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Visualizing the Future You Want for Yourself

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Visualization is a mental exercise to prepare you for what you want to achieve. The Russian Olympic team divided into four, with each group spending more and more of their time on mental training rather than physical training. The results were staggering: during visualization, the athletes stimulated the same brain areas that were activated during physical training.

Physical and occupational therapists use visualization techniques to prepare injured individuals to perform a specific physical task. The injured person doesn’t visualize being healed (which is a great goal but too broad or long-term). Instead, the person visualizes a specific muscle movement to train the brain as well as the body.

When you visualize, you form a mental image of something that isn’t yet here. As a SMaRT strategy, visualization carries you in imagination to:

  • A safe and pleasant spot where you can reduce stress and anxiety
  • A present where you build your confidence 
  • A future where you achieve your goal
  • A past where you forgive old mistakes or conflicts and become motivated to try again.

Through the following visualization techniques, you become more confident, reduce stress and anxiety,  give your mind and body a chance to recover from or prepare for stressful situations, and to reach for solutions that may have seemed impossible. 

Beginning Visualization

Before you attempt more personalized visualization, practice the following:

  • Hold an object—a piece of fruit will do or a pen.
  • Memorize the shape, texture, smell, and taste of the object.
  • Think about the space that the object fills, the shape of air around it.
  • Put the object away.
  • Close your eyes.
  • See the object mentally. 
  • If necessary, open your eyes and examine the object for more details, then close your eyes.

Close your eyes again and try to turn the object around. Imagine you have control of it. Shine a light on it or set on a table. Now open your eyes and try to visualize the object with the same detail as you did with your eyes closed. Interact with it in imagination. Repeat this beginning visualization until you are comfortable with it. As always, with mindfulness, perfection is not your goal; your goal is to get in touch with the power of visualization. 

TIP: Practice makes visualization easier. Practice whenever you have a few quiet moments: before sleep, just after waking, during a break at work.

Visualize to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Imagine a place that gives you pleasure and where you feel relaxed and at ease—the seashore, a favorite chair, a garden, even a carnival if that relaxes you. Place yourself in the scene—see yourself in it. Use all your senses: hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. You are creating a mental movie, so picture yourself as part of the scene, not just looking at it. This place is now available to you whenever you need to mentally step away from a situation, person, or event for a few moments. Here, you can regroup.

Visualize People You Want in Your Life

Perhaps people you want in your life are distant by geography, choice, death, or other difficulties. Perhaps the people you want in your life are people you haven’t met yet.

  • Imagine the place where you would like these people to be—in your home or office, at an event, in a restaurant. 
  • As you did with your private space, visualize this space in detail, and place yourself in it.
  • Invite the missing person into the scene—remember, this is a person you want to be there. 
  • If this is someone you haven’t met yet, visualize the introduction. 
  • Share a handshake or hug. Try to feel the contact.
  • Visualize sharing a joke with that person. Try to hear the laughter. 

Visualize Achievement 

Several methods can be used to visualize yourself achieving a goal, for example, speaking well in front of a group, finishing a project on time and budget, or traveling safely. 

As before, you close your eyes and envision yourself in the midst of reaching your goal. Visualization allows you to take charge of your attention and emotions, closing out distractions and enabling you to mentally train for achievement. As a result, you will feel more confident about your actions in real life.

Among supportive techniques that might help you to visualize, you will benefit from:

  • Limiting your goal to something you can achieve within a day or week, or month. Instead of visualizing, “I will earn $1 million,” visualize asking your boss for a raise; instead of visualizing, “I will become a world-famous writer,” visualize “I will write 1000 words today.”
  • Writing down your goal so that you keep your visualizations focused on that single, limited goal. 
  • Developing an affirmation around that goal: “I will ask my boss for a raise clearly, confidently, and professionally, with facts to back me up.”
  • Finding a picture of someone accomplishing your goal and framing it.
  • Writing yourself a check or giving yourself an award. If the goal is monetary, write yourself a check for the amount you need and frame it. If the goal is an achievement, print a fake award and frame it.

TIP: Visualizations must be consistent and believable. This truth stands equally for physical, intellectual, emotional, and social goals.

Visualize to Reframe Stumbling Blocks

What if you cannot reach your goal in the way you visualized? What if your past failures or resentments keep intruding? Visualization helps in several ways:

  • Place yourself in a stressful situation or interacting with a person who stresses you and immerse yourself in the feeling. Now breathe deeply. Practice achieving the calm and control that you want to achieve in real life.
  • Visualize alternatives so that you can accept failure gracefully or plan for options. Perhaps you will visualize how you will end the meeting with your boss professionally, even if you do not get your raise. Perhaps you will visualize how you will search for a new job. (Be careful to spend the majority of your time visualizing the positive—the best case, not the alternatives.)
  • Visualize to reveal overlooked solutions or approaches to a problem or decision. Have you gathered enough facts? Is there someone you can call in for advice? 
  • Visualize yourself in a past uncomfortable, stressful, or anxiety-producing event and then visualize yourself turning the situation around and acting (or being acted upon) differently. Rather than re-writing history with this visualization, you are finding a way to support, rescue, or simply forgive your past self.

TIP: Visualization is a tool for change. 

Avoiding Visualization Mistakes

If you find that visualization is difficult or not achieving the results you anticipated, check to make sure that you are avoiding visualization mistake and instead are:

  • Positive. Focusing too much on negative consequences. Always bring your visualization back to the positive. 
  • Realistic. Setting yourself a goal to look like or marry a movie star or earn a billion dollars without any intermediate planning is fantasizing, not visualizing. You need manageable steps and goals.
  • Open-minded. You will encounter difficulties. One of the benefits of visualization is the ability to change your perspective or try out different paths to success. Just as you turned around the pen in your mind, you are turning around problems and solutions.
  • Compassionate. Visualization is not always enough. You need enough self-esteem and optimism to accept a setback and move on, whether the setback stems from your own “failures” or those of others. 

Key Takeaways

Visualization is the act of imagining yourself accomplishing a goal, handling a problem, or interacting with people in a confident manner without stress or anxiety. It involves more than imagining or wishing for an outcome. You must practice seeing yourself achieve what you want to achieve, and you must train your body and mind to react as you wish them to react. But once mastered, visualization is a powerful tool and SMaRT strategy.

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