What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius once wrote:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness…

Why on earth would you want to start the day with that thought in your head? Because Marcus didn’t want to be surprised. He wanted to be prepared.

Yes, we all know people can be difficult. And, yes, we all know we can’t control what they do. If I just said that and nothing else, you’d roll your eyes at me and wonder why you decided to read this. And yet when people are difficult, we often respond like it was totally unexpected, and then we get angry. Does that make any sense?

Reminding yourself of the worst isn’t pessimism. Buying life insurance doesn’t mean you want to die — it means you realistically recognise it may happen (well it will eventually..!) and you want to be prepared. So Marcus reminded himself every morning that people were going to be difficult. That way it wouldn’t surprise him, and he wouldn’t get frustrated and just tell them all to go to hell. He could move right on to negotiating.

When we’re unrealistically optimistic, when our expectations are totally out of whack, we get frustrated and give up. But by thinking about what could go wrong in any situation, you mentally prepare yourself for it and you keep on trucking.

From Stoicism and the Art of Happiness – Ancient Tips For Modern Challenges:

Seneca writes that we should contemplate events in advance so that nothing ever takes us by surprise in this way, as ‘What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster’ by magnifying the distress experienced (Letters, 91). He goes on to say that we should therefore ‘project our thoughts ahead of us’ and imagine every conceivable setback so that we may ‘strengthen the mind’ to cope with them, or as we put it today, to develop psychological resilience in the face of adversity.

And if you spend some time thinking about the downside — experiencing those bad feelings in advance — something else happens. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy calls it decatastrophising. That’s a fancy word for “realizing it’s not the end of the world.”

Your first day on the job, something went wrong and you freaked out. A few weeks later, the same thing happened and you didn’t even blink. You got used to it.

So taking the time to think through the worst that could happen, to feel the negatives before you really feel the negatives, turns down the volume on those emotions when it counts. And that allows you to weather the storm.

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