Fear is not your enemy.
It’s an uncomfortable emotion, to be sure, but a useful one.
Our species has relied on fear for a very long time to survive.
But, it can be used for more than that.
Used deliberately and creatively, fear can be a tool to help you thrive.
In the context of goal-setting, we often speak of fear as an obstacle which must be overcome so we can be free to act. However, fear isn’t always an obstacle impeding our actions. At times, it is fear itself which compels us to act.
In fact, in some cases we even perform better when we are afraid.
Fear is a powerful motivator. Maybe the most powerful there is. So, if we’re to talk about motivation, we must consider the important role that fear can play in driving us forward.
But, before we dive into fear, let’s start with a more comfortable state of mind: the happy daydream.
A daydream is when we let our thoughts wander and we imagine ourselves in enjoyable scenarios. These often turn around future successes, things we’ll have, achievements we’ll enjoy etc.
Of course, you already know that. You probably daydream all the time.
I certainly do.
And that’s a good thing… mostly.
There’s one problem though. These illusions of future brilliance are exciting and motivating at first, but if you spend too much time daydreaming about your eventual success, it can start to actually dampen your motivation to act. Your mind may begin to take those imagined realities for granted.
Introduce a little fear into the equation by sometimes imagining negative outcomes as well.
“Why would I want to deliberately imagine negative outcomes?”
The idea of using negative imagery to drive yourself forward might seem counter-intuitive at first.
You’ve been told that if you want something you must imagine yourself achieving it. That if you focus enough on positive outcomes you can attract them into your life. That if you can see yourself succeeding, clearly enough in your mind, the rest will fall into place.
This is partially true, but wildly oversimplified.
Let’s be clear, imagining yourself succeeding is in fact a very useful exercise, but not because it automatically guarantees successful results. It’s effective because it allows you to create a clear idea of what success could look like for you, and get used to the idea of being successful.
Repeatedly seeing yourself achieving your dreams is a way for you to internalize the idea that your dreams are possible for you.
This is extremely important, because you can’t act with much conviction towards a goal that you don’t actually believe is possible to achieve.
However, imagining success is not sufficient on its own to produce results. Ultimately, action does this. Repeated action.
For that, you need sustained motivation, which is not always easy.
This is where continually imagining your success is not necessarily helpful. In fact, it may even be counterproductive.
It’s difficult to get off the couch and train when you already believe you’re going to win the big race.
On the other hand, it’s hard to relax on that couch when you’re scared of losing.
Comfort doesn’t motivate. Discomfort does.
This is where the usefulness of fear comes into play.
Enter the “good nightmare”.
Have you ever caught yourself daydreaming of the future, only instead of everything going right, things are falling apart. The worst scenarios come true, and there is nothing you can do about it. You see yourself failing miserably.
We often experience these types of waking nightmares when we’re at a low point. Stuck in a rut. Stressed out. Uncertain about the future. These imagined failings can be extremely stressful. Spending too much time in this negative headspace can lead to a total lapse of motivation. A sense of futility. A “what’s the use” attitude.
It can be very demoralizing.
Except… when you do it on purpose.
Used deliberately (and sparingly) as a tool, these same unpleasant thoughts can have the effect of sharpening your focus and revitalizing your energy to push forward and work harder.
I would know, I have day-nightmares all the time. I find it useful to sometimes take a deliberately pessimistic look at my future, just to shake the daydreams off so I can get to work.
But, how are these day-nightmares supposed to help, exactly?
The thing is this: hard work is… well…
Very often the things that you need to be doing to move closer to your goals are uncomfortable. Whether you should be going to the gym, or studying an extra hour, or writing an important report, or making a phone call you’ve been dreading, the thing you have to do to get closer to your goal is probably not comfortable.
This is why people procrastinate. Our brains are hungry for instant gratification, and are quick to pull us away from tasks that require energy and discomfort, towards those that are relatively easier and more comfortable. Especially if we convince ourselves that “a little break won’t hurt”.
This is where deliberately using negative visualization is most effective.
This is when it is OK to imagine yourself, in the future, ready to perform, ready to achieve that thing that you’ve desired for so long…
Only you don’t. Things aren’t working. You’re not prepared. You make a mistake, and then another, and it’s your fault. You should have put in the work. You knew you should have, but you thought it would be OK to put it off. Now you’ve lost your chance. And it hurts. It hurts a lot.
Then you wake up. It’s still not too late.
You have a Scrooge-like epiphany that you can avoid this horrible future if only you change your ways. So you do. Because the pain was so real, you never want to experience it.
When you imagine yourself failing at some future task, you are reminding yourself of what it would mean for you to lose. You are reminding yourself also that losing is a real possibility. You do not live in a fairy tale. You do not live in a Disney movie about your life and goals. Here, in the real world, you can actually fail at things.
And you just might…
Especially, if you don’t get off your ass and do that thing that you’ve been putting off.
You see my point?
You cannot work with real conviction towards achieving a goal which you do not believe to be possible. But, neither can you commit your full energy to a task if you do not believe you can lose.
Balancing positive and negative imagery for maximum effect.
Both positive and negative imagery can be very effective when used properly, but can also be counterproductive in excess. Balance is key.
Daydreaming about successful outcomes can be a great boost when you need a reminder of what you are working for. If you need that boost, by all means indulge. Just be careful not to spend so much time dreaming of the future that you don’t take the necessary action in the present. You don’t want to use daydreams as an escape from work, or lose your drive to act, as you start to take your imagined future for granted.
Whenever you complete a concrete action that brings you closer to your goal, allow yourself a moment to savour your future victory as a treat. Try to anchor the good feelings that your positive visualizations produce with the hard work you are doing to achieve your goal. You are connecting productive work with feeling good. You are internalizing the fact that your hard work today will produce that great future tomorrow.
As for negative imagery, it goes without saying that you should avoid spending too much time dwelling on failure. After all, you’re not trying to put yourself down or convince yourself that your dreams are impossible and your efforts futile. The purpose of imagined failure is only to produce a sense of urgency around the tasks you should be working on right now. When you find yourself having difficulty facing tough work, you can use these pessimistic scenarios to create an image of failure more uncomfortable than the task you are trying to avoid. That should get you moving.
Use these day-nightmares sparingly, as a way to prod yourself through episodes of procrastination and lapses of motivation and energy. Try to associate the bad feelings that your negative visualizations produce with your procrastinating behaviour, not with yourself. You are connecting procrastination and work avoidance with feeling bad. You are internalizing the fact that procrastination today will have a negative effect on your future success.
Extremely important note:
Make your negative visualizations about your actions, not your abilities. When you fail in your mind, fail because you failed to prepare, not because you aren’t good enough. The purpose of these images is to encourage action, so the images themselves should revolve around action, or lack of action. Avoid using negative imagery which puts you down, personally. Doing so could have a negative effect on your motivation by challenging the idea that you are capable of achieving the things you want.
You are capable.
Strictly speaking, your thoughts, on their own, cannot produce your success or failure. However, they do have considerable power to shape your emotional state and drive your actions, and those things WILL to a great degree determine your success or failure.
It’s important to be aware of your thoughts and make them work for you. As you do so, remember that it’s not necessarily true that positive thoughts always equal positive results. There is a time and a place for everything, and even thoughts and emotions that you might traditionally consider to be negative, such as fear, can still have a positive effect on your actions, and by extension your future success.
Fear can be your friend. Don’t be afraid to use it.
As always I hope you found this post to be useful. Please “don’t be afraid” to share with your friends on social media, and leave a comment below 😉
To your success!
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