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Visualization - Positive and Negative Motivation

One of the most powerful features of humans that distinguish us from our fellow animal relatives is our ability to imagine possibilities that are not (yet) reality. We can dream of ways the world or our lives might be and then draw inspiration and motivation from those dreams to make them real. In our coaching practice, the act of using your imagination to generate drive and motivation is sometimes called visualization. That is because, it is usually the power of visual images in our minds, that creates these benefits.

Visualization is a tool that has a vast range of applications but there are some important distinctions to be made, in order to use it optimally. Talk of visualization is usually equated with what I would more specifically call “positive visualization”, which is the practice of imagining something positive (say a reward) that lies at the end of some challenge or project we have set for ourselves. The idea behind positive visualization is that it creates a sense of possibility and excitement by opening imaginary doors to what our future might look like. Visualizing a future where we are successful (in whatever it is we want to achieve) is a bit like creating a mental simulation of that future, and that simulation comes with a semblance of what it would feel like to be in that situation. From that positive feeling, we can then gain motivation and excitement that we can channel into the actual pursuit and achievement of that goal.

The power of imagination thus lies in bringing our goals closer to us and making them somewhat tangible. On a smaller scale, we might use it to imagine success in a particular project, like crossing the finishing line in a marathon as the first runner. Or maybe we imagine ourselves winning over a client in a business negotiation. We call this positive visualization because it is aimed at the positive feelings that await us at the end of whatever challenge we have to overcome. Equipped with this feeling we can then motivate all the resistances that lie on the way toward our goal.

This is to be distinguished from negative visualization, which is the practice of imagining the negative consequences of not doing the work that is required to achieve our goal. In other words, it is the practice of imagining ourselves failing at whatever task we may have set for ourselves. Here the aim is to reap the negative feelings that come with such imaginings. And the worse these feelings are, the more likely we are to try to avoid them in real life. So, while positive visualization is aimed at creating an attracting force toward that which we want to achieve, negative visualization is aimed at creating a repelling force away from that which we want to avoid (namely failure).

In times like ours where positivity is preached like some holy grail, you might be surprised to hear advice about negative motivation from us. But unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and not all is well in the land of positivity. While there are situations where positive visualization can indeed boost our motivation, there are also situations where it can in fact make it harder for us to achieve our goals. And the reason is that visualization can create a feeling of satisfaction, which is exactly the opposite of what we want when it comes to motivation.

Satisfaction is in fact the antidote to motivation. We are motivated to go out hunting and look for food as long as we are hungry. But that motivation ceases as soon as we are satiated. And that is universally true for what is sometimes referred to as the seeking system in the brain. That is, those areas that are responsible for the arousal and drive necessary to invest work into getting things, we do not yet have. Usually, that drive persists for as long as we are in a state of seeking but it ceases as soon as we have captured the object of our desires. Now, when it comes to visualization it can happen that the satisfaction, we get from imagining ourselves on the winning pedestal is so great that we feel satiated simply from seeing that mental image and so we lose the motivation to actually go out and do the work. And that is a problem, because in that case the practice of visualization – particularly, positive visualization – can weaken our ability to achieve our goals.

So, what do we take away from this? Should we use it or not? Will it help or make things worse? Well, the good thing is that we have some good scientific insights into when it works and when it doesn’t. And that research indicates that positive visualization works to increase our motivation and hype us up if we are already somewhat motivated for the tasks at hand. So, let’s say I’ve set myself a fitness goal that involves going to the gym three times a week and I wake up in the morning slightly less motivated than usual but still somewhat motivated. In that case, I can use visualization – maybe of me winning the weightlifting competition I’m currently training for – to boost my motivation to a level, where I am actually looking forward to going to the gym. So, positive visualization helps to give us that extra boost and get us hyped up.

But it doesn’t work, on those days, when we have negative motivation. So, for instance, if I wake up in the morning, feeling like I would rather stay in bed than cycle to the gym, that’s where positive visualization will probably not work to get me motivated. Because then the comfort of imagining myself winning that competition will likely just add to that exact feeling of comfort, which keeps me from getting up in the first place.

But what good is a tool for motivation that doesn’t work, unless we are already motivated, you might ask – and rightfully so. The answer is that positive visualization is good for one half of the equation, which is increasing motivation to a level, where we are full of energy to do the work. But for the other half, we need another tool. But luckily there is another form of visualization that covers the other half of the problem and that is negative visualization. And again, that may sound like anathema in our times. But the truth is, of course, that negative thoughts and images are just as, if not more powerful in their motivational force as positive ones. It’s just that their force goes in the opposite direction. Where positive images create a motivational pull, negative ones create a push. They push us away from the things associated with negative emotions. But that repelling force is in fact often much stronger than the attracting force of the positive thought.

There is a famous proverb that highlights this very clearly. It goes something like this:

One drop of gasoline can easily ruin the taste of a gallon of honey. But one drop of honey will do nothing to improve the taste of a bucket of gasoline.

We are usually much more likely to avoid things that are associated with something that we perceive as negative than to pursue things that we associate with something positive. The negative weighs more strongly on the motivational scale than the positive. We are much more likely, for instance, to run away from a lion to avoid getting eaten than to relentlessly pursue a plan that ensures we’ll live the best life we possibly can. And we are much more likely to sacrifice something pleasant to avoid something unpleasant than the other way around. If I was offered a delicious meal that I could earn by first eating something really disgusting, I would very likely forgo the pleasure of the delicious meal in order to avoid having to eat the disgusting one.

All of these things show that we have a tendency to prioritize the avoidance of negative outcomes over the achievement of positive ones. And that fact is a huge obstacle to our personal success more often than not. It is what makes it so hard for many people to delay gratification. To take the example of going to the gym, if you’re not motivated in the morning, the notion of having to go to the gym will feel like something unpleasant you would rather avoid, whereas the notion of staying in bed will feel like something pleasant you would like to prolong. If you are in that mindset, you are about to sacrifice your long-term goals of getting fit, for the sake of the short-term pleasure of staying in bed. And even visualization of success is unlikely to tip that balance in the right direction.

The good thing is, however, that there is a way you can flip the interpretation of the situation around and turn the idea of staying in bed, instead of going to the gym, into something really really bad. That’s where negative visualization comes into play. Because we can use the power of negativity to give ourselves a kick in the butt, by imagining all the bad things that would result from not going to the gym. And that has been shown to be much more effective in such situations than focusing on the positives. So, what I want to do, when I wake up in the morning feeling unmotivated to go to the gym, is to imagine the frustration of failing at the goal I had set for myself; imagining what it must feel like to lose my weightlifting competition and to have disappointed all the people that put their faith into me. The more effort we put into decorating our imagination with this sort of terrible furniture, the easier it will be to get out of bed.

Now, the really important thing to take away from this is that each of these two tools is fit for a specific type of situation. You don’t want to use positive visualization unless you are already motivated, otherwise, the satisfaction of the mental image will kill your incentive to go and do the work. And you also don’t want to use negative visualization if you are already motivated, because then you shift yourself away from a positive state that is already creating energy and motivation. If you are feeling great about doing something hard, you don’t need to visualize all the bad things that would come from not doing it. In such a case it makes much more sense to heighten that already present feeling of enthusiasm than to shift your attention to the negatives.

Here is a list of potential benefits and downsides to both positive and negative visualization.

Positive Visualization:

  • Pros: Positive visualization, where you imagine yourself succeeding and achieving your goals, can be a powerful motivational tool. It creates a sense of possibility and excitement, boosting your confidence and self-efficacy. This can increase your drive to work towards your objectives.

  • Cons: However, there is a potential downside. When positive visualization is done excessively or without a corresponding commitment to action, it can create a false sense of accomplishment. This can lead to complacency, where you feel as if you've already achieved your goals in your mind, reducing the motivation to put in the necessary effort in the real world.

Negative Visualization:

  • Pros: Negative visualization, or imagining the potential negative consequences of not taking action, can be a strong motivator. It can create a sense of urgency and remind you of the importance of your goals. By contemplating what might go wrong, you may be more inclined to take action to prevent those outcomes.

  • Cons: Constantly focusing on negative consequences can lead to anxiety and stress, which might be counterproductive if not managed properly. It's also important to balance this with a positive outlook to maintain overall well-being.

Context Matters: The effectiveness of either form of visualization depends on the individual and the context. Here are some considerations:

  1. Motivation Level: On days when motivation is already low, positive visualization might not be as effective because it can provide instant gratification without the need for effort. Negative visualization, on the other hand, can serve as a wake-up call.

  2. Goal Clarity: If you have a clear and specific goal, positive visualization can be highly effective in keeping you on track. However, if your goals are vague or not well-defined, negative visualization can help clarify their importance.

  3. Balanced Approach: Often, a balanced approach works best. Start with positive visualization to build confidence and excitement, then switch to negative visualization periodically to remind yourself of the consequences of inaction. This combination can maintain motivation and prevent complacency.

  4. Action-Oriented: Ultimately, motivation must be paired with action. Visualization alone is not a substitute for effort and commitment. Use it as a tool to enhance your motivation, but be sure to follow through with concrete steps towards your goals.

In summary, both positive and negative visualization play roles in motivation, but their effectiveness varies depending on the situation. A balanced approach that combines the strengths of both can help you maintain motivation, clarify your goals, and stay on track in your pursuits.

In case you are still somewhat on the verge about whether this is the right tool for you, here is a still of possible areas of application. I’m sure your goals will fall under at least one of these categories.

  1. Sports and Athletics: Visualization is widely used by athletes to enhance performance. Athletes visualize themselves successfully executing their techniques, envisioning the desired outcomes, and mentally rehearsing their movements. It can improve focus, and confidence, and help athletes develop a competitive edge.

  2. Performing Arts: Visualization techniques are utilized by musicians, dancers, actors, and other performing artists. They mentally rehearse their performances, imagine themselves flawlessly executing their routines, and visualize the desired emotional states. This practice can enhance their creativity, stage presence, and overall performance quality.

  3. Business and Career Development: Visualization is applied in goal setting, strategic planning, and professional development. Individuals visualize their career objectives, envision themselves achieving success, and imagine the necessary steps to reach their goals. It helps in building motivation, increasing confidence, and maintaining focus.

  4. Health and Wellness: Visualization is used in various healthcare fields, including psychology, medicine, and alternative therapies. Patients can visualize their bodies healing, imagine positive outcomes, and create a sense of relaxation and well-being. It can complement treatments for stress reduction, pain management, anxiety, and certain medical conditions.

  5. Personal Development: Visualization techniques are employed in personal growth and self-improvement practices. Individuals visualize their desired future, set intentions, and create mental images of their aspirations. It can help in building self-confidence, improving self-esteem, and developing a positive mindset.

  6. Learning and Education: Visualization can be utilized as a learning aid, helping students remember and understand information better. Students can visualize complex concepts, mentally simulate experiments or procedures, and create visual representations of ideas. It enhances memory, comprehension, and overall learning efficiency.

  7. Creativity and Innovation: Visualization is a powerful tool for artists, designers, and innovators. It aids in generating and exploring ideas, envisioning new possibilities, and mentally constructing and refining creative works. It stimulates imagination, improves problem-solving skills, and encourages innovative thinking.

The goal of today’s article was to give an overview of the two main ways in which we can use visualization and to clear up the positivity fallacy as I like to call it. Both positivity and negativity have their place in generating motivation. And knowing that, makes us more likely to succeed in our pursuits. In the next article, we will talk some more about visualization. Then we will focus on the “manifestation”- aspect of it and how to get the actual practice going. Until then, have a nice week.

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