression-prone personality?

I mean I ALWAYS negative visualize, that is my nature, it is called being a worrier, anxious, pessimist type. Except that I cannot accept the worst outcome, it would just make me completely depressed. So I tend to clutch for straws of hope. Example negativity: felt old from 30 on, the feeling of growing out and up from childhood stopped, and it started to feel like marching towards death. Straws of hope: getting more vigorous in my exercise can bring a temporary rejuvenation, but probably from 40-45 on it will only slow the worsening of the body. Frankly positive visualization i..e. hope makes me function better.

I think it is meant for optimistic, desire-driven peope who want more and more and more and cannot feel content with what they have? And it is not so good for pessimistic people who don't really have any goals of getting more, they are just anxious about losing what they have?

Frankly if I would lose my family, kin, relatives, I would probably end it, there would be no duties left, and no reason to drag on with the tiresome business of living and I would probably never work a job again. I probably would not have the courage to end the life directly, but I would basically become completely reckless, do drugs, pick fights with thugs, would not care anymore because there would be nobody left who needs me. And what would be the use in visualizing that?

comment by pseudobison · 2016-04-17T06:29:09.332Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I find that negative visualization in conjunction with Mark Williams' guided meditation "Exploring Difficulties" is useful for getting me in that stoic mindset of being more okay with a worst-case scenario. (Or at least, I hope so - I guess I'll see how well it worked if the worst-case scenario ever comes to pass.)

comment by Vika · 2016-04-17T18:46:30.590Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, I'll try out the meditation!

comment by Dahlen · 2015-03-30T15:04:40.981Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I practiced this (or, some could say, the dysfunctional version of this) in a relationship context, wherein I was completely in the dark as to the other person's feelings for me (very high uncertainty). The results were fairly disastrous for everybody involved.

Not knowing anything, anything at all, with sufficient certainty, I chose to give greater weight to all the negative feedback coming from the other, and barely any to the positive feedback. (I figured that the negative feedback wouldn't even be there if the more optimistic scenario were true.) And I acted on it; I acted as if the worst-case scenario was true with high certainty, mostly because every time I tried to be optimistic about the situation, I got turned down. Again. I was coming from a baseline of zero hopes (a situation that had been lasting for years); the ambiguous, mixed feedback received from the other person prompted the wishful-thinking side of me to get my hopes a little up; and then I saw myself having to bring them back to zero again.

It was the most depressing thing I had ever done. I had to exert considerable effort to make myself believe the pessimistic side of the story, and found myself completely unable to regulate my emotions so as to actually cope with the scenario. I just adjusted my beliefs, and left my emotions follow suit.

The long version of the conclusion is that our relationship spiralled down towards rock bottom, I made some burning-bridges types of choices, and now I hear some clues from the other side of the burnt bridge that maybe I should have been a little more optimistic, because apparently I had left both of us pretty much emotionally broken.

Pessimism can be good, especially when you have an obviously optimistically biased side of yourself which you need to counter, but with two addenda: 1) either ensure you have ways to emotionally cope with the pessimistic scenario, or maintain your beliefs in a more optimistic state for the sake of your mental well-being; 2) don't fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy with your pessimism.

P.S. To this day I don't know exactly which side of story was true. The evidence pointed everywhere, all at once; there were only a handful of possibilities that I could rule out. I don't know whether my (low) expectations were realistic or not.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-03-30T21:14:26.466Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think the stoic exercises of visualizing a worst cases and getting okay with that worst case scenario is about pessimism or interpreting feedback negatively.