Seeing is believing

September 1, 2009

Here’s something that’s been working for me over the last couple of years. I wish someone had told me about this earlier, as it would’ve saved me a whole bunch of hassle. It’s a very neat trick that requires little effort, and works unbelievably well.

Melissa looking at vision boardWhat’s triggered me off on this? A lovely afternoon spent sat on the floor of a dance studio, with a sheet of bright blue cardboard, a Pritt stick and some magazines. We (I and a bunch of complete and friendly strangers) were instructed to flick through the glossies until we spotted something that appealed to us. We then ripped the picture (or word) out and stuck it to our piece of cardboard. This creates a “vision board”.

Aside from sticking the resultant piece of art on the wall, there are a lot of clever interpretative things one can do with the vision board. One involves standing on it (top tip: wear socks else the magazine clippings tend to adhere to the clammy soles of the feet). But I’m not going to talk about that. I’ll leave it to the expert in charge. I’m going to talk about the importance of having pretty pictures of things you want, lying around in your home or your head. It makes good things happen, and not in a crazy, spooky, irritatingly positive thinking way. There’s a very logical explanation.

Here’s the science bit.

We have five senses. Each is picking up millions of pieces of information every second. The feel of the keys beneath our fingers, the sound of the washing machine finishing its cycle, the smell of the trash waiting to be taken out, the sight of a steaming mug of tea, the taste of mouthwash. And so it goes on. We don’t bother with most of them, as to register all that data would result in brain overload, general confusion and the need to Ctrl+Alt+Del our minds.

So we filter out the information that supports our world view. And we notice the things that agree with our world view. Those filters are our beliefs.

If we believe we’re going to have a poor night out, we notice every discomforting and irritating aspect of the missed train, the Baltic breeze and the slow service. We notice we haven’t interpreted the dress code quite right, and observe everyone judging us (or is this just me?!). We clam up, our conversation ebbs, and the negativity spreads. We interact poorly with our friends, don’t get up to dance and wish we hadn’t bothered. On the other hand, if we go out convinced we’re going to have a good time, we take the missed train in our springing stride and strike up an amusing conversation with a random punter on board. We are invigorated by the autumnal season change, and don’t notice the slow service as we’re too engrossed in chat. We are first up for karaoke, and dance until 2am. Completely hypothetically of course.

Another example. If we believe that we’re going to meet the man of our dreams on an internet dating site (just to take another completely fictitious example) we’re more likely to pick up on sensory cues that support that notion. We’ll pick up banter that supports this belief, and feel confident that we’re going to say just the right thing to build a promising relationship. If we believe all men are [insert your own expletive-noun here] we’ll be scouring every interchange for  evidence of this. And of course, no one’s perfect and communication is generally a little ambiguous, so guess what happens?

What we believe has an effect on what happens to us.

Perhaps this does sound a little fanciful on initial consideration, I’ll grant you that. Of course nothing’s quite that simple and I am caricaturing to make the point. However, it’s true that our internal expectations have a huge impact on how we see the world, how we react to it, and how it reacts back. The cunning thing about all this is we can bend our beliefs to alter our perceptions. This enables us to see the world differently, which affects our behaviour, and in turn changes what the world offers up to us. So simply by thinking about things in a certain way, we can change what happens to us.

And it works. Even if you don’t think it’s going to work, it works.

The trick is to replace the unhelpful beliefs, such as ‘I’m going to wipe out on this ski run and get concussion’ (another random example), with helpful ones ‘I’m going to nail this red run to the floor and look like someone from Ski Sunday’. If we really put some work into the helpful belief we respond differently as we ski down the run (or chat up the bloke, or walk into the bar on that night out). When we sense our first wobble we either ‘know’ we’re going to adjust elegantly and keep going, or we ‘know’ we’re going to wipe out. Guess what happens?

How do we build the helpful beliefs when our experiences appear to be littered with bad dates, missed trains, dodgy outfits and snow down our trousers? Well, that’s where the vision board comes in. If you don’t have any Pritt stick, then just plain daydreaming works well too. The relevant part of the brain can’t tell the difference between real and imagined, so it’s possible to build a bank of the right kinds of ‘imagined memories’ to fuel helpful beliefs. And if the unhelpful ones keep popping up, try replaying them in black and white, on a small screen, in sepia tones, with the characters dressed up as Walt Disney characters. I’m not even kidding. This will stop them drowning out the helpful beliefs. This last trick was the way I finally laid to rest some very unhelpful memories that previously seemed to play on endless loop with high definition images and surround sound every time I shut my eyes. Not good. I shrunk them down with the help of Mickey Mouse, and they’ve not been back. Much more helpful beliefs have taken root since, and things are going rather well.

Try it. Think about something fairly easy to start with. A conversation with that cute barista. A confrontation with the boss. A game of pool. Imagine it going swimmingly well. Play a high def movie in your head where you are the star of a [insert your choice of genre] movie having an outstandingly good day. And if there are unhelpful memories get in the way, shrink those memories down and call on Mickey for help.

Indulge me. It’s the least you can do in return for me showing you my vision board (that red thing at the bottom is a pair of rather lovely boots).

Melissa's vision board

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5 Responses to “Seeing is believing”

  1. Erica P said

    Hi Melissa,

    loved this post – there is a whole strand of working with individuals, groups, teams, whole communities called Appreciative Inquiry that is based on this premise. It is rooted in the positive psychology movement, mostly Martin Seligman’s (sp?) work. Check out http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/ for more details. V powerfull stuff!

  2. Jen said

    Hey Melissa,

    Yet again you’ve really inspired me – thank you! I was facing a weekend with no plan, but will now be putting some of your ideas into practice and digging out my Pritt stick from former, more creative, days.

    Thanks again, Jenny x

  3. Is that Eric I see on your vision board? Although I see thatit’s an African elephant.Martin Seligman shouldbegiven a big prize…Thank you for passing on the “force”…of positve thinking.Keeps needing to be reinvigorated I find.
    Managed to salvage this glitched attempt!

  4. Karin said

    I love the blog!!! I am really happy that making and analysing the Vision Board has been so beneficial and inspiring for you. Looking forward to seeing you again soon.

    Karin Peeters
    Personal & Professional Coach
    Vitalis Coaching

  5. Hi Melissa,

    I too had a lovely day – and you are right, what a wonderful way to make things happen! I LOVE your blog, the way you write, the images you portray and the lovely soul that shines through! Well done, and it was lovely meeting you on the day!!

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