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The Power of Negative Visualization: Minimize Fear and Anticipatory Anxiety

The Power of Negative Visualization: Minimize Fear and Anticipatory Anxiety

In the back of my mouth are two lonely wisdom teeth patiently awaiting their long overdue eviction notice. They need to be pulled. Two of my four wisdom teeth were extracted three years ago and a week later I was supposed to make an appointment for the remaining pair to be pulled. Instead, because my first experience in the torture chamber, ahem, back room of the dental office, I avoided it. For the last three years, I’ve successfully dodged a myriad of follow-up phone calls from the dentist and well-meaning reminders from my wife.

I won’t go into the details but the procedure didn’t go smoothly. It was painful and a little terrifying.

I am now one of the 10-15% of people that are scared enough of the dentist that they avoid ever going. (Different from the 75% of people that experience anxiety but still go). But I know I’ll eventually have to overcome the fear and make the appointment.

This got me thinking about fear, anxiety, and emotional suffering caused by the anticipation of future events and how we can overcome it. The Stoic Philosophers practiced something called Negative Visualization. This is the practice of imagining undesired events, such as the death of a loved one, so that when the event inevitably occurs you are emotionally prepared to deal with it. It’s dark stuff to think about, there’s no denying that, but it could be helpful, especially to someone with a terminally ill loved one whose death in the near-future is expected.

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In addition to helping someone deal with a future event such as death, it also helps them better appreciate the time spent with loved ones. In William Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy he describes this idea by comparing two fathers – one who uses negative visualization and one who does not:

“To see how imagining the death of a child can make us appreciate her, consider two fathers. The first takes [this] advice to heart and periodically reflects on his child’s mortality. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. He instead assumes that his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second. When he sees his daughter first thing in the morning, he will be glad that she is still a part of his life, and during the day he will take full advantage of opportunities to interact with her. The second father, in contrast, will be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his child in the morning. Indeed, he might not even look up from the newspaper to acknowledge her presence in the room.”

In this way, negative visualization is a powerful tool for helping someone appreciate anything they value in their life. Simply imagine losing something important to you or being forced to live without it. A greater appreciation will naturally follow.

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Negative visualization is also used in business. There it is known as a pre-mortem and is enacted as a strategy at the beginning of a new project to dissect imagined scenarios where that project has failed to determine what could potentially lead to that failure.

Adjusting the Strategy: Using Negative Visualization to Overcome Fear and Anticipatory Anxiety

With a little tweaking one could also apply the idea of negative visualization to overcome the fear of an upcoming event, such as my inevitable tooth extractions. Overcoming fear and anxiety is different than overcoming grief and sadness, thus it requires a slightly different approach. Instead of simply visualizing the event that one fears, they would visualize something much worse.

If I imagine something far worse than getting my teeth pulled, such as James Franco cutting his own arm off with a pocket knife, like he does in the movie 127 Hours, then my procedure, complete with numbing medication and proper dental tools, doesn’t seem so bad.

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This helps turn my focus away from the fear of a negative outcome and onto hope for a positive one. It helps me focus on the obvious benefits of my situation over James Franco’s character’s situation in the movie.

At the dentist, I will be either sedated or numbed so there should be no pain. The dentist will be using the proper tools to remove my teeth so It won’t be a miserable marathon of agonizing pain like it would be when cutting your own arm off with a pocket knife. (I’m going to squeeze that visual into this article as often as I can!).

This technique of downplaying an event by imagining something far worse is used in other situations with different objectives. For example, my dad would often “sugar-coat” things rather than tell me the bad news upfront.

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As a teenager, before I had a driver’s license, I would have to call him to come pick me up from work. Even when he knew he wouldn’t be able to leave the house for 30-45 minutes, he would tell me he’d be there in 10-15 minutes. While this particular scenario still ended in me being frustrated when he didn’t show when I expected him (and I don’t agree with its usage), he still eliminated the frustration it would have caused me to hear upfront that I would have to wait for him.

Salespeople use this technique too – they call it softening the blow – when they have to tell a client the cost of their service.  If the actual cost of said service is $500, they might joke with a customer and say it’s going to be $1500.  When the client’s jaw drops, the salesperson says, “Ha ha, just kidding, it’s only $500.” The visualization of a far-worse scenario softens the blow of the real thing. Cha-ching – sale made.

The Stoics may have been the first to put negative visualization into regular practice, but similar methods have been applied by everyone from psychologists to my dad. It’s widely used and seldom recognized but it’s effective and it can help to both avoid suffering and amplify enjoyment and gratitude. Simply put, it’s a tool to help us manage our emotions.

Consider visualizing James Franco cutting his arm off with a pocket knife. Then go make a dentist appointment.

Featured photo credit: Frank MckEnna via unsplash.com

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Chris Egan

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Published on January 29, 2020

Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset: 9 Distinct Differences

Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset: 9 Distinct Differences

Whether you are leaping into learning through college, university, or on your own time, there is one thing that is key. That is your mindset.

While these experiences in life will challenge you, it is your mindset that will determine whether you will succeed or fail. But also how much you grow.

In the end, our learning capabilities boil down to two mindsets that we must choose. Either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. This growth mindset vs fixed mindset relationship is everything and is your key to success.

What we might not be aware of is the fact that we’ve already selected that mindset years ago. So to help out, I’ve put together differences between these two mindsets so that you can identify the problems and begin to grow yourself.

What Is a Fixed Mindset?

Coined by Carol Dweck, a fixed mindset, as she explains, is a mindset where everything is fixed.[1] Whether it is your intelligence or your abilities, everything is the same.

If you’re not good at something, someone who has a fixed mindset will think you’ve never been good at it and will never be good at it. There is no opportunity for you to learn and grow at all.

What Is a Growth Mindset?

Compare this to a growth mindset and it’s the polar opposite. Even when someone isn’t good at something, a growth mindset ensures that the person thinks they’ll get better over time.

While you can already see some differences on the surface between a growth mindset vs fixed mindset, there are more aspects to these than that.

9 Differences Between a Growth Mindset and a Fixed Mindset

Digging deeper, you’ll find these mindsets to be different in all manner of things. This is a persons way of thinking and viewing the world. When we change how we view things, our entire lives change. Consider these differences.

1. Differences in Challenges

The first aspect is how they approach challenges.

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People who have a fixed mindset will do everything they can to avoid challenges in their life. If there is an easier solution that their talents can overcome, they’ll take it.

Some examples of this are things like not studying for a test because they’re not good at the subject. That or only doing specific tasks at work that they know they can do with little issues.

On the other hand, those with a growth mindset embrace challenges in their lives. Yes, some of the work or effort may come out short, but they understand failure is part of learning.

What matters to them is that they have tried their best in those moments. After that, they learn and grow from the experience.

2. Differences in Handling Feedback

Second is how each one handles feedback and criticism.

For those with a fixed mindset, they will react in a negative way. Some will hate you and harbor disdain while others will ignore or avoid it as much as possible.

For those with a growth mindset, they view these talks as opportunities to grow. While it’s about their work and efforts, they don’t see it as an attack on their abilities. Provided that the criticism is valid, these individuals will take it to heart and incorporate it into their lives.

3. Difference in Intelligence

In particular, the belief of intelligence.

As I mentioned above, a fixed mindset is fixed. So when it comes to intelligence in a topic or skill, you either have it or not.

On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset believes that intelligence isn’t an inherent skill and can be developed. They believe that if they put in enough effort, things will move along.

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4. Differences in Tolerance

What I mean by tolerance is how long people can tolerate something before giving up or stopping.

For those with a fixed mindset, these are people who give up too easily. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise as I mentioned already they like to avoid problems and challenges. Any sort of roadblock will destroy someone if they think this way.

Those with a growth mindset though, are persistent and try harder. They’re not ones to shy away from challenges. And even if they fail, they try again later.

5. Differences in Viewed Success

It’s also worth looking at how the growth mindset vs fixed mindset view success.

For a fixed mindset individual, they are often jealous of those who succeed in anything. Deep down though, these individuals experience self-doubt which turns in jealousy but also insecurity.

Compared to a growth mindset individual, they get inspired by seeing others succeed. In many cases, they even help others around them succeed. That’s because they believe in themselves and feel they can help others too.

6. Differences in Failure

To no surprise by this point, those with a fixed mindset will shield themselves from failure. If they ever experience it, it’s often a negative experience. In fact, many people get stuck on one failure for their entire life.

It’s as if one failure has barred them from ever putting in effort into that area again.

But those with a growth mindset don’t have the word “failure” in their vocabulary. They see these as setbacks or opportunities to learn. They’re more eager to learn from their failures and are willing to grow as a person.

7. Differences In Learning

Their attitude about learning also is a key difference too.

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For those with a fixed mindset, they stop learning after post-secondary. They think that the learning ends after that point and you have to use that knowledge for the rest of your life.

Those with a growth mindset though know the truth though. They know industries, people, and the world changes around them. We live in an information age where more information is being put out every day. They recognize that learning doesn’t stop after college or university. It’s only starting.

8. Differences In Confirmation

One aspect that Dweck touches on in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is the desire for confirmation between the mindsets.

She writes:

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .

For those with a fixed mindset, this is a constant element for them. They need to prove to themselves and to others that they are valuable. It’s akin to our kids posting on social media for validation. Their attitude about themselves is judged by how many likes or comments they get.

It all boils down to numbers.

For those with a growth mindset, this aspect doesn’t exist. Sure there is some confirmation, but it stems from inside rather than from outside sources.

As Dweck explains in her book:

Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

9. Differences in Effort

While this is an obvious one on the surface, there is more to it than that. After all, a mindset is developed through events and how we interpret those events in our lives.

For the fixed mindset, while they will do anything to avoid any negative events, that desire stems from deeper beliefs. Yes, they think everything is a fixed level, but that belief stemmed from how they were raised.

In the end, those with a fixed mindset believe that effort stems from their own abilities they had already.

Compare that to a growth mindset, their belief system is that effort stems from their current effort in developing something. They believe that effort stems from the action of doing something and learning from those experiences.

Final Thoughts

Being able to recognize the differences between growth mindset vs fixed mindset is key because it shapes our reality.

Even if you have a few of these aspects in the fixed mindset category, they can cause some problems.

People have given up doing something all because they experienced one failure or major setback in life.

If you think you need the approval of your talents, it suggests a lack of confidence in your skills. This can translate to how much you want to challenge yourself and develop yourself in that area.

A mindset shapes our view of the world and the people that are in it. When we change our mindset to that of growth, we clearly see the world in a different light. By developing yourself in this area and adopting this mindset, you too can change your life and grow more than ever.

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Featured photo credit: Adolfo Félix via unsplash.com

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