Many years ago I was going through a tough time during which I had started to think very negatively of things. So a close friend shared a story with me which impacted me for many years to come.
"The story was about this one guy who was profoundly afraid of water. Going into a pool or an ocean was unthinkable for him. Washing hands and showering felt like torture. Anything related to water would make him want to run away. It was a phobia he had developed in his teens and that was haunting him day after day ever since. Yet one day on a party, two other guests grabbed him, and threw him into the pool. It was meant as a prank and those guests didn’t know he had a severe water phobia.
At first he was throwing around his hands in panic, fearing for his life, but shortly after he realized he was able to stand on his feet since the water level was less than his height. And so he did. He was standing in the pool, with his head above the water, and as it turned out, he was all fine. The water started to calm down, he started to calm down, and he wasn’t dying as he thought he would be. All the fear he had in his mind was unjustified. So he climbed out of the pool and dried himself. He had to (unintentionally) confront his phobia head on to realize that it was all in his mind."
The reason why my friend shared that story with me was because he wanted to show me that sometimes we think of things in the "worst case scenario" and that we spin stories in our head of how bad things will be if they happen. But more often than not, once they happen, they are actually not as bad as we thought. And that our anxiety and fear of certain outcomes is completely unjustified and irrational.
This thinking roots in the philosophy of Stoicism, which was born in Greece, but then matured in Rome. And what Stoicism tries to promote is kind of a muscular calm in the face of trying circumstances. The notion that our beliefs about how staggeringly awful something is going to be – once they are exposed to and examined – just do not match the reality.
For Stoics, the ideal state of mind isn’t necessarily trying to think positively. It’s more a mental state of tranquility, by cultivating a calm indifference toward’s one’s circumstances. An effective way to do that is to not shun negative emotions and experiences, but to examine them up close instead. Stoics argue that most of us go through life with certain beliefs about what people, situations, events will make us feel sad, anxious or angry. That the loud coughing of your classmate irritates you. That the loss of your purse bothers you.
Yet they argue that if you look closely at those experiences, you will realize that none of those events is negative in itself, but that the suffering we feel is caused by the beliefs we hold about those situations. The classmate’s cough isn’t annoying per se, but that it’s our belief that we need to pay attention in class without distraction which makes it annoying. And the loss of a purse isn’t negative in itself, but we perceive it negatively due to our belief that we caused ourselves a massive inconvenience.
It’s important to highlight that Stoics are not arguing that negative feelings don’t exist. Or that they should be brushed away. They merely want to point out the mechanism through which stress arises. Even an event like a lost job isn’t a negative event in itself, it’s merely an event. Ultimately it’s our beliefs that cause distress. And with that, Stoics argue against thinking positively because ceaseless optimism about the future will only make you suffer a greater shock once that future doesn’t occur.
They therefore recommend dwelling on the negative outcome (they call it “negative visualization” or “the premeditation of the evil”). Facing the worst case scenario head on to realize that even when it goes wrong, it probably won’t go as wrong as you thought it would. Once you imagine exactly how wrong things can go in reality, you will soon realize how some of your fears were exaggerated. If you lose your job, there are ways to find a new one. If you lost a relationship, there are ways to be happy as a single. Confronting these worst-case scenarios often shows that no, the world and your life won’t be over. Yes it will hurt, but it won’t be as bad as you think it will be. And that you will be back on your feet before you know it.
This is exactly what happened with the guy who was thrown into the pool. He had to forcefully confront his worst-case scenario to realize that it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. And once you learn to expose and then embrace these worst-case scenario thoughts, you will teach yourself a state of mind of tranquility. One that will allow you to go through life with much more calm and composure.
(this piece was inspired by the second chapter “What would Seneca Do?” in the book “The Antidote” by Oliver Burkeman)