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Visualization: Self-Help Gimmick or Powerful Goal-Setting Technique?

What I’ve learned about visualization and whether it is an effective tool for your life.

“Create the highest, grandest vision possible for your life, because you become what you believe.” – Oprah Winfrey

A few days after I posted about the benefits of visualization on my social media, I came across an article discrediting its effectiveness. The author claimed that it is nothing more than a self-help get-rich-quick scam.

My first inclination was to shake my head and move on. To read an article written by someone with a more tolerant and unbiased view of the world. But then I realized that dismissing their opinion would make me far from the open-minded and non-judgmental person I aspire to be.

I decided I would research the topic, just in case I was fooling myself and the people I carefully mentor. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, maybe I had been the one blindly believing in visualization. Impetuously trusting people I look up to, with no proof of whether their advice had any merit or even worked.

To be an effective personal coach, I have committed to being a lifelong student. This means that I spend a great deal of time listening to an array of personal and professional development talks online. I scour the internet for articles on an assortment of topics, and I take every possible course offered by my favorite thought-leaders in the industry. Everyone I admire promotes the powers of visualization, so I had to figure out why there was this bubbling negativity surrounding it. If this is so regularly touted as an immensely powerful manifestation technique, why were there schools of thought dismissing it as hokum?

What I determined was much of the pushback on visualization has been in response to certain self-help gurus whose methods involve telling people to imagine themselves in fancy cars, owning ultra-expensive homes, and reveling in receiving large paychecks. I can see why using this seemingly simple technique for these types of goals could be off-putting and seem too good to be true, but does that mean it doesn’t work?

The fact is, visualization is a process supported by substantial scientific evidence. It is a well-developed approach to performance improvement and is used by many successful people across a range of fields. Therefore, the issue is not whether the technique can be used to acquire material items and substantial wealth, but rather how you utilize it to achieve your goals.

There are two key types of visualization:

1.      Outcome Visualization

This method involves seeing yourself achieving your end objective by creating a detailed mental image of your desired result using all your senses. This technique invites the most debate.

2.      Process Visualization

This method consists of envisioning each of the actions needed to achieve the outcome you want. Focusing on completing each of the steps required to achieve your end goal, but not the overall goal itself. People seem to be in agreement on this approach because there is so much science behind it.

For example, many athletes use a version of Process visualization called ‘mental rehearsal.’ Sports psychologists emphasize working through the steps needed to reach the goal and not skip right to the end aspiration. Such as telling a basketball player to picture everything that is required to perfect their three-point shot successfully, not just winning the entire game. By doing this, athletes can create neural pathways in the brain that become conditioned to achieve what they have imagined.

Research shows that being able to work through the steps of doing something in your head can significantly increase your chances of doing it in real life. But I still wasn’t entirely convinced that we shouldn’t focus on the conclusion in its completed state. I needed to know the argument against this approach.

What I found is that there are two potential risks with using the Outcome visualization technique.

1.      It Can Dull the Drive

To your brain, picturing the result is as real as actually achieving your goal. This can be used to your benefit, but the downside is it could also reduce your motivation levels. If your brain already believes that success has been accomplished, it might impact your impetus to continue working towards your key desire.

Studies have successfully measured this physical drop in energy using systolic blood pressure. Instead of visualization stimulating our go-getting energy, we may inadvertently trigger a relaxation response, mimicking how we would feel if we had reached our goal. Basically, you calm down rather than inspire yourself into action.

2.      Overwhelm Not Overcome

It is also suggested that end-goal visualization can result in feelings of being crushed, engulfed, and discouraged. Particularly if the aspiration is large. Picturing the final outcome creates an all-or-nothing way of thinking, instead of breaking the route to success down into manageable chunks.

Certainly, either of these scenarios is possible. But the fact is, when we visualize our desires, we have to begin with seeing the possibility of achieving them.

After a deep dive down this rabbit hole, I’ve concluded that the key is to be aware of the potential downfalls of just using the Outcome method on its own, but I still believe conjuring up images of the end-goal should be an integral part of the process. To reap the biggest benefits of visualization, I recommend using both techniques if they feel helpful to you.

New York Times best-selling author and high-performance coach Brendan Burchard says enhancing your vision with images of you striving, struggling, and tussling before you achieve your goal, can add an element of realism to the method. Seeing the course of toil as well as all your positive experiences will help reduce the chances of becoming overwhelmed by any obstacles you may encounter. He also suggests that you take your visualization techniques a step further by picturing all the people you will meet, the opportunities that will come your way, and the money you will make once you have succeeded. I think that is an incredibly inspiring step to add to the process!

“Visualization is daydreaming with a purpose” – Bo Bennett

Whenever you genuinely want something in life, hard work and diligent effort are obviously essential to reaching the desired outcome. But it’s also proven that mental practice can enhance motivation, increase your confidence and self-efficiency, improve motor skill performance, and prime your brain for expanded states of flow—all relevant to achieving your best life. Adding positive mental imagery will help keep you inspired and guide you through difficult times and setbacks too. In my opinion, there is no reason why you should not let the scientifically proven effects of visualization on the brain assist you in making your dreams a reality. Set goals, take deliberate action steps to reach them, and use the incredible power of your mind as a valuable tool on your journey to success!

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