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If you want that promotion, to drop 20 pounds, or simply to sleep better at night, you might just be a few positive thoughts from achieving your goal. No, really. While it might sound like some fortune cookie hocus pocus, the practice of visualization — using your imagination to vividly picture yourself achieving a goal or succeeding — is a powerful tool in getting what you want out of life.
Countless athletes, like Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and Carli Lloyd have opened up about how pre-game visualization has helped them dominate on the court or field. Oprah has said repeatedly that “visualization works.” And more and more therapists and clinical psychologists, like Cathryne Maciolek, PsyD, are using it in their practices with patients.
“Visualization is a mental rehearsal of what you hope to have happen either on a physical, emotional, psychological, or even social level,” said Maciolek, who is also the founder of the Mandala Center in Baltimore. “What I teach people is it’s a form of meditation where you are taking hope or ambition and putting it into a mental picture in mind.”
Tapping into the laws of attraction and energy, visualization helps you focus on the positive so that you exude it, boomeranging positive effects back to you.
If you want to complete that marathon or want to have the best vacation of your life, visualization can help you. The real-world applications are basically endless, Maciolek said. In her practice, she has used this tool to help patients overcome anxiety and depression or hit their fitness and weight loss targets. In one particularly rewarding case, Maciolek used visualization (along with diet and exercise) to help a patient lose more than 200 pounds.
In other cases, she has used the tool of visualization to help men overcome sexual intimacy issues with their spouses.
“When a man is having problems sexually performing, we used visualization to help them feel a bit more confident,” she said.
Tempted to use your imagination for your own benefit? It’s easy to try on your own.
To get started, Maciolek said to try it first thing in the morning and/or before bed, for five to 10 minutes, checking in with yourself and feeling grounded. Close your eyes, breathe diaphragmatically, and then picture exactly what you want to happen in as much detail as you can.
“It’s almost like you are a movie director and you want to bring in as many senses as possible to make it a reality,” she said. “Picture it in your head- what you would see, hear, touch, taste, and feel.“
If it were someone who was nervous before a big meeting, he would visualize himself walking through the whole presentation successfully, with everything he hopes to achieve, what it would look like, and what it would feel like.
If getting back in shape is your goal, imagine yourself and your life after you’ve hit your ideal numbers.
“Picture what life would look like with those healthier lifestyle choices,” she said. “You can look at your end goal or take it step by step.”
If you want to lose 40 pounds, for example, you can imagine yourself after you reached that target number, or just take it 10 pounds at a time. If you want to run a marathon, you can picture yourself after the race, or take your visualizations mile by mile, gradually building up to that final marathon visualization.
Like anything else in life, practice makes perfect and Maciolek suggests that you take time to visualize every day. It can be difficult to get started especially if you have had a history of negative thinking and self-sabotage. Just like that little voice in your head can set you up for awesomeness, it can also doom you. Within visualization, those negatively self-fulfilling prophecies are very real. If you put out negative intentions or look for a negative outcome, “absolutely the same thing could happen,” she said.
“The more you mentally rehearse the more likely it is to happen,” she said, using the metaphor of a jogger running down the same path every day and gradually wearing it down. Someone who chronically thinks negatively will, in essence, hardwire the brain to automatically use that type of thinking, just like muscle memory.
“You have to unlearn that process through visualization,” she said.
And while visualization can help you get what you want, you still have to be realistic. You cannot achieve something that it unachievable for you.
“You really have to have the skill or ability,” Maciolek said. “I could say I really want to become president of the United States, but that’s most likely not going to happen.”
Visualization also cannot be used to control others. In Shakti Gawain’s nearly 40-year bestselling book Creative Visualization, she writes that its use is to remove our own personal barriers, not to make other people do or not do something.
Maciolek said she practiced visualization as a college athlete, before even knowing what she was doing.
“I tried to imagine what it would be like for me to score a goal or whatever it was I wanted to achieve,” she said. “When I practiced it in my head, I performed better that way.”
She started actively visualizing during a grad school class, after which she and her classmates were able to go from 10 minutes of visualization to 45 minutes. Practice is key!
Tips for successful visualization:
- Have a clear goal in mind. “Is your goal to get through a presentation? “Play basketball better” Define what the goal is,” Maciolek said.
- Get musical. For people who have trouble meditating and concentrating in the quiet, she suggests using calming and peaceful music to help them ease into the mindset.
- Visualize every day. Practice makes perfect, so spend time on visualization every day.
- Use all five senses so you can get the most realistic picture in your mind. If it’s a presentation you want to nail, think about what it looks like. How many people are there? What does the room smell like? What’s the temperature? The lighting?
- Don’t ignore the negative. If you find your mind wandering to discouraging thoughts, acknowledge them and return to your positive thinking. Gawain writes that trying to repress bad thoughts only gives them more power.
- Say it out loud. “This is going to be the best night ever,” spoken aloud really does have power, as long as you believe it.
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By Maggie Callahan, ForMen.com