"The mind that is anxious about future events is miserable." - Seneca
Trauma survivors often struggle with developing healthy relationships due to the lasting impact of their past experiences. In addition, people who have not experienced trauma may still face challenges in relating to others in a positive and productive manner. One technique that can be useful for both trauma survivors and those looking to improve their relationships is premeditation of adversity, also known as premeditatio malorum.
Premeditation of adversity is a Stoic philosophy technique that involves imagining potential negative outcomes and mentally preparing oneself for them by imagining specific ways things might go wrong and how you would react to what comes your way, no matter what it is. This practice can be particularly beneficial for trauma survivors who may be triggered by unexpected events or experiences. By anticipating and preparing for potential challenges, individuals can feel more in control of their emotional responses and better equipped to handle difficult situations.
Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” - Seneca, again (that guy had it locked down).
Premeditation of adversity is not about catastrophizing or becoming overly anxious about potential negative outcomes, even though we may be able to easily imagine the shipwreck, or forgetting every word of the presentation, or making a fool of ourselves on the first date. It's also not an invitation to obsess over the negative. Instead, it is a proactive and mindful approach to prepare oneself for challenges that may arise in life. By considering potential difficulties and developing strategies to manage them, individuals can feel more confident and resilient in the face of adversity.
In addition to helping us manage emotional responses to triggers and conflicts, premeditation of adversity can also foster greater empathy of others, and a better understanding of how people operate within relationships. By imagining ourselves in another's shoes and considering potential challenges or misunderstandings, we can approach conversations with greater compassion and perspective.
For example, if I'm having a hard time understanding my husband's perspective on something (sometimes I do...he's an engineer after all and we think differently!), I can try and imagine myself in his position and consider the challenges and experiences that he may be experiencing. This can help me approach any conversation we have with more empathy and understanding.
When I first started using premeditatio as a healing tool, I was stuck in a cycle of anger. I blamed others for my situation, because after all, I thought things were "done to me" without my having any agency or power. Some things were "done to me" but that doesn't matter in my current stage of healing now and I'll explain why in another post. I started by identifying past events that bugged the crap out of me and began to imagine ways I could have handled things differently. Imagining these alternate scenarios, even though they didn't happen, helped me to release the anger of the actual events that did happen. As well, the practice of imagining alternate scenarios allowed me to more easily imagine future events. All the ways things could go sideways next year, or next month, or later today.
Now I wake up and spend a few minutes thinking of this quote by Marcus Aurelius:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own - not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”
Am I perfect in my forgiveness and live a life free of anger? Not even close, but I'm trying. That's what Stoicism is a practice, not a perfection. This quote helps me to focus for a few minutes on thinking about the potential sidewaysness my day may bring, and when something goes wonk, I'm not surprised. I can then have easier access to patience and kindness. I can bring to mind potential emotions I might experience, physical sensations and thoughts that may arise, then consider practical steps I can take to manage the situation, whatever it might be.
Here's a fun IRL example: I woke up a few months ago with a familiar pain that is particularly brutal in nature. I knew it was a kidney stone. I've had them before. Ordinarily, it would have sent me into a panic attack (I used to get those frequently), but I imagined what might happen during the course of this stone. I knew I would be going to the hospital. I imagine that my initial experience in the ER could be either good, (seen swiftly by kind, professional staff) or bad (dismissed as a drug seeker, or not attended to for hours). I would either be sent home, or I would pass the stone, or I would be admitted and have surgery. The pain would be bad. I might not ever get pain relief. I might not pass the stone for days. But imagining all he goods and the bads helped me to stand at the ready for whatever would happen, calmly, and best of all, without fear. I had a medical event without fear. This has not been part of my past experiences.
Premeditation of adversity works in psychosocial scenarios, too. Say I have a history of being emotionally activated by engaging with certain family member during social gatherings (I do!), I might imagine scenarios in which I encounter the family members and consider what a conversation might be like and imagine how I might choose to manage both my words and my emotional response. Tip: This activity may pair well with some deep breathing exercises, repeating positive affirmations, or exploring ideas in writing.
In addition to helping trauma survivors prepare for potential triggers, premeditation of adversity can be useful for those of us looking to improve our relationships. By imagining potential conflicts or misunderstandings, we can identify potential sources of tension and proactively address them before they escalate. We may be able to improve our relationships when we consider past conflicts or misunderstandings and actively imagine how they could have been handled differently. This may involve considering alternative responses or identifying communication strategies that could have been more effective.
For example, if I have a history of becoming defensive during disagreements (I do!), I can imagine a scenario in which I am able to remain calm and open-minded during a difficult conversation, then in my mind, practice active listening skills, reframing negative thoughts, or imagining myself taking a break to regroup before responding. When versions of the scenario come up IRL, I will have had mental practice handling my response and new behaviors may be easier to access.
It is worth noting that premeditation of adversity is not a replacement for therapy or professional support for trauma survivors, or anyone seeking to make radical change in their life. While this technique can be a valuable tool for managing triggers and improving relationships, it is important to seek professional help when needed. Just a gentle mention: LittleBird Coaching specializes in trauma recovery coaching. Feel free to get in touch with us here.
Overall premeditatio malorum, or premeditation of adversity, is a powerful Stoic philosophy tool that can be used by trauma survivors and any of us looking to improve our ability to handle life in a virtuous manner. By imagining potential challenges and developing strategies to manage them, we can feel more in control of our emotions and become better equipped to handle difficult situations. With practice, premeditation of adversity can become an integral part of our healing and growth journey.
These quotes emphasize the importance of having a calm and untroubled mind, looking at things as they truly are, being prepared for adversity, and accepting what comes our way without excessive desire or aversion. By practicing premeditatio malorum, stoics believed that individuals could cultivate inner resilience, overcome fear and anxiety, and approach challenges with wisdom and equanimity.