Recently I came a bit unstuck. It was to do with a complicated set of circumstances surrounding a house move, which went on and on causing me much anxiety, frustration and occasional despair. If I’d been a good Stoic I might have been able to avoid all that and breeze through it – but then I already knew I wasn’t, and in truth I wasn’t really trying to be. Nor does being a psychotherapist immunise against troublesome emotions.
As I tried to understand what was happening, someone close to me said that my distress seemed connected with long-standing patterns of thought that until now I’d got away with, but that in this challenging situation had come back to bite me. One of these was the deeply engrained habit of dealing with uncertainty by leaping ahead to the worst possible scenarios.
Why did I get into this habit? More importantly, what did it really do for me? The origins of it are probably a mixture of supposedly protective mechanisms, none consciously chosen, rooted in childhood. One of these seemed to have what we could call an “apotropaic” function, which is basically about averting bad luck. The twisted rationale for this is that if you manage to convince yourself that something bad will happen this will somehow stop it happening. This is clearly irrational and not advisable as a self-help strategy. But don’t underestimate its tenacity: once such a superstitious practice has taken hold, trying to dislodge it will feel like inviting disaster, and mindfulness and effort will be needed to make any progress.
One of the main motives, however, must have been to remove the discomfort of uncertainty and protect myself from disappointment. It may seem weird, but sometimes it’s easier to manage the conviction that things will go badly than not knowing how they will turn out. If my cat goes missing for a day, for instance, I immediately tell myself I need to accept he’s gone.
Seneca wrote about how closely intertwined hope and fear are. He quotes the Stoic Hecaton as saying: “You will cease to fear … if you cease to hope.” (Letters, 5) We can eliminate fear by banishing hope. The idea is that if I manage to knock on the head the hope that the cat will come back I can avoid the anxiety about it. This is more or less what I try to do. But it doesn’t really work, as the thought the cat isn’t coming back is upsetting, so I just end up replacing one negative emotion with another.
Seneca also gives some contradictory advice on this: ‘give careful consideration to hope and fear alike; and whenever the situation remains uncertain, do yourself a favour and give credence to the thing you prefer.’ (Letters, 13) From this point of view, when the cat goes missing I’d be better off foregrounding the thought that he’ll be back soon. But if you’re given to mentally jumping to the worst outcome before you even realise it, this is quite hard to do.
The jury is out on whether thinking the worst can be effective in protecting ourselves from disappointment, or whether it would be better simply to deal with disappointment if and when it comes. It seems clear enough that if the thought that things will go wrong ends up causing a lot of distress then the treatment has become worse than the disease.
But wait a minute – isn’t there a practice known as premeditatio malorum (anticipation of evils), recommended by eminent Stoics as a healthy mental habit? What’s the difference between that and my habit of anticipating the worst, which was most unhelpful?
My mental tricks didn’t work because the thought of disastrous events was accompanied by the implicit assumption that if the imagined thing happened it would be awful and unbearable. So, if spelled out, my thought would be of the form: ‘x will happen and that’s awful and unbearable’. This sort of thinking is known as catastrophising and is associated with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. In Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy approaches, it is seen as involving various distortions:
1. overestimating the likelihood of something happening
2. overestimating how bad it would be if it did
3. underestimating our ability to cope with such an eventuality
These were definitely present in my thinking about the house situation. I thought certain negative scenarios would almost certainly happen and that this would be awful. While I did not tell myself anything explicit about my ability to cope, again the implicit assumption was that I would be crushed by the events.
The correct Stoic formulation would be very different. It would be something like: ‘x may well happen (and if x doesn’t something similar probably will, as we are human beings and as such prone to such misfortunes), but that is fine because the things I’m terrified of are not that important’. This obliterates distortion 2, thus making the other two irrelevant.
There are enough superficial similarities between the Stoic pattern and the catastrophising one, however, for us to be able to deceive ourselves that our erroneous practice of anticipating the worst conforms to an illustrious Stoic practice that is designed to be helpful, when in fact we’re only digging ourselves into a hole.
The Stoic formulation would work if, like a proper Stoic, you managed to withdraw attributions of good and bad from any ‘externals’ (basically anything other than virtue and vice). But what if, like me, you struggle with that idea? Then the technique might work for things that are easily classed as unimportant, but definitely wouldn’t for those that we perceive as central to our life. For me the latter include home, for instance.
It would be useful therefore to explore constructive ways of adapting the premeditatio malorum for those who are not fully-fledged Stoics. A tweaked premeditatio could serve a very useful purpose by challenging two crucial assumptions that are likely to lie behind the anxiety: a. the thought that it would be awful if certain things were to happen, and b. the fear that we would not be able to cope with them if they did (points 2 and 3 above).
a. The first tweak, like the original concept, concentrates on questioning the thought that if x happened it would be awful. Now if we’re not Stoics we may well judge that a few catastrophic events really would be terrible, and there is little point in trying to convince ourselves that in fact these things don’t matter. For those issues we’d be better off focusing on our fears about not coping, which we’ll come to shortly.
But even non-Stoics should be able to recognise that many of the things we distress ourselves about have come to matter too much. I certainly feel I would benefit from challenging just how important home should be for a good life. It does have some importance of course, but I now see that how I live my daily life matters more than what exact ‘container’ I do it in.
I also believe the Stoics are right in pointing out that placing too much significance on something that is not in our control leaves us vulnerable to the whims of fortune. In this respect a less demanding source of inspiration is Hume. Under the influence of Stoicism, Hume undertook
the improvement of my temper and will, along with my reason and understanding. I was continually fortifying myself with reflections against death, and poverty, and shame, and pain, and all the other calamities of life.Letters of David Hume, 1, 3
Hume believed that in small quantities this kind of reflection had a positive effect. But he became aware that too much of it ‘wasted the spirits’ and ended up having a detrimental effect on his health. He concluded that that the Stoics were ‘too magnificent for human nature’: ‘Philosophers have endeavoured to render happiness entirely independent of every thing external,’ but ‘That degree of perfection is impossible to be attained.’ Not only is this unattainable, it is also undesirable, as it would involve renouncing or becoming suspicious of some central human experiences that make life worth living.
A more modest but realistic goal for him was to ‘endeavour to place his happiness on such objects chiefly as depend upon himself’. (‘Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion’, 3; my italics) This is subtly but importantly different from making one’s happiness rest entirely on what is in one’s control. If we were to follow Hume in this we would acknowledge that living a full life entails some loss of independence, but at the same time we would commit to checking frequently whether we have become too dependent on something outside our control.
In a nutshell, since few things are truly awful, we could benefit from challenging how much we have allowed external things to dominate our life.
b. The second tweak focuses on how we respond to the possibility of negative events happening. The general approach is expressed in the following thought: ‘x may happen and if it does it’s really not great but perhaps there is something I can do to prepare for that eventuality, and anyway I will find ways of dealing with it’.
This approach rests on our ability to think ahead to possible threats. This is important for our survival, and may have been crucial in our evolutionary past. In support of this point, psychologist Roy Baumeister has argued that bad events have a much greater impact on our life than good ones. But while it can certainly be overused, that ability may still be useful in moderation. Anticipating potential problems can be helpful if it helps us to prepare for them, for instance.
‘Defensive pessimism’ (see Julie Norem, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking) starts from the idea that there are circumstances in which positive thinking – convincing ourselves that everything will be rosy and we will experience no challenges – is not the most helpful strategy. Instead, a form of negative thinking can be most beneficial. In particular, we are encouraged to consider specific outcomes we are anxious about and take steps towards countering or ameliorating them.
But ultimately it is confidence in our own ability to deal with negative circumstances that is the most useful asset. Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy places a lot of emphasis on learning to tolerate scenarios in which things don’t turn out as we’d like. In Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy, Albert Ellis describes as irrational the idea that ‘it is awful and catastrophic when things are not the way one would very much like them to be.’ He advocates changing a thought such as, ‘How terrible this situation is; I positively cannot stand it!’ to something like: ‘It’s too bad that conditions are this frustrating. But they won’t kill me; and I surely can stand living in this unfortunate but hardly catastrophic way.’
When the much quoted admiral Stockdale was asked about the value of different coping strategies in relation to his time as a POW, he apparently replied that it was the optimists in the camp who had fared badly, those who thought they were going to be out by Christmas, because they were not prepared when that didn’t happen. Instead, his approach was to be brutally realistic about not being out by Christmas, but unwaveringly confident about his ultimate ability to prevail. (This is sometimes called the ‘Stockdale Paradox’ but is not actually much of a paradox. It just shows we can be pessimists in one respect and optimists in another.)
Note that none of this is simply about protecting ourselves from disappointment, or avoiding anxiety by replacing uncertainty with a grim kind of certainty. Instead, the take home message is that anticipating the worst can help us to prepare, either by taking practical steps to improve the situation or by developing healthy strategies to cope with it. Coping strategies could involve finding ways of getting support, for instance, or of managing emotions. There may be times when the best we can do is reassure ourselves that people cope with worst things and we’ll cope too.
So the next time you find yourself going over worst-case scenarios ask yourself in what spirit you are doing it. Check that the practice you have adopted is constructive, and that you’re not falling prey to the seductions of irrational thinking.
Antonia Macaro is an existential psychotherapist with a long-standing interest in both Buddhism and Stoicism. She is the author of Reason, Virtue and Psychotherapy. Her most recent book, More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age, is published by Icon.