Visualisation, also known as mental rehearsal, involves creating vivid images or scenarios in your mind. You may think of this process as merely daydreaming, but there is good scientific evidence that visualisation can have a positive impact on your motivation, mood and achievement of goals.
Visualisation rewires your brain
Studies have shown that our brains aren’t very effective at distinguishing between vividly imagined experiences and real ones. It seems that whether we are experiencing something in real life or merely imagining it, similar neuronal pathways in our brains light up. This is why athletes and performers mentally rehearse, because they are aware that the more often they visualise an experience, the easier it is for them to achieve it in real life.
Overcoming our tendency to visualise the negative
The tendency to worry over the future and mentally rehearse potential negative outcomes is part of our brain’s natural inclination towards threat detection. This tendency has evolutionary roots in ensuring our survival. Notice the danger. Escape from the danger. Live. While this negativity bias of ours can be helpful in certain situations, it isn’t great when it comes to helping us achieve our goals. Negative visualisation can lead to fear and hopelessness, lack of motivation and avoidance of taking action due to fear of failure.
Negative visualisations can become self-fulfilling prophecies
If your brain rehearses a negative outcome over and over again, it is wiring that negative pattern into your brain and turning it into an expectation or belief. This may lead you to you unconsciously engage in self-sabotaging behaviours that align with your belief, resulting in you inadvertently creating the outcome you have rehearsed. So it makes sense if we are going to visualise, that we should make our visualisations positive.
Positive visualisation increases your clarity and purpose
Positive visualisation aligns mental imagery with your goals, giving you a roadmap to guide your actions and decisions in a way that brings you closer to your desired outcome. It enhances goal setting by providing clarity on what you want to achieve. This clarity makes it easier to set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-limited) goals which contributes to your overall sense of purpose and direction.
Positive visualisation activates your reward pathways
Visualisation of desired outcomes also activates neural pathways associated with reward and pleasure, triggering the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. This creates a positive reinforcement feedback loop, making you feel more hopeful, which makes you more motivated, allowing you to persist for longer when you begin to take action on your vision. A more hopeful mindset also allows you to view setbacks and difficulties as temporary and surmountable, making you more resilient to failure and more likely to succeed.
Positive visualisation makes you more solution-focused
Consistently visualising successful outcomes encourages a shift from a problem-focused mindset, where you dwell on potential obstacles, to a solution-focused mindset, where you approach problems more proactively. This is like training your mind to seek opportunities and ways to overcome challenges rather than being defeated by them. Each time you rise to a challenge and find a way to solve it, you grow your confidence and belief in yourself, making it more likely that you will succeed.
You can use this process for career, relationship, personal development or other life goals.
- Set your goal
- Identify success: Clearly identify what successful attainment of this goal looks like. Focus on what you do want instead of what you don’t want e.g. instead of “I won’t get mad the next time my colleague makes a cutting remark” (which makes your brain think about getting mad and all the previous cutting remarks your colleague has made) think “I will stay calm and centred with my colleague because that is the person I choose to be”. Ensure your visualisation relates only on the part of the process you have the power to impact. Remember: You don’t have the power to change how other people respond to you.
- Visualise the outcome you want: Close your eyes and create a vivid mental image of yourself successfully achieving your goal. Imagine the scene in as much detail as possible. Where are you? What are you wearing? How does the calmness and centredness you are experiencing feel in your body? Really bring your visualisation to life by engaging all your senses. What can you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in this successful scenario? The more sensory details you include, the more real and compelling your visualization will become.
- Strengthen your self belief using memory: Recall and incorporate a memory of a time when you have successfully achieved a similar goal in the past. Infuse your visualisation with certainty that comes from the knowledge that you have already done this before. Practice being your own cheerleader, saying: “You can do this. I know you can.” This wires the positive experience of the past with the belief of success in the future.
- Plan for challenges that may arise: Visualise yourself overcoming challenges that may make achievement of your goal difficult. This is more an affirmation along the lines of “No matter what happens I know I can handle it” to help you feel prepared and confident in your ability to positively handle setbacks than a deep dive in the nitty gritty of things that might stop you. Don’t spend too long here, otherwise you may fall in the trap of mentally rehearsing a negative outcome!
- Visualise the process: Don’t just focus on the end result. Visualise the steps you need to take to achieve your vision. How will you begin amplifying your feelings of calm and centredness? Picture yourself engaging in the necessary actions to achieve this result.
- Repeat often: Repetition strengthens your neural pathways, so make visualization a regular practice.
- Take action in alignment with your vision: Visualising is all well and good but goals are achieved through action. Use the positive headspace you create with visualisation to move beyond the realm of your fears and into courageous action. Learn how to be more courageous.