Meaning, Virtue

Why Do We Assume the Worst?

“…we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca, 65 AD, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 13


What do we think when someone upsets us?

That depends on how we perceive the action or words that upset us. Do we think: ‘they did that, and it upset me’, or ‘they did that to upset me’? There is a very different perception of intent here. Things that happen or things that other people do will hurt us, anger us, insult us and it is not expected that we be made of steel, impenetrable to all those feelings. However, attributing intent is a slippery slope.

“Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”

Marcus Aurelius,161-180 AD, Meditations

Why would we assume bad intent?

Maybe because we believe, on some level, it is no less than what we deserve. It’s reasonable to suppose that if we have an unfriendly, combative relationship with ourselves, we will expect the same from others. From this stance, it is easy to decide that their intention in words and actions is to hurt us. When harbouring such a hostile relationship with ourselves, we can deduce ill intent from another without much, if any, reason. On the other hand, if we are secure and generally happy in ourselves, our first assumption wouldn’t be that someone dislikes us, and their intention to hurt us. We wouldn’t berate ourselves with a hundred good reasons why they might. We are friendly with ourselves and likewise with others.

“Put the question voluntarily to yourself: “Am I tormented without sufficient reason, am I morose, and do I convert what is not an evil into what is an evil?””

Seneca, 65 AD, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 13

We know that people can say or do things to intentionally cause harm.

Even this real ill-intent can be perceived differently though. If we have a friendly relationship with ourselves, we might think, ‘they did that because they have their own issues’, ‘because they are hurt’, or maybe simply ‘because they are cruel’. We wouldn’t automatically assume any ill intent towards us. It isn’t about us. This perception is nearly always closer to the truth. The drive behind genuine ill-intent rarely has anything really to do with us. It often comes from the other person having that unfriendly, combative relationship with themselves. It is worth being able to recognise where this ill-intent is coming from, and to cut it off by not over-embracing it as personal hurt. We are stopping the process, which is good for us and good for them. Embracing ill-intent, whether it is true or false, makes everything worse.

When we perceive someone’s words and actions as ill-intentioned, it is worth asking how we came to that opinion.

As said earlier, it doesn’t mean we’re not annoyed or hurt by things that people say and do, it just means we don’t assume their intent. As well as developing a friendlier relationship with ourselves we need to consider where genuine ill-intent from another might be coming from. It is worth trying to see things from a few feet back.

“Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”

Seneca, 65 AD, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 13

'Robert Fludd, Tomus secundus ..., 1619-1621, Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Robert Fludd, Tomus secundus …, 1619-1621. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
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