This the second of two articles explaining how some visualisation processes can seem negative and why they are still beneficial in the journey towards change.
Immediate Negative Visualisation is a trick of mine to help people concentrate on the reasons they want to make change. It fills their mind with the unpleasant and negative aspects of continuing with a poor life habit. This creates the powerful “away from pain” feelings that can support them to progress with their goal.
I use this with clients when they've slipped up to help them catch themselves in the future. I ask my clients to describe events where they messed up, overate, missed the gym, drank more than they wanted or otherwise disappointed themselves. Using small prompts, I encourage them to describe the run up to the poor choice, the exact moment of disaster and the after effects of the mistake. I help them enrich the feelings they experienced at that time. Sickness or indigestion from overeating, guilt, stiffness or pain from avoiding rehabilitation exercises, tiredness from bingeing or disappointment that good meals were left unappreciated after earlier snacking had ruined appetite. I encourage them to recall these feelings and accept that this will probably happen again before long term maintenance of the new habit is achieved. We then discuss how allowing ourselves to relive every negative emotion might help catch us before we make the same mistake again.
When we understand that failure is only showing us another way that doesn't work, we can be confident that we'll eventually find the successful path. This makes failure nothing more than new information to help guide our journey. I find this tool so powerful I want to give you a few examples.
Why does our smoker want to stop so much? Imagine he’s puffing away on his cigarette during a short break at work. It’s dark, dreary, grey, raining and cold, he’s outside and lonely. There’s a smell of stale smoke hanging in the damp air, a trickle of water running down his collar. The cigarette burns his lips and then his fingers as he tries to finish it quickly to get back indoors. The first relieving puff has long since turned acrid and is making his mouth feel dry. He’s looking back inward to the dry, warm, bright office where colleagues are gathered around a desk, laughing at a joke he’ll be too late to join. They’re relaxed in shirt sleeves and open neck tops while his damp scarf irritates his chin.
Our smoker doesn’t even have to look at the health benefits of stopping smoking to understand that it’s not a fun activity. Picturing all the ways that the poor habits immediately affect you can be powerful instigators of change.
Imagine the dieter who falls off the eating plan. There’s a big bag of sweets in the office kitchen and she helps herself whenever she passes. Soon the bag is half gone and she is already starting to feel sick. She realises that if someone else sees how many she’s eaten they’ll be shocked and even though she’s feeling nauseous she crams more in to finish the packet. She hides the empty bag and tries to concentrate on work. She’s feeling ill, guilty, thirsty and shaky from the sweets, she can’t get rid of the oversweet flavour and she knows that someone will eventually realise all the sweets have gone. By teatime she is tired and has no appetite so foregoes the healthy dinner she had planned, knowing she’ll end up snacking later on that night and feeling even worse.
Focusing on the immediate and negative consequences of poor choices can be a strong encourager for change. Picturing the unpleasant aspects of the unhealthy activity before you choose to take part can often be enough to put you off.
This is effective because it allows people to experience stronger emotions about a poor health habit and to realise that the new, healthy habit is preferable to the previous habit. It also allows people to pay attention to ways in which their current lifestyle supports the healthier habit.
Eventually, immediate negative visualisation allows people to associate the poor choice more quickly with the negative feelings, preferably in time to avoid it.