In the back of my mouth are two lonely wisdom teeth patiently awaiting their long overdue eviction notice. They need to be pulled. Two of my four wisdom teeth were extracted three years ago and a week later I was supposed to make an appointment for the remaining pair to be pulled. Instead, because my first experience in the torture chamber, ahem, back room of the dental office, I avoided it. For the last three years, I’ve successfully dodged a myriad of follow-up phone calls from the dentist and well-meaning reminders from my wife.
I won’t go into the details but the procedure didn’t go smoothly. It was painful and a little terrifying.
I am now one of the 10-15% of people that are scared enough of the dentist that they avoid ever going. (Different from the 75% of people that experience anxiety but still go). But I know I’ll eventually have to overcome the fear and make the appointment.
This got me thinking about fear, anxiety, and emotional suffering caused by the anticipation of future events and how we can overcome it. The Stoic Philosophers practiced something called Negative Visualization. This is the practice of imagining undesired events, such as the death of a loved one, so that when the event inevitably occurs you are emotionally prepared to deal with it. It’s dark stuff to think about, there’s no denying that, but it could be helpful, especially to someone with a terminally ill loved one whose death in the near-future is expected.
In addition to helping someone deal with a future event such as death, it also helps them better appreciate the time spent with loved ones. In William Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy he describes this idea by comparing two fathers – one who uses negative visualization and one who does not:
“To see how imagining the death of a child can make us appreciate her, consider two fathers. The first takes [this] advice to heart and periodically reflects on his child’s mortality. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. He instead assumes that his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second. When he sees his daughter first thing in the morning, he will be glad that she is still a part of his life, and during the day he will take full advantage of opportunities to interact with her. The second father, in contrast, will be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his child in the morning. Indeed, he might not even look up from the newspaper to acknowledge her presence in the room.”
In this way, negative visualization is a powerful tool for helping someone appreciate anything they value in their life. Simply imagine losing something important to you or being forced to live without it. A greater appreciation will naturally follow.
Negative visualization is also used in business. There it is known as a pre-mortem and is enacted as a strategy at the beginning of a new project to dissect imagined scenarios where that project has failed to determine what could potentially lead to that failure.
Adjusting the Strategy: Using Negative Visualization to Overcome Fear and Anticipatory Anxiety
With a little tweaking one could also apply the idea of negative visualization to overcome the fear of an upcoming event, such as my inevitable tooth extractions. Overcoming fear and anxiety is different than overcoming grief and sadness, thus it requires a slightly different approach. Instead of simply visualizing the event that one fears, they would visualize something much worse.
If I imagine something far worse than getting my teeth pulled, such as James Franco cutting his own arm off with a pocket knife, like he does in the movie 127 Hours, then my procedure, complete with numbing medication and proper dental tools, doesn’t seem so bad.
This helps turn my focus away from the fear of a negative outcome and onto hope for a positive one. It helps me focus on the obvious benefits of my situation over James Franco’s character’s situation in the movie.
At the dentist, I will be either sedated or numbed so there should be no pain. The dentist will be using the proper tools to remove my teeth so It won’t be a miserable marathon of agonizing pain like it would be when cutting your own arm off with a pocket knife. (I’m going to squeeze that visual into this article as often as I can!).
This technique of downplaying an event by imagining something far worse is used in other situations with different objectives. For example, my dad would often “sugar-coat” things rather than tell me the bad news upfront.
As a teenager, before I had a driver’s license, I would have to call him to come pick me up from work. Even when he knew he wouldn’t be able to leave the house for 30-45 minutes, he would tell me he’d be there in 10-15 minutes. While this particular scenario still ended in me being frustrated when he didn’t show when I expected him (and I don’t agree with its usage), he still eliminated the frustration it would have caused me to hear upfront that I would have to wait for him.
Salespeople use this technique too – they call it softening the blow – when they have to tell a client the cost of their service. If the actual cost of said service is $500, they might joke with a customer and say it’s going to be $1500. When the client’s jaw drops, the salesperson says, “Ha ha, just kidding, it’s only $500.” The visualization of a far-worse scenario softens the blow of the real thing. Cha-ching – sale made.
The Stoics may have been the first to put negative visualization into regular practice, but similar methods have been applied by everyone from psychologists to my dad. It’s widely used and seldom recognized but it’s effective and it can help to both avoid suffering and amplify enjoyment and gratitude. Simply put, it’s a tool to help us manage our emotions.
Consider visualizing James Franco cutting his arm off with a pocket knife. Then go make a dentist appointment.
Featured photo credit: Frank MckEnna via unsplash.com