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Premeditatio Malorum: Meaning & How to Practice

Published or Updated On: 
December 24, 2022

Premeditatio malorum is Latin for “the premeditation of evils” and refers to the practice of imagining bad things that could happen in the future. While that may sound like a recipe for misery, it actually has the opposite effect: it provides you a sense of peace and calm when bad things do eventually happen.

This technique has it’s roots in ancient philosophy and was popularized by the Stoics. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a practicing Stoic, wrote in his private diary:

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

As Emperor of Rome, Marcus was faced with countless challenges in his role, from mundane incompetence to plots against his life. To prepare himself for his day, he would practice premeditatio malorum to keep a cooler head & strengthen his resolve for when these challenges inevitably arose. 

A good analogy here is the vaccine. Vaccines work by exposing you to a small amount of weakened virus which allows your immune system to build the appropriate antibodies. Then, when you encounter the virus in the wild, your body can mount an effective response and stay healthy. Premeditatio malorum works like a vaccine for your mind. When you actively think about the kinds of trouble that you’ll likely face, you inoculate yourself from being very upset if those troubles actually play out. It’s like exposure therapy, where you become desensitized to your potential woes by getting closer to them.

When to practice & examples

Some people practice each morning. Personally, I find that to be overkill. I practice it prior to situations where trouble is more likely to occur. Here are some times I frequently practice:

  1. Flying — the only place I have ever seen adults publicly shout in anger with any degree of regularity is an airport. It’s a special cocktail: time pressure to catch flights, an anxiety-inducing number of rules, then going 30,000 feet up into the air, despite protests from the older parts of your brain, to put your life in the hands of a machine & a couple of people you don’t know. Anytime you’re doing air travel, I highly recommend the practice.

Example practice: The day before your travel, I imagine that for some BS reason, I have been delayed and have to sprint through the airport to catch my flight. I miss it. The airline says it’s my fault & I have to pay for another ticket. But all the flights that day are full, so I’m stuck for a night and out of pocket for a hotel. I might imagine my baggage being lost, or feeling extremely motion sick from heavy turbulence. The next day is chill for me then, even when I miss flights or have to run.

  1. Difficult social interaction — for me, this is firing people. I hate firing people. Being on the receiving end of a job termination can produce powerful negative emotions, and it is painful to watch people experience that. I use premeditatio malorum before firing someone, and find that it helps me handle the situation better. Other difficult social interactions might include ending a long term relationship, having a conversation about a sensitive topic with a family member, or having your annual review with your employer.

Example practice: Before I fire someone, I imagine a situation where I give them the news and their response is “worst case scenario”. They cry, call me names, shout, perhaps even levels some threats. I’ve never had someone take the news as bad as this, and have found practicing to not only reduce my anxiety going into the interaction, but to be more compassionate during the termination.

  1. Business downturn — if you’re a business owner or creator, you know what it’s like when you feel the ship taking on water. You start sleeping less, have a harder time unplugging, and find yourself distracted by worried thoughts. I’ll use premeditatio malorum here to play out my fears, harden my resolve and find peace in the moment.

Example practice: After the triggering event, I’ll spend 5 minutes writing a fictional story in my journal about how trouble continues to bloom. Suppliers are late, revenue declines, key personnel quit, bigger competitors steal our ideas and capitalize on them. Many times, I have envisioned things falling apart so much that we shut our business shutting down entirely. After years of toil, I’m back at square one. Writing this out helps me be less reactive & more thoughtful if trouble does indeed continue to bloom. It also reminds me that failing in business isn’t a death sentence.

Closing thoughts

Practicing premeditatio malorum can help you be with reality as it is. Instead of having your mind spinning with emotionally charged thoughts about how the airliner “shouldn’t have lost your bag”, your mental peace is less disturbed. You knew this could’ve happened, so you’re more accepting of reality when it eventually does. The purpose is not to pacify you either, turning you into a lame duck who just takes what life dishes. The purpose is to preserve your tranquility, strengthen resolve & even open the door to a more skillful response to problems, with your judgments free from the cloudiness of strong emotions.

The great litmus test of premeditatio malorum, really of any cognitive tool like this, is whether or not it makes you feel better. If it sounds like it might, give it a test in the laboratory of your own mind & see if it helps!

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