Stoicon Workshop: Negative Visualisation And The Possibility of a President Trump by Tim LeBon

Introduction

Negative Visualisation is “the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit” according to William Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus all recommend and practised Negative Visualisation[1]. You too can practice it if you wish by routinely imagining adversities that may befall you and then rehearsing the ways in which Stoicism can help you respond to these events wisely and virtuously. These adversities can range from encountering irritating people at the baths (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 2) to, controversially, the death of your own child (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 3) and your own death (Seneca, On Earthquakes).

There are two significant advantages to this seemingly counterintuitive practice. Firstly you will be less shocked if and when bad things happen. As Seneca put it – “Whatever has long been anticipated comes as a lighter blow” (Letters 78)

Equally, you are more likely to respond wisely if have anticipated a problem – like an actor rehearsing their lines before a performance. Again Seneca puts it eloquently when he writes

“Everyone approaches a danger with more courage if he has prepared in advance how to confront it. Anyone can endure difficulties better if he has previously practised how to deal with them.” Seneca Letters III 225

In this article I will describe a workshop I gave at the New York Stoicon in October 2016, where we practised a Negative Visualisation of Donald Trump becoming the next President of the United States. Its interest lies partly in this political context and also in the format. To my knowledge this is the first recorded instance of performing Negative Visualisation in a group. I will describe a format for group Negative Visualisation, then summarise what happened at the New York workshop, and conclude with suggestions for future developments.

Stoic Remedies for Troubled Times

“2016 has been the worst year in my political life”, a friend commented – and that was before the US Presidential election. He was not alone. After the unexpected vote for Brexit in the UK referendum on Europe on June 23rd, 2016, many felt a gamut of difficult emotions including anxiety, sadness, embarrassment and anger. It was easy enough to see parallels between Brexit and Trump. In the UK and US alike, many people felt let down by mainstream politicians and threatened by immigration, globalisation and technological change. For these people, a return to the nationalism and nostalgia offered by Brexit and Trump was very appealing. For liberal cosmopolitans like my friend and I, it was extremely worrisome.

In early 2016 my Google search history included several occurrences of “Odds of both Brexit and Trump.” The chances were considered small by those whose job it was to know about such things – about one in twenty. I felt temporarily reassured. However seeking reassurance and hoping for the best are decidedly un-Stoic and unwise strategies. Sure enough, they did nothing to prepare me for the shock of Brexit. When I eventually turned to Stoic Remedies for Brexit instead, they helped. But what would enable us all to prepare for the possibility that Trump might become President?

A Case Study: Visualising Trump as President

Could Negative Visualisation help? The Stoicon conference in New York in October 2016, the month before the Presidential election, offered the chance to find out. The challenge was to adapt Negative Visualisation so it could be effective in a group setting likely to include some novice Stoics and conceivably some Trump supporters.. Here is the plan I created for a five step version of Negative Visualisation. I reproduce it in some detail below to enable readers to adapt it, should they so wish, to facilitate their own group negative visualisations on an adversity of their choice.

Step 1: Preliminaries: Clarify the adversity to be considered in this workshop and give people the chance to leave should they not wish to do a negative visualisation about this. Begin with a brief group negative visualisation practice on a relatively minor adversity, such as breaking your phone or tablet.

Step 2: Visualising disaster: With eyes closed, vividly imagine that the feared event is happening. You hear the TV presenter announce “Hillary has conceded”. You see the newspaper headline “Trump President!” alongside a picture of a triumphant Donald Trump. Notice the thoughts and feelings that pop into your mind as you imagine that this is really happening. At this stage, do not try to apply Stoic principles. Observe what you feel like doing. Spend two or three minutes on this. Then open your eyes and make some notes on your experience.

Step 3: Group discussion of a wise Stoic response: Facilitate a group discussion about how to handle the adversity Stoically. Reflect first on Stoic wisdom, and then in turn the other Stoic virtues including self-control, justice, courage and practical wisdom. Summarise and write down key features of the Stoic response on a board or screen for all participants to see.

Step 4 Finding a wise Stoic alternative to each participant’s initial thoughts:  With these Stoic principles in mind, ask people to spend a few minutes working on Stoic responses to their initial thoughts that they wrote down at step 2. After a few minutes ask for sample answers so that participants can learn from the more confident and experienced Stoics in the group. Finally ask participants to spend a few more minutes in pairs or on their own developing their appropriate Stoic alternatives to their initial step 2 reactions. Ask them to write down their wise Stoic responses.

Step 5 Facing the fear again this time rehearsing the Stoic Response:  Each participant is asked to read to themselves their initial thoughts and their Stoic response which they have just been working on. Then, with eyes closed, they should vividly remind themselves of the adversity, their original non-Stoic reaction and then they should rehearse their Stoic response. They should repeat this several times. As they rehearse the Stoic response participants should particularly attend to what they feel like doing and what emotions they experience. Finally participants are requested to open their eyes and come back into the room.

The session concludes with participant feedback.

The New York Negative Visualisation Experience

So what happened when we tried this in New York?

Step 1: Preliminaries: It turned out no-one in the room supported Trump, or at least no-one admitted they did. Some people weren’t so sure about Hillary, either, though. There were a number of anti-Trump Republicans.

The practice of imagining one’s phone or ipad had broken worked well, allowing us to recall as a group the Stoic virtues and how they would help us deal with such an adversity.

What I hadn’t planned was a series of problems with the equipment – the lead to the projector did not fit my computer and when an alternative computer was provided, it could not read my presentation on my memory stick! That I managed to stay comparatively calm I put down to my having practised negative visualisation on something like this happening!

Step 2 : Visualising disaster: Table 1 below shows some of the thoughts, feelings and impulses participants experienced during the first part of the visualisation.

Emotion          Thoughts Impulse to
 

 

 

Anxiety

 

“Frozen like a deer in headlights”

“Women, minorities & immigrants will be marginalised & oppressed”

“Other countries will have a very negative view of America.”

“It will make us vulnerable to our enemies.”

“The Stock Market will plummet, economic depression with follow”

“Supreme Court Justices will be appointed who will destroy our American values and democracy”

 

Get tranquilizers

 

 

Drink

 

Distract self

Anger “How can so many people not see the truth?” Argue with everyone

Go on a tirade

Depression

 

Despair

 

“Trump represents everything I disagree with”

Hide in Bed

Give up

Emigrate!

Table 1: Pre-Stoic Reactions to visualising Trump being elected President

Anxiety was the most common emotion, it manifesting viscerally as being “frozen like a deer in headlights”.   Participants imagined themselves handling their anxiety by using distraction, drink and medication. Anger, depression and despair were also present in the room as we imagined Trump winning, with people thinking they might go on a tirade if angry and hide in bed in despair. It appeared that we had plenty of material to work with …

Step 3: Group Discussion of a wise Stoic Response: What would be the wise Stoic response to Trump being elected? I have increasingly found it helpful to present Stoicism in a somewhat simplified form as a distinct form of virtue ethics with a set of associated practices. The most distinctly Stoic virtue, “Serenity Prayer Wisdom” is stated by Epictetus at the very beginning of the Enchridion

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The cardinal virtues of wisdom, self-control, justice and courage sum up how we should think and what we should do in the domains of knowledge, desire, other people and fear respectively. For completeness, I include love of humanity as part of justice and persistence as part of courage.

Looking at how to respond to an adversity through the lens of each virtue provides a very practical framework to determine a wise Stoic reaction. Table 2 below summarises how this framework can help us think about a Stoic response to Trump becoming President.

Stoic Virtue Meaning Application
“Serenity Prayer” Wisdom Focus on what you can control and accept what you cannot control. Unless you can legally challenge it, you have to accept the result You can however change how you respond to it, and the challenge is to respond virtuously.
Self-control

 

Knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing emotions such as desire, appetite, lust & blame Self-control may be needed to manage impulses associated with anger and despair, such as feeling like going on a tirade or staying in bed and giving up.,
Justice & Love of humanity

 

Knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection.

 

Most obviously justice and love of humanity entail thinking about those likely to be negatively impacted by Trump how you can help them.

At the same time justice impies considering how to be just to democracy itself and to those who felt so disenchanted that they voted for Trump

Courage & Persistence Knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’) or in the face of setbacks. Overcome the impulse to give-up – the values are still worth standing and fighting for, all the more so.

Reflect on this might be a time for putting pleasure to one side and campaigning for what is right.

Practical Wisdom

 

Given the situation I find myself in, what would the Stoic sage do? What virtues can help, and how can I best aim to achieve what matters?

 

What in practice do can I do? What I need to do? What resources and skills have I got that will be useful? What would I need to do? How could I do it?

Which virtues will I need to employ given my specific thoughts I had in step 2 of this Negative Visualisation?

Table 2: The Stoic Virtues, their meaning and application

A key point that emerges is that Stoicism is not a passive philosophy. Whilst an Epicurean response might be along the lines of “there is nothing I can do, so let’s work on how I can be tranquil”, justice and love of humanity entail that the Stoic engages with the world and its problems, practical wisdom gives us the wherewithal to think up good solutions and courage provides the means to overcome fears related to doing the right thing.

Step 4: Finding a Stoic reframe for your specific initial thoughts: We were now in a position for participants to review their original thoughts and reframe them, given what they had just learnt about Stoic virtue. Epictetus famously said that “It is not events that upset you but how you interpret them”. Would we find this to be the case here?

Emotion Pre-Stoic Thought Stoic Alternative Thought Resulting Stoic Emotion
Anxiety

“Frozen like a deer in headlights”

“Women, minorities & immigrants will be marginalised & oppressed”

“Other countries will have a very negative view of America.”

It will make us vulnerable to our enemies.”

“The Stock Market will plummet, economic depression with follow”

“Supreme Court Justices will be appointed who will destroy our American values and democracy”

“It may not be as bad as I imagine. I may be overestimating how much difference a President can make. I can make a difference – I can be a grassroots activist for causes I care about – I need courage & wisdom”

 

Feeling more tranquil

 

Anger “How can so many people not see the truth?” People have their reasons & concerns which I need to understand. I also need to work at helping more people understand my view More understanding

Feeling calm acceptance

Depression and Despair Trump represents everything I disagree with” I accept the fact that he is President, I will do what I can to mitigate the damage Strength that I can handle the situation”

Table 3: Finding Alternative Stoic Wise Rational and Virtuous Responses

Table 3 above shows that Stoicism can indeed lead to more constructive thinking and less turbulent emotions.

Instead of being so anxious like a deer frozen in headlights, the Stoic response, “It may not be as bad as I imagine. I may be overestimating how much difference a President can make. I can make a difference – I can be a grassroots activist for causes I care about – I need courage & wisdom”, led to participants feeling much more tranquil.

Anger was replaced by some empathy with those who voted for Trump and a determination to work harder at making one’s views understood.

Strength supplanted depression and despair, as soon as people applied Serenity Prayer wisdom and accepted that Trump was President and determined to do what they could to mitigate the damage.

Discussion

Many participants told me that they had been helped by this Negative Visualisation exercise. I repeated it later at the London Stoic event, with similarly positive results. This is hardly surprising, since we have the positive testimony of Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and others. Moreover Negative Visualisation combines features of two evidence-based modern psychological techniques, exposure and mental contrasting.

Exposure is the “gold standard” for tackling anxiety. If you are frightened of dogs, for example, to overcome the fear you need to expose yourself to the dogs in a suitable manner[2]. A similar principle applies in some treatments for worry The first part of Negative Visualisation, where you think vividly about the feared object, clearly involves exposure and so should be expected to reduce the anxiety and the shock if and when the adversity occurs.

Mental Contrasting is a recent technique advocated by Oettingen as an alternative to positive thinking. Suppose you have an important interview next week. Whilst positive thinking might entail you imagining the interview going well, mental contrasting involves imagining likely difficulties and then mentally rehearsing what you need to do to overcome potential problems. Mental contrasting has been shown to help people achieve their goals, for example in weight loss and stopping smoking. Clearly the second part of negative visualisation resembles mental contrasting, so once again one would anticipate that negative visualisation would be beneficial. The key difference is that Negative Visualisation has a broader scope than mental contrasting, pertaining not just to goals and achievements but to adversities in general and living virtuously in spite of them.

There is good reason then to expect Negative Visualisation both to reduce anxiety, shock and worry and to develop character and virtue. The feedback from the New York and London workshops was certainly encouraging. However for this to constitute serious research further investigation is required. For example, each participant could be given a questionnaire before the workshop detailing their emotions and likely actions relating to a specified adversity. The same questionnaire could be completed at the end of the workshop by each participant.. If the adversity relates to a shared real life concern (such as Trump being elected) participants could then be contacted again and asked to fill in the questionnaire. The results compared to a control group who did not attend such a workshop. Future Stoic Weeks could provide an opportunity to engaging in research about the benefits of Negative Visualisation.

This experience of doing two Negative Visualisations in a group setting has also led me to conjecture that there may be significant advantages in doing negative visualisations as a group exercise. In the first place, each participant gets a sense that they are not alone, that their concern is shared by others. More importantly perhaps, the group, guided by the facilitator, can help participants learn wise Stoic responses to specific adversities. Table 3 (above) certainly helped me cope when Trump actually was elected President! So perhaps more Negative Visualisation workshops could be held, on a variety of human concerns, in person or potentially virtually through the internet.

One thing Negative Visualisation clearly could not do was stop Trump being elected President. But that, as Epictetus would remind us, is the point. We cannot control events, but we can control our response to them.

[1] although they do not give it that name

[2] To do exposure successfully it should be repeated, at an appropriate level and you should not leave the situation until the anxiety comes down.

Tim LeBon can be contacted via email on tim@timlebon.com. His website is http://www.timlebon.com

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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