Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Donald Trump for President? Here's a Stoic Premeditation

Just returned from presenting  workshops at New York & London  Stoicons  about the benefits of the classic Stoic technique of negative visualisation You imagine something bad happening, and then rehearse how you would deal with it in a Stoic fashion.  William Irvine writes in A Guide to the Good Life that this  is “the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit”. There's a link here with modern psychological research, where a somewhat similar technique called mental contrasting has been shown to be superior to crude positive thinking.  Here's an article which compares and contrasts mental contrasting and negative visualization. 

The topical twist was that in both workshops we explored how the technique could help us prepare for the possibility of Donald Trump becoming President. In my mind Brexit and Trump have been linked as equally undesirable and possible, and after Brexit I wrote about how Stoicism can help you cope with adversity. Negative Visualization is fairly similar, but it's something you do before an adversity, so you are better mentally prepared.

I'll be writing up a fuller write-up of the workshops in due course. But I thought it might be helpful  share these ideas before the Presidential election - just in case ...

Step 1: Visualizing disaster
The results are in. It’s bad news. 
In your minds eye, imagine this. You hear a TV announcer saying “Hillary Clinton has conceded.  – Donald Trump will be the next president of the USA
As you register this appalling news, start to notice
Thoughts that pop in to your head (such as “how could this happen! It’s the end of liberal democracy” “The world is not safe”)
Your emotions and mood (maybe “angry”, “stunned”, “upset”, “shocked”, “worried”, “anxious” or “depressed”)

What do you feel like doing? (perhaps demanding a recount, perhaps giving up)

Step 2: Developing a Stoic view
"What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens." Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1.17

Jot down your answer to these questions

What aspects of the situation aren’t in your power, what can’t you change?

What aspects are of the situation in your power, what can you change?

In what ways might self-control be useful?

In what ways might justice and  love of humanity be called for?

How might courage and persistence be helpful?

What other virtues might be important?

What would practical wisdom require us do?

Step 3: Stoic reframe
How your original emotions, thoughts and impulses to act turn into more helpful, Stoic emotions, thoughts and impulses to act.

For example, before taking a Stoic response  anxiety driven by the thought Women, minorities  & immigrants will be marginalised & oppressed might lead to being frozen like a deer in headlights and then taking tranquillizers and drinking

After putting the situation through the Stoic filter, you may well feel more tranquil and more determined.
You might think that it may not be as bad as you imagine -  maybe there is a danger of overestimating how much difference  a President can make. You may go on to consider that you can make a difference - not to the result but as  grassroots activist for causes you care about.

Step  4: Rehearse Dealing with the Adversity again (eyes closed exercise)
Here you repeat the exercise again.

Close your eyes. Imagine the adverse result. As you realise it has happened, notice what thoughts or images pop into your mind, notice what emotions come up, and also what you feel like doing
  Do not get carried away by these thoughts. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that in this situation there are some things you can control and some things you cannot . Remind yourself that Stoic wisdom lies in detecting the difference.
Rehearse  calm acceptance of those aspects not under your control
Rehearse responding in a positive way to the things that are under your control – that is with wisdom, self-control, love of humanity, fairness courage , persistence and other relevant virtues
Now remember that  this result hasn’t  actually happened, notice if you feel any gratitude.  Remember though that adversities like this may happen and if so you will be prepared  

Many in the audience noticed a big shift away from depression, anxiety and anger towards determination to make the best of it along with acceptance of things they couldn't change. This shift was more marked in New York than London, possibly because we had more time but possibly because people felt they could do more about it. 

That's Stoicism in action. Much better, I suggest, than the "it will be alright on the night" approach. Look where that got us with Brexit!


  1. Argh. You may need to update the line, "Now remember that this result hasn’t actually happened".
    I'm trying to use the stoic disciplines now, Tim, I really am. But I can't yet get any traction on dealing with the anxiety, anger, and downright fear I feel after last night's result. Thoughts?

  2. Hope this might prove useful today!


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