When most four-year-old kids take a nap, they just lie down and go to sleep.
When I was four, my mom would turn on an endless loop cassette tape of whatever I was playing, and tell me to visualize myself performing until I fell asleep.
When you’re four, imagining that you’re Itzhak Perlman rocking out a world-class rendition of Humoresque is child’s play. Heck, at that age, I also believed I could train myself to breathe underwater and read other peoples’ minds.
But as I got older, more skilled, and realized how much more there was to learn, my imagination began to fail me.
I’d lie there dutifully visualizing myself performing on stage, but then I’d miss a shift. Oops.
And then some notes would be out of tune. Argh!
And then I’d forget a fingering, or get stuck in an endless loop of my own where I couldn’t figure out how to end the piece. $#!&*!
It got to the point where these mistakes in my head would freak me out a little. I’d worry that they were a sign of impending disaster. I also worried that by envisioning mistakes, I was increasing my chances of making them on stage.
Is this a potential downside of visualization? Can we really jeopardize our performances or sabotage our confidence if we visualize ourselves making mistakes and playing imperfectly?
Optimism vs. Pessimism
Our brains like things to be neat and tidy, so we have a tendency to engage in “either-or” thinking. In or out. Up or down. Hot or cold. Half full or half empty. For richer or poorer. In sickness or in health.
In much the same way, we often conceptualize optimism and pessimism as opposites, where optimism is a good thing, and pessimism is bad.
But the reality is actually a lot more interesting and nuanced.
There are, for instance, potential downsides to unbridled optimism (a.k.a. wishful thinking) where we ignore important data or feedback and maintain an unrealistically sunny outlook so we can avoid facing reality and doing the difficult work we might need to do.
And though pessimism typically gets a bad rap, there appear to be different types of pessimism, some of which may be performance-enhancing for certain folks.
There is the regular old vanilla variety of pessimism of course, where we simply think things are probably going to end badly no matter what.
There is also self-handicapping, where we put obstacles in our path to give ourselves an excuse in the event that we don’t succeed. Like waiting until the last minute to study for a test, so that if we get a bad grade, we can keep our ego intact by telling ourselves that the bad grade is not a reflection of our intelligence, it just means we didn’t study enough.
Then we have one of the more intriguing varieties of pessimism, know as defensive pessimism.
Defensive pessimists tend to get more anxious than optimists, and tend to set their performance expectations unrealistically low – despite past successes (e.g. “This performance is going to go badly; I’m never going to be invited back.”). Why? Presumably to protect their self-esteem in case things really do go to crap.
However – and this is the really key part – they envision all the ways in which things could go badly, and proceed to work really hard to prevent any of these undesired outcomes from happening.
So ultimately, rather than detracting from their potential for success, the pessimism actually increases their drive and adds more fuel to their efforts.
Does this have an impact on performance? Well, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
In a study of collegiate athletes, researchers found that pessimists were indeed more anxious than optimists, but performed just as well as the optimists did regardless.
In another study, this one involving dart throwing, researchers found that defensive pessimists did their best when imagining what could go wrong, and then correcting their mistakes. Even better than when they imagined things going perfectly!
What’s the take-home message?
Do try to develop your ability to envision exactly the kind of performance you want, but don’t sweat it if your visualization sessions aren’t all sunshine, puppies, and lychee oolong bubble tea.
When the occasional glitch or mistake (or train wreck) inevitably pops into your head, use it as an opportunity to practice implementing your Plan B. Your contingency plan. Your optimal response to adversity.
That way, when something undesirable really does happen at your big audition or performance, you’ll already know exactly how to respond, and won’t have to waste precious seconds in the heat of the moment, frantically wracking your brain and grasping about for the best response.
The wishful thinking optimists, on the other hand, will be at a disadvantage at that moment, caught flat-footed and unprepared for something they didn’t see coming and take the time to prepare for.
Read more on the nuances of optimism and pessimism, and why the term “positive psychology” is a bit of a misnomer: The Positive Psychology of Negative Thinking
Want to see if you might be a defensive pessimist? Take Dr. Julie Norem’s Defensive Pessimism Questionnaire.