In anxious, frustrating or aversive situations, I find it helpful to visualize the worst case that I fear might happen, and try to accept it. I call this “radical acceptance”, since the imagined worst case is usually an unrealistic scenario that would be extremely unlikely to happen, e.g. “suppose I get absolutely nothing done in the next month”. This is essentially the negative visualization component of stoicism.
There are many benefits to visualizing the worst case:
- Feeling better about the present situation by contrast.
- Turning attention to the good things that would still be in my life even if everything went wrong in one particular domain.
- Weakening anxiety using humor (by imagining an exaggerated “doomsday” scenario).
- Being more prepared for failure, and making contingency plans (pre-hindsight).
- Helping make more accurate predictions about the future by reducing the “X isn’t allowed to happen” effect (or, as Anna Salamon once put it, “putting X into the realm of the thinkable”).
- Reducing the effect of ugh fields / aversions, which thrive on the “X isn’t allowed to happen” flinch.
- Weakening unhelpful identities like “person who is always productive” or “person who doesn’t make stupid mistakes”.
Let’s say I have an aversion around meetings with my advisor, because I expect him to be disappointed with my research progress. When I notice myself worrying about the next meeting or finding excuses to postpone it so that I have more time to make progress, I can imagine the worst imaginable outcome a meeting with my advisor could have – perhaps he might yell at me or even decide to expel me from grad school (neither of these have actually happened so far). If the scenario is starting to sound silly, that’s a good sign. I can then imagine how this plays out in great detail, from the disappointed faces and words of the rest of the department to the official letter of dismissal in my hands, and consider what I might do in that case, like applying for industry jobs. While building up these layers of detail in my mind, I breathe deeply, which I associate with meditative acceptance of reality. (I use the word “acceptance” to mean “acknowledgement” rather than “resignation”.)
I am trying to use this technique more often, both in the regular and situational sense. A good default time is my daily meditation practice. I might also set up a trigger-action habit of the form “if I notice myself repeatedly worrying about something, visualize that thing (or an exaggerated version of it) happening, and try to accept it”. Some issues have more natural triggers than others – while worrying tends to call attention to itself, aversions often manifest as a quick flinch away from a thought, so it’s better to find a trigger among the actions that are often caused by an aversion, e.g. procrastination. A trigger for a potentially unhelpful identity could be a thought like “I’m not good at X, but I should be”. A particular issue can simultaneously have associated worries (e.g. “will I be productive enough?”), aversions (e.g. towards working on the project) and identities (“productive person”), so there is likely to be something there that makes a good trigger. Visualizing myself getting nothing done for a month can help with all of these to some degree.
System 1 is good at imagining scary things – why not use this as a tool?