The Power of Imagery

Positive visualization is often more powerful than positive thinking.

Posted Jun 25, 2016

Bill and Bob were good friends for many years who met while starting out as entry-level employees at a large corporation. They both developed an interest in golf and would play together regularly. Over the years, Bob seemed to enjoy more frequent promotions than Bill and his golf handicap improved faster than Bill’s, too. When Bill asked Bob to what he attributed his success, Bob answered with one word, “visualization.”

Not everyone can picture scenes and events in their minds as clearly as photographs, but we all possess the ability to conjure up images with varying degrees of clarity. For example, if someone asks you how many windows are in your house, you will probably be able to form a picture of your house in your mind’s eye and count them.

Almost everyone has heard about the power of positive thinking, but the power of positive imaging is even greater.  In most cases, before you are capable of actually doing something, you first need to be able to picture yourself doing it.  In fact, it is known that Albert Einstein himself said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

The famous children's book "The Little Engine That Could" emphasized teaching children the value of optimism and hard work.  It's signature phrase "I think I can, I think I can" taught millions of children the importance of positive thinking and perseverance.  But just as it is said a picture is worth a 1000 words, sometimes a very clear, attainable and well rehearsed image can be worth dozens of optimistic statements and self-affirmations.

Hence, in addition to rational, language-based thinking (i.e., self-talk, cognition, or “left-brain” thinking), richly visualizing specific scenarios (often called “right-brain” thinking) can greatly facilitate successful outcomes.  Thus, “I see myself, I see myself...” or vividly imagining succeeding, or adaptively coping with certain adverse events, seems to aid in success even more than well practiced positive statements (like “I think I can, I think I can”).

Suppose you want to ask your boss for a raise. Can you visualize approaching him or her and asking for more money? Can you actually see yourself doing so? If your answer is “No,” if you say “I can’t imagine myself doing that,” it is pretty obvious that you’ll probably avoid the actual encounter and probably remain at your present salary.

Alternatively, if you can picture that scene, if you can see yourself calmly but assertively stating your case as to why you believe you deserve a higher wage, chances are that you will take action.

Many famous athletes choreograph their moves in imagery before going into action. For example, champion skiers imagine themselves negotiating almost every inch of a slope, champion tennis players picture themselves executing successful shots, and ballerinas and gymnasts will practice their moves as much in imagination as in actual rehearsal.

What this is getting at is very simple but extremely effective. That is, if you really wish to succeed at something, picture yourself doing it successfully over and over again.

Obviously, this refers to visualizing success that lies within your reach. You will not succeed in doing the impossible no matter how much imagery you practice.

One of the most powerful visualization methods is called coping imagery.

  • Picture yourself coping with difficult events. See yourself managing, perhaps struggling or battling, but nevertheless getting through it – attaining success.

Another powerful visualization exercise is called goal imagery.

  • First, vividly picture a goal and then imagine yourself taking the specific steps necessary to attain it.  For example, if you want to lose some weight, imagine yourself at your ideal weight.  Then picture yourself doing what is necessary to achieve that goal (e.g., exercising more, passing on desserts, eating more salads and fewer snacks, etc.).

These visualization exercises done repeatedly can enhance the likelihood of actual success in many situations. What I’m recommending, in effect, is structured daydreaming. Try it out and see what a difference it can make.

Remember:  Think well, Act Well, Feel well, Be well!

Copyright Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.


Lazarus, A.A. (1977).  In The Mind’s Eye: The Power of Imagery Therapy to Give You Control Over Your Life.  New York: Rawson.

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