Visualization is one of the most widespread tools of popular psychology. Despite being a very popular tool, the general public expresses a lot of scepticism over whether visualization can even have a positive effect on your life.
So does visualization work? The answer is yes and no, and it depends greatly on the approach of how you start using visualization in practice.
In this article you will learn:
- What is visualization and what is so special about it
- In which cases visualization works and when it doesn’t
- How you can improve your life with visualization
- A few additional ideas for how you can take advantage of visualization
- How I use visualization
The concept of visualization is pretty simple. You use the power of your imagination to create visions of what you want in life and how you will make them happen. You play a movie (or imagine pictures) in your head of what and how you want something to happen.
It can be a goal you want to achieve, a performance you want to execute, behavioral changes you want to make, or you can imagine a run-through of a success process you’re following (getting rich, in shape, etc.).
The main science behind visualization is that the brain has a hard job distinguishing between what really happens in your life and what you imagine. So when you imagine something, you psychologically create new neural connections in your brain, as they would if the thing you imagined really happened to you.
It’s like having a rehearsal and preparing yourself for performing before it really happens. Not surprisingly, visualization is quite popular in sports, where players imagine how they score and win a game. It’s part of mental preparation.
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Before we go on, let's look at a very clear picture of how visualization absolutely doesn’t work. This is how many abuse visualization, taking it as a shortcut that doesn’t really exist.
Something along the lines of: keep laying in front of the TV, imagine how pretty, rich and happy you are, and all of it will happen all by itself, as long as you visualize it strongly enough. It doesn’t work like that. There are no shortcuts in life.
If you don’t believe me, here’s an experiment you can do. Install some software on your computer that you don’t know how to use. AutoCad or something. Now spend a few days in a row visualizing how you can really master the software without opening it at all. Just visualize hard. After a few days, open your computer, run the software and see what happens.
Research has also shown that only visualizing without taking action can make you into a daydreamer. It relaxes you; you imagine that you already achieved what you wanted (remember, your brain actually thinks that), so you become demotivated. Yes, visualization can be counter-productive.
The false hope of a shortcut and visualization without action are two of the most common reasons why visualization is often the subject of ridicule. If nothing else, such an approach violates the basic spiritual and practical guideline that you reap only what you sow.
If a mental action isn’t supported with a certain physical action, it makes no sense. I haven’t yet met a single person who got fit by watching television with a hamburger in their hand (and visualizing being fit). Quite the contrary, to be fit, you have to invest a lot of energy, time, effort and have iron-clad will.
So, if you’re hoping visualization will change your life as long as you imagine things in your mind over and over again, the answer is, of course, that it doesn’t work. But visualization can be a strong tool if you use it the right way.
It’s a tool with which you can change your internal mental processes, but only if you reinforce everything with direct action. In that case, visualization can work. Let’s look at how and what.
Getting big visions and new ideas through imagination and visualization
The first necessary thing to mention is the power of your brain. Humans are the only living beings on Earth who can visualize things before they are materialized. You can imagine things that don't even yet exist in reality. It’s an incredible ability and a way to empower visualization.
Imagine how the future will look like and then make it happen. Create things you want to have in future.
This is why Albert Einstein claimed that imagination is more important than knowledge. Everyone has the ability to imagine what has not yet been created as well as the power to create it. It was one of Steve Jobs’ greatest epiphanies.
Everything that surrounds you and wasn’t created by Mother Nature was created by man. You have the power to do the same, to contribute, to create.
Before something was created, it was born as an idea or a thought in someone’s head. Someone imagined a solution in their heads and then made it come true.
And this is also the main mission of every person on this planet: to create (besides enjoying life and becoming the best version of yourself). Every idea is born twice, first in your head, with help of visualization, and then it materializes through work.
The first incredible power of visualization is that it helps you think of new ideas. The second, even more important, leverage of visualization is that you can see a vision before it’s reality. You can imagine how the future will look like. Then through actions, you also have the power to make it come true.
Only individuals with an incredibly strong vision changed the world. The vision has to be so strong that it’s above all the problems you encounter on your way. All problems must become irrelevant when you think of your big vision.
A good example is Henry Ford who had the vision that the car will be accessible to everyone. Before his vision, the car was only accessible to the richest individuals. And he had the vision that the entire planet will be full of cars. If you look around now, you can see that his vision came true.
Visualization like that has an additional advantage. You use your own imagination to wipe away the barriers of limiting convictions. If you know lucid dreaming or if you remember any of your wilder and more unusual dreams, you can immediately recall that in the dream world, physical borders don’t apply. When you visualize, you can dream a little bit – without limits.
I do defend the fact that on our planet, there are laws of physics and not everything is possible. But many barriers are only barriers in your mind. And imagination can help you overcome these barriers. By using visualization to come to a solution, you move things into a different context.
An example are brothers Wright, who lived only to fly in the skies. Because human beings don’t have wings, they of course can’t fly. But brothers Wright found a solution in a device, and became the first mortals to see the world through a bird’s eye view. This is how you can break down boundaries that humans set for themselves and that often limit you.
Changing your inner mental state
Neurolinguistic programming is a branch of psychotherapy that studies how your brain works. With scientific experiments, scientists found out that everyone has a subjective reality map, consisting of different records, whereby internal mental pictures prevail.
The subjective reality map dictates your response to every situation you encounter in life, but it also forms your convictions. Many times limiting and negative ones.
What does that mean? For example, two people have an entirely different reaction to meeting a dog. One person immediately runs towards the dog and starts petting it, while the other one carefully moves away.
Of course the person who moves away either had a bad experience in the past or their parents said that a dog will bite them. Consequently, when they meet a dog, they get a negative picture as a protective survival mechanism and they move away. In this, you have countless situations where your survival isn’t at risk at all, but negative mental patterns that limit your life and luck still exist.
This is why an incredibly useful power of visualization is the ability to identify negative mental patterns. Visualization can help you identify your inner beliefs and negative internal representations. Here’s an exercise you can do.
Go somewhere where you can be alone, connect with yourself, pay close attention to your reactions and then: vividly imagine that you go to an ATM to check your balance and you have 1,000,000€ on your account. Then imagine that you’re speaking in front of 10,000 people. Thirdly, imagine that you are perfectly fit, with well-developed muscles. Finally imagine that by your side is a partner who is truly physically attractive.
Now it’s time to be honest. Did any of the mentioned ideas make you feel a bit uncomfortable when you imagined them? Maybe only a little, somewhere deep inside you. If we take money, for example, and a potential inner dialogue:
I can’t possibly have that much money on my account, I’m always in the red. Or, this is really a lot of money, 10,000€ maybe, but not more. Maybe you only got a slightly uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach.
What is happening? Everyone has countless acquired negative patterns that prevent you from realizing all your potential (together with negative inner representation, often in shape of photos).
Somewhere deep down is hiding a sincere wish that’s covered with a lot of negativism that you obtain during primary and secondary socialization and through the media.
If you really want something (something positive, of course) and get a bad feeling thinking about it, that means that you have negative patterns that you need to get rid of.
As long as you have a negative picture of a certain thing and as long as 1,000,000€ on your account, for example, releases a wave of feelings such as: I don’t deserve that, rich people are corrupt, I come from a poor family etc., you will diligently avoid such a state with all your actions. So the possibility of that thing coming true in your life is zero or at least very close to zero.
Until you believe, deep down inside, that you can’t achieve something, you will not work in that direction. Even if you did achieve it, you’d feel uncomfortable and make sure that you’d lose it quite quickly (check lottery winners statistics for that). A positive belief usually also means positive internal representations on your subjective map of reality and a positive feeling associated with it.
This is how we come to the most important leverage of using visualization. By visualizing different feelings in a certain situation you want (by imagining a positive photo or a movie), you can change your internal state (your beliefs). It’s how visualization can help you do an identity shift – with a combination of visualization, action and enforcing new beliefs and behavioral patterns.
If you don’t only imagine that you have 1,000,000€ on your account but also that you deserve such an amount, that you feel great being rich and how you will come to this kind of money, your internal reality map will change. And you will make an identity shift. You’ll see yourself as a wealthy person. And you’ll feel good about it. Only once you accept something inside can that thing also materialize, never before. And as mentioned many times before, you have to take action besides dealing with your internal state.
The outside always mirrors the inside.
So visualization is an incredibly powerful tool. If visualization changes your internal reality map from negative imaginings to positive ones, your thoughts will also change, which will consequently change your actions and this will lead to a different result.
Thus, visualization supported by actions that stem from your will to do something for the quality of your life can have an incredibly positive effect on you reaching your goals.
This is why many different fields of life have successful stories from people who helped themselves with visualization. A successful sales meeting, an incredible performance in front of a public, a winning match, a new successful company, and so on. Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, many successful people used visualization as one of their success tools.
Here are a few best ways of practising visualization:
Visualization as a morning or evening habit
When you wake up or when you go to sleep (as part of your morning or evening habits) visualize a goal you want to achieve or how you perform in a certain situation or how you change your habits. Envision yourself physically in action, and use all of your senses.
When you do it, you also have to feel positive emotions. That is a must. See yourself achieving what you want and how good you feel about it. If you feel bad about it in the beginning (like “I can never achieve that”), practice more and with time, your feelings will change. You wouldn’t believe it.
Visualizing as many things in life as possible (to-do lists, schedules, workflows, prototypes, etc.) can dramatically increase your personal productivity. It’s part of the Kanban theory and practice. In the same way, you can also visualize your goals by having a vision board.
You simply hang a wooden board on a wall where you can see it as often as possible, and you put photos of things that represent success to you on that board. When you pass by the board you stop, and you visualize yourself achieving all the things you have on your board. One by one. With actions and positive emotions.
Maybe you can also use Pinterest for that if you have too many goals, but it probably won’t work as effectively.
Changing your internal representations
Imagine something that you fear, a person or a situation like public speaking. Now think of it and try to identify what kind of an internal picture you have as a representation of that fear. Your representational image is probably scary or dark.
Try to change that image. If you’re afraid of your boss, for example, your internal image may be one of how s/he yells at you. Now create a picture of your boss being happy and kind to you. Or how you stand up to your boss or aren’t scared. Or him or her on a toilet. Play with it. Exchange the dark picture with a new one. Mentally, like you would with photo-editing software.
Your boss won’t miraculously change, but changing your internal representation may help you manage your fear better and become more self-confident and proactive.
As a bonus, here are some creative ideas for using creative visualization as an experiment:
- Think of an unhealthy food you can’t avoid. Now imagine how its taste sucks, over and over again. Do it for a month and see what happens. And don’t eat it while you do it.
- Take one of your worst personality traits. Like anger issues or being late. Now imagine how you react calmly when somebody pisses you off. Think of a person who pisses you off the most and imagine reacting calmly.
- Imagine believing the opposite. Think of one of your strong political, religious, sexual or cultural one. Or a belief about yourself. Maybe even something that limits you a lot. Like believing you aren’t good with computers. Now imagine your life having an opposite belief or thinking the opposite about yourself. How does your life look like? What are you afraid of? Play with it.
- Face your fears. What are the top 3 irrational fears you have? Public speaking, talking to the opposite gender, asking for a raise. Imagine doing it over and over again in your head. See what happens.
Visualization and spirituality
When speaking of visualization, you can also stray into slightly more spiritual spheres. I agree that this is incredibly shaky ground. But my work is based on the thought that it’s necessary to try as many things as possible and then keep those that benefit and work for you, and get rid of those that don’t hold any value added. I also believe it’s my duty to mention these things.
My experience from a more spiritual perspective is kind of that you do not get a single wish without also getting the power to make it come true. When you want something strongly enough, situations also start unfolding in such a direction that things come true.
One part can, of course, be explained with the previously mentioned facts. When you want something strongly enough and you start working in that direction, your new actions lead to a new result.
But it often happened to me that even without any action, my environment changed so that I was able to realize my vision more easily. I’m not talking about any miracles, but about simple and practical things. The outside always mirrors the inside.
Let me give you a few examples. I thought of a new project and started meeting people who helped me. For example, when I decided to start writing this blog and was making the first steps in that direction, a lot of things started unfolding all on their own.
And it has happened to all of us that we thought about someone after a long time and then met that person or got a phone call from them.
After a lot of similar experiences, I don’t believe in coincidences anymore. I’m closer to believing that life, the universe, God or whoever you want, support you in your wishes. If you truly want something and if you also start working in that direction, things start happening.
It feels like visualization has the power to change your inner vibrations and to start radiating your new course to the universe. When you share your new vibrations with the World, the right people, ideas, knowledge, and situations can come into your life.
Sometimes support even comes in the shape of new challenges as a test, so that it becomes clear if you truly want something or not, and sometimes it means meeting the right people, coming to the right place at the right time. When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
The main takeaways
Here are the main takeaways:
- Visualization doesn't work if you want to employ it as a shortcut to success.
- Visualization isn't about fantasizing how you can achieve something without any effort and without overcoming obstacles. You have to be careful that you don't only daydream, but also take action.
- With visualization, you can get to know yourself better and unravel your inner beliefs (imagine something and observe how you feel).
- Visualization can help you make an identity shift to see yourself differently (imagine something for so long that you start to feel it as part of yourself).
- You can use visualization as a kind of rehearsal to boost your self-confidence by clearly imagining an outcome you want and how you will perform to achieve it.
- Visualization can help you adjust your inner state to a new vibrational level and attract the right people and opportunities in your life. And when you expect good, good things do happen to you.