Originally published on August 23, 2021
Anxiety and Visualization: A Losing Combination
If you were to read a random assortment of self-help content, you’d inevitably come to the concept of visualization and what it can do for us. In short, this practice tells us that if we can see ourselves accomplishing our biggest goals or obtaining that which we desire, we can much more readily bring such things into our lives.
Though there are countless, discussion-worthy details surrounding such a subject — for instance, the idea that visualization helps reprogram our subconscious minds — I’ll save those details for another day and instead focus on why it’s a hazardous strategy when it comes to managing anxiety.
To explain what I mean by that, let’s look at a hypothetical example. Specifically, let’s say we’re worried about an upcoming performance review at work. We know this evaluation will determine whether we receive a raise next quarter, which, in turn, will dictate whether or not we can take the tropical vacation we’ve been eyeing for months now. In other words, a lot is riding on this review, and it’s causing us some serious distress.
Now, if we were to apply the basic concept of visualization to this scenario, we’d simply picture ourselves in our boss’ office as he or she excitedly informs us that we are indeed receiving the raise we covet. And if we’re able to do that — problem solved; we can now sit back and enjoy the time leading up to our big day.
But, my gut tells me that’s probably not what will happen, and that’s why I wrote this post. In reality, what’s much more likely to occur is that, while attempting our reassuring visualizations, our worries about failing to unlock a new compensation plan will infiltrate our mind’s eye and darken or distort its image. That is, instead of seamlessly picturing ourselves getting a hard-earned raise, either we’ll experience anxiety alongside that image, or our fears will prevent us from conjuring it up altogether.
The reason this annoying phenomenon occurs is simple: We’ve already grown to associate our performance review with so much apprehension that we can no longer untangle the outcome we desire from our fears surrounding it. And that’s a serious problem because it makes visualization all but impossible. Every time we move to think about what we want, our worries get in the way, prevent us from seeing it fully, and frustrate us to no end. To put it as plainly as I can, this is the exact reason anxiety and visualization don’t mix — it’s extremely difficult to think about a worry-filled situation without causing our fear to expand in some capacity.
Worse yet, once we’re frustrated, we tend to adopt a brute-force mindset. That means we keep trying to see ourselves accomplishing what we desire, regardless of how terrible such a strategy is currently making us feel. And, after we spend enough time in the land of frustration, we tend to beat ourselves up for our shortcomings, which, as you can likely imagine, only makes us feel worse.
If you want to know why we sometimes engage in such self-defeating behavior, here’s the explanation: Thanks to what we’ve learned about visualization in the past (from books, articles, mentors, and the like), we subconsciously believe that if we can’t first see ourselves obtaining what we desire, we’ll never get it. Moreover, since an anxious mind is often an obsessive one, it’s hard for us to forget about our visualization-based struggles and what we believe they indicate.
Yet, while that explanation is certainly interesting, it’s not necessarily going to solve all our problems here. In order to reverse our destructive, associated thought patterns, we first need permission to drop our visualization-based obsessions — then, we need to do just that.
When it comes to the first point, I give us that permission now. Let us forget about our well-intentioned yet fruitless conjurings. They’re not serving us, and, as it pertains to our hypothetical performance review, they’re not making it any more likely we receive the pay bump we’re eagerly awaiting. In fact, they’re only making the entire situation worse.
The second point is a bit trickier, however. What I mean by that is, even when we permit ourselves to drop our harmful ways of thinking, we don’t always do so. That’s because, behind our mental loops, is a stubborn rationality — one which tells us that, with just one more attempt or loop through, we’ll finally triumph over our frustrations and come out victorious. As we’ve seen here, however, that seems pretty unlikely.
To break through that rationality and escape the unwanted emotions it often generates, we must develop a set of trusted strategies we can call on whenever we realize we’ve fallen into the depths of our minds — for example, going for a walk, doing twenty jumping jacks, listening to a favorite song, or reciting a powerful mantra.
All of these things, and many more, I cover in my first book, aptly named “Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.” If you enjoyed this short post, grab yourself a copy and uncover some more of those strategies. Or, if you’ve already done so, check out a few of my previous posts (linked below) to find even more fear-evading tactics.
And though it would certainly be ideal if we could simply visualize what we want in worry-filled moments instead of skating around them, as I’m suggesting here, we must see things as they are and be honest with ourselves. We must listen to our feelings and let them show us the way. When we do so, we quickly remember that attempting to brute-force through anxiety-based visualizations isn’t a winning strategy when it comes to our mental health.
So, rather than subject ourselves to endless cycles of rumination and negative thinking, let’s step back and remember: We don’t need to envision what we want in order for it to manifest in our lives. In fact, all we need to do (and I realize it’s not easy) is stay out of our heads as best and often as we can, knowing the rest will play itself out naturally.
If we do that, we may very well obtain whatever it is we’ve been seeking after all. And, more importantly, regardless of the outcome, we’ll most certainly experience far less anguish along the way — I’ll take that any day of the week.
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**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2021