Why Mental Contrasting Works: A Transpersonal View

Resilience Lab
January 9, 2023

Why Mental Contrasting Works: A Transpersonal View

Mental contrasting is a psychological goal setting and achieving technique. It asks practitioners to use visualization to consider the outcomes and challenges of achieving a goal. Most of the time, people may only focus on the anticipated outcome, i.e., the satisfying relationship, career success, financial stability. However, by only focusing on the outcome, you may be deflated and unmotivated when challenges arise.

Researchers have identified many compelling reasons for the usefulness of mental contrasting for achieving goals. Perhaps the most compelling is how it can help one maintain the energy necessary to achieve a goal.  

For example, let’s say you want to go back to school to pursue a master’s degree. You can imagine yourself receiving your diploma and updating your resume. Mental contrasting invites you to consider the outcome and the hard work along the way. When the hard work is anticipated, it is less surprising when it arrives. Unpleasant surprises can drain us of the energy we need to stay motivated to do the tough work to achieve the goal.  

Mental Contrasting May Prevent Cognitive Fusion

Visualizing obstacles from a place of emotional distance before you get into the thick of trying to pursue a goal can make it less like being in the center of a tornado that threatens to destroy your house. Rather, right from the outset of your goal, you’re anticipating them with a degree of emotional distance.

Let’s return to our earlier example. You are preparing to pursue a master’s or Ph.D. program. It is a decision you feel confident about. You apply, are accepted, and begin your studies. Your third required course is difficult, tough. While you are in this course, your partner breaks up with you and you get a bout of flu. You do not do as well in the class as you like, and maybe you don’t earn a passing grade.  

If you had never considered that you might struggle in a class or even have to retake it, the described series of events could be so disheartening it depletes your energy reserves, and you quit school.  

Alternatively, if you had considered both the joy of earning this esteemed degree and the potential for moments of failure, you may take this scenario in stride.

The difference between these two scenarios is we are not getting fused or personally entangled with the obstacle. Instead, the obstacle was anticipated; therefore, it becomes simply one of the expected outcomes rather than a personal failure.

Mental Contrasting Encourages Makes Causality Impersonal and Visible

Considering what obstacles may arise as you try to achieve a goal can minimize the emotional consequences of the obstacle. In addition, it gives you the power to cope in a dignified and reasonable manner.  

Animals often have instinctual goals they need to accomplish. Finding a mate, migrating, hunting for food. These efforts do not always go perfectly. The mate and prey may get away. Hurricanes or wildfires can disrupt migration. Despite these setbacks, animals carry on.  

Let’s consider the following example. Recently, travel opportunities are widely available after almost two years of pandemic-based restrictions. At the same time the world is ready to travel; airlines are experiencing significant staff shortages resulting in unprecedented flight cancellations and delays.

If you head to the airport anticipating only the fun the long-awaited vacation will provide, you have done yourself a disservice. In this scenario, considering the delay or cancellation of flights resulting in an abbreviated break is vital to coping with the potential disappointment.  

Mental Contrasting Makes You Explicitly Consider Your Ideal Future

When did you last think about what you want to do with this one life you have been given? To visualize who you would like to become?  

We often think about our lives in the short term, chasing the next respite from our work or other responsibilities. As a result, we become conditioned to feel happiest when our life is free from obstacles.  

Focusing only on the next weekend or a future vacation can result in a failure to pursue long-term goals. The achievement of long-term goals is nothing like the ease of a Sunday brunch with friends. Instead, they require a commitment to do the hard things to earn the reward.  

So what to do? Ottinger, the researcher who posited the mental contrasting theory, suggests “free fantasy.”  Free fantasy asks you to spend a moment visualizing what achieving a goal would feel like, from beginning to end. What behaviors, thoughts, and emotions would someone who had achieved this goal feel?  

A similar technique is called “best possible self.”. You are asked to visualize the version of you who achieved their goal under the most optimal circumstances. This technique has been found to increase optimism.. That turns out to be quite beneficial as optimism increases motivation. Visualizing the process helps you to achieve your long-term goals.

What are some of your long-term goals? Then, take a moment to engage in some “free fantasy” or visualize your future “best possible self.”  

Imagine what it feels like to accomplish this goal. Visualize the steps that need to be taken. Where are obstacles likely to occur? How will you feel as you navigate those obstacles? How will you feel when you have gone around the obstacles? Consider your plans for the next week. Ask yourself how would you in the future, the one who has achieved your goals, use your available time?

Over the next week, monitor your thoughts and actions connected to your visualized goal. Do you find it easier to do goal-related tasks? Do you feel more motivated to complete them? Did you encounter any obstacles? What was your emotional response?  If these techniques help you to make progress toward your goal, keep using them until you reach the satisfying end.

Mental Contrasting with a Licensed Therapist

Mental contrasting can be a powerful tool in an of itself, but if you find yourself in need of professional assistance, consider working with a licensed therapist. Working with a licensed therapist can be particularly beneficial when it comes to mental contrasting, as they can provide guidance and support as you work through the process. They can also help you to identify any underlying issues or barriers that may be holding you back, and to develop strategies to address them. Overall, working with a therapist can be a valuable way to gain insight, build skills, and make progress towards your goals. If you would like to find a therapist who best understands your needs, book a free consultation and chat with a member of our licensed therapist team today.

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