What Is Creative Visualization?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Creative visualization usually involves using your imagination to form vivid mental images regarding the future you desire. According to New Age author Shakti Gawain, there are generally four stages in the process of creative visualization. These stages may begin with setting a goal, followed by forming a mental image of the desired outcome, continually returning to that mental image, and then adding positivity to that image. To experience success with creative visualization, it can be helpful to maintain an open mind, practice meditation, use relaxation techniques, imagine the best that could happen, and embrace the process as a regular practice. If you’re having trouble with creative visualization, working with a therapist to address any underlying mental health issues may be beneficial. You can find a therapist who meets your needs online or in your local area.

The definition of creative visualization

Creative visualization is generally a specific way of using your imagination. It's a cognitive process that usually consists of forming vivid mental images. You may consciously change the images, which in turn can change your emotions about the subjects of the images. As you practice visualizing the future you want, you may begin to create that future.

This technique can be used with the intent of creating physiological changes, such as wound healing and pain reduction. It can also be used to manage anxiety and sadness, as well as improve self-confidence. Another use may be to help people improve the way they function in social situations.

Your thoughts can influence your life

The history of creative visualization

Everyone may use creative visualization in an unconscious way. For example, you may feel hungry and imagine the food you want to eat, and then you may imagine yourself going to get it. This process can happen frequently, even if it does so unconsciously. Otherwise, you likely wouldn’t be able to choose the actions that would get you the food you desire. In a sense, creative visualization may be as old as humankind.

As an intentional practice, creative visualization is thought to have been around for centuries. The Roman statesman Cicero is believed to have developed the idea of the mind's eye. This idea was introduced in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and typically refers to the part of your mind that deals with visual images.

More recently, psychologists, physicians, and researchers may have become interested in creative visualization as a conscious practice. In the late 1970s, New Age author Shakti Gawain wrote about precisely how to use creative visualization for personal development.

There may be certain beliefs that make creative visualization work. However, as Gawain and others have suggested, you don't necessarily have to accept any beliefs at all to start practicing and benefiting from this technique. In general, all you must do is apply the technique consistently. The following beliefs can serve as the theoretical framework behind the practice:

  • Everything may be made up of energy, including thought.
  • Energy can have a magnetic quality, so certain thoughts and feelings may attract similar types of energies.
  • Thought can transform energy so that what you expect and believe most strongly may be formed, first in your mind and then in actuality.

The stages of creative visualization

The term “visualize” normally indicates that you see an image. Many people may have the experience of seeing an image they create in their mind's eye.

However, others may not be as visually oriented. Instead, they may only get a sense of what they're imagining. They may have a feeling that seems sensory in some way, or they might just think about the image.

The important thing in creative visualization can be that you form clear, detailed, vivid thoughts about your goal. It doesn't necessarily matter if you seem to mentally “see” the image or just define it clearly in your mind. Although many different practitioners use creative visualization in their own ways, Gawain devised a specific formula for the technique with four specific stages.

Stage 1

Stage one usually involves formulating a goal. You might think of something you want to have or want to happen. When you first start practicing creative visualization, it can be best to choose goals you're fairly certain you can meet. Setting challenging yet attainable goals can help you learn the practice by building on small successes.

Getty / Maskot

Stage 2

The second stage is generally to form a mental image of your desired outcome. You might imagine it as if it already exists in the way you want it to exist. It’s normally best to make this image vivid, with lots of details. You can make yourself a part of the picture and see yourself enjoying the object or situation.

Stage 3

At this point, it can be helpful to return to the image you created in Stage 2 throughout the day. You might picture it often without pressuring yourself to make something happen. It can be enough to bring that image along with you as you go through your usual activities.

Stage 4

Gawain recommends adding positivity to the mental image you've created. To do this, you might imagine that the best possible outcome is happening right now.

Tips for using creative visualization

You can practice creative visualization with very little instruction. Still, people who use the technique often find that certain attitudes and practices help them stick with the process and reap its benefits. Here are some tips for approaching the practice of creative visualization.

Have an open mind

To have a chance of benefitting from creative visualization, you generally have to at least see it as a possibility. If you think that visualizing success is a waste of time, it probably will be. If you firmly believe that it's foolish to get your hopes up, it's unlikely that you'll be able to visualize success in a positive way. You may be more likely to guard your feelings to avoid being let down. You don't necessarily have to believe strongly that visualization will work for you. You may just need to keep your mind open to the possibility that it might work.

Learn meditation

Most people pick up negative self-talk during childhood and continue it throughout their lives. Often, words spoken by a parent or teacher come into their mind, potentially making them feel unlovable or like a failure. One way to deal with these unbidden thoughts can be to practice meditation.

One meditation technique can be to let thoughts drift in and out of the mind without judging them or trying to hold onto them. With continued practice, people can become better able to let those negative thoughts pass without letting them affect visualization.

Use relaxation techniques

You can practice visualization in nearly any situation. To get the most out of your practice, it can be helpful to do it while relaxing one or more times a day. You might use relaxation techniques like deep breathing or systematic muscle relaxation. These techniques may not only calm your emotions, but they can clear your thinking, too. You may be better able to create the vivid mental images needed for creative visualization.

Imagine the best that could happen

Once you become proficient in the technique, you might begin to visualize more significant goals. In any situation, you can visualize the best that can happen. Suppose your company is downsizing, and you've been told you're going to lose your job. When you set a goal, try not to just set it for not losing your job. Instead, you might set a goal for doing better at that job or having an even better job. You can imagine yourself working at that job and picture it in vivid detail, seeing what you do there and imagining what rewards you're receiving in that position. Try to think in terms of the best possible outcome.

Follow it as a practice

Gawain calls creative visualization “a sort of magic.” However, this generally isn't the kind of magic where you chant a spell, and your wish immediately comes true. More than anything, creative visualization can be a practice. It can be something you do consistently, regardless of what happens.

If you want to try creative visualization, try not to expect immediate results. Putting too much pressure on yourself can cause frustration and impatience. It may even influence you to give up without giving creative visualization a proper chance. Try not to think of creative visualization as a magic wand. Instead, you might think of creative visualization as a daily habit.

What to do when you can't make creative visualization work

What if you try creative visualization and don't see any benefit at all? Is there anything you can do to make it work? 

The first thing you can do may be to identify what it is that's potentially holding you back. Once you discover your negative thought patterns, you can begin to change them one by one.

Maybe you feel your life is disorganized, but you have no idea how to make it better. If so, you might not be ready to try creative visualization. You may have too many limiting beliefs. These can take the form of thoughts of yourself as undeserving, unintelligent, ugly, or unstable, for example. Creative visualization might help with your self-esteem. However, if you feel too bad about yourself, it may be hard to imagine you'll ever get what you want.

Depression or anxiety can also interfere with the process of creating positive mental images. If that’s the case for you, it can be crucial that you get the help you deserve for those mental health conditions, whether you keep trying creative visualization or not. Talking to a doctor or therapist can be a good first step if you're concerned about your mental health or would like professional guidance in using creative visualization to your advantage.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Your thoughts can influence your life

Getting professional help

You can talk to a licensed therapist online through an online therapy platform. There, you may fill out a brief questionnaire and be matched with a therapist who is suited to help you achieve your mental health goals. You can learn to change the way you think through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or a variety of methods and techniques your therapist can teach you.

This study investigated the effectiveness of online therapy in comparison to traditional face-to-face therapy. It found that the efficacy rates of both therapy modalities were generally the same. Therefore, both online and in-office therapy can be valid options if you’d like to reach out for the professional help you deserve.

Takeaway

You can use creative visualization to better define the path that leads to your success. This often involves imagining the specific steps you’ll take, the relationships you’ll foster, and the problems you’ll face in order to achieve your goal. In online therapy, your therapist can help you go from “dreaming it” to “doing it”.
Visualize your goals in therapy
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