Mental Contrasting: 5 Powerful ways to make you a Successful Goal-getter

Mental contrasting is a very powerful way to gain focus and to stay focused on your goals and to ultimately be much more successful. If you would apply only positive thinking then most likely you will be more depressed and less successful than when you would also add negative thinking. This is the conclusion of scientific research. And this is what mental contrasting is all about: combining positive thinking with negative thinking to be more successful.

Please read on, because in this article you are going to learn the exact steps to incorporate mental contrasting in your life to make you a highly successful goal-getter! Furthermore, you will discover some of the best practices to apply this to your situation:


Why should you use Mental Contrasting?

Why should you use Mental Contrasting

Mental Contrasting can help you to become a highly successful goal-getter. Because ... you want to be successful in what you are doing, right? You want to accomplish every goal you set. You want to be more productive and focused in your life and career.

So, far so good.

What is your plan of approach for achieving that?

Work hard? Or work even harder?

You probably have noticed that that is not going to do the trick.

The problem when you are not as productive or focused as you want to be, is not how hard you work. It is about what you are doing in your head. Yes, you read that well: it's all in your head!

Here is the deal ...

Every thought you have leads to a feeling. And every feeling or emotion you have makes you move towards your goals or away from your goals (aka procrastinating from doing what you should do).

And every action you do or don’t do leads to a result.

And if that result is not what you want, then this is of course caused by the actions you did take and did not take. But the root cause of that lies in the way you think. So, if you are not happy with the results you have in your life, then you need to change your mindset first.

Ok, so, you want to change your mindset?


Change your mindset

Chances are that you have tried all kinds of positive visualization techniques or positive affirmations because due to recent movements like The Law of Attraction or The Secret, these are very popular techniques nowadays. But have they worked for you? Are you successful now? Or are you still living the life you lived a few years ago? Are you now healthier? Are you wealthier? Do you have better relationships? Or is everything still pretty much the same as it always was?

Research shows that people who only use positive visualization techniques and positive affirmations will not be as successful as they could have been.

Why you might ask?

This is where Mental Contrasting comes in!

Yes, you need positive visualization to visualize your bright and shiny future. And yes, you want to do positive affirmations to change your mindset and firmly believe that you will be capable of achieving all your goals you set for yourself. But that’s only half the work. That is ... if you really want to make a difference in your life.

The other work you need to do is Mental Contrasting.

If you only are visualizing and dreaming of the goals you have achieved, then it will decrease your chance of achieving that goal. This is not something I have made up. This is the conclusion of the leading scientist on motivation and goal-achievement Gabriele Oettingen. She has written a book on this subject, called Rethinking Positive Thinking.

One of Oettingen’s studies was about how women lost weight over the course of a year.

With astonishing results!

There were two groups of women in the research. The first group of women did a tremendous job on visualizing themselves as already slim, good looking in a bikini, resisting food easily and so on. This is how everyone tells you to do when you want to change your life. Visualize! Let the Law of Attraction do it's work!

The second group of women had to picture themselves more negatively.  "Negatively!", you say. "What the ... That's asking for problems. What about the self-fulfilling prophecy of negative thinking?"

So, which of the two groups do you think lost the most pounds in one year?

Drumroll ...

The second group with women who visualized themselves more negatively! They lost 24 pounds MORE in one year than the first group!

Can you believe it?!

Would you have expected this?

Well, I sure didn’t until I heard about this study and the theory behind it.

Positive + Negative Visualization equals Success!

And the results of this study have been replicated in many other scientifically studies after that by Oettingen and her team. So, it's not some random one-time result. It's something which turns out to be quite universal for human beings.

So, whatever your goal is, it might be to lose weight, or to become more successful at work, or to get in shape, or to crush your exam, or to have a better relationship, or whatever other goal you might have.

If you only visualize success, then the end result will be much less than when you also visualize the negative side of your current situation.

And this, my friend, is exactly what Mental Contrasting is about.

In her studies, Oettingen uses a questionnaire to measure the level of depression the participants in her study have. It turned out that participants who only used positive affirmations and positive visualization were more depressed after a couple of weeks than the participants who performed negative visualization. Except at the moment of positive visualization itself, because then the participants corresponded less to depression.

The conclusion is that positive visualization has a very short positive effect on you. It is almost like taking drugs or drinking alcohol. As soon as the positive effect has vanished, the hangover begins. So, positive visualization alone seems to protect against sadness in the short term but promote it over the long term.

Why positive visualization alone doesn’t work.

Why Positive Visualization does not work

Your mind is not able to tell the difference between something you visualize and reality. Everything you visualize is a reality for your mind. So, if you apply positive visualization and positive affirmations, your mind will experience this as an actual reality. That’s why it is so joyful and why it brings you a short-term feeling of happiness. But this will destroy your motivation and focus on working on your goals. Because why do the hard work if you already have achieved it? Well, that’s what your subconscious mind is thinking. If you are already thin, slim, healthy, weighing only 120 pounds and in great shape, why should you work out?

According to the research of Oettingen, positive visualization lowers your blood pressure and makes you feel less energized and motivated.

So, this is why positive visualization and positive affirmations alone don’t work.

Instead, you need to do Mental Contrasting as well.

What is Mental Contrasting?

What is Mental Contrasting

So, you now know that only positive visualization is destroying your success. That’s why Oettingen developed the concept of Mental Contrasting.

Mental Contrasting is the process of visualizing your desired goals as well as visualizing the possible obstacles within you that will hinder you from achieving your goals.

Mental Contrasting is a way to acknowledge the gap between where you are now and where you want to be and to feel the pain or tension which comes with that gap. Mental contrasting is a much more realistic way of thinking. It is not only positive thinking. It is also not only negative thinking. No, mental contrasting is a realistic way of thinking about where you stand in contrast to your goals.

The process of Mental Contrasting

Process of Mental Contrasting

Mental contrasting is a 3-step process:

1) Identify which goal you want to accomplish

Like with positive visualization, it always starts with your goal in mind.

So, the very first step is to just pick one of your goals. It might be a career goal, a personal goal, or whatever.

Just pick one.

I suggest that you look at your bucket list with life goals and choose the one you want to achieve the most. In this article about life goals, you can also read how you best formulate your goals.

So, if you haven’t already, please formulate your goal now.

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Key point:

Identify which goal you want to accomplish.

2) Do a positive visualization on how you are achieving your goal

The second step, is where you do positive visualization in a way that you will train your belief system that you are really capable of achieving your goals. This is a very important step. If you want to read more about how to do visualization best, then check this article I have written about visualization techniques.

Furthermore, you can strengthen your positive visualization by also using positive affirmations.

Remember: the main goal in this step is not to give you a good feeling now, but to strengthen your belief that you are capable of achieving your goals.

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Key point:

Do a positive visualization on how you are achieving your goal.

3) Apply negative visualization to imagine every roadblock and obstacle which can stand in your way towards your goals

The third step, is a crucial step if you want to become really successful in achieving your goals!

Apply negative visualization towards your goals. Imagine all the possible obstacles you may find on your path towards your goals.

A great trick here is to turn your positive affirmations into a question.

So, if your positive affirmation is: “At the end of this year I will weigh 120 pounds”. Then turn that into a question like this:

“Will I weigh 120 pounds at the end of this year?”

Ask yourself this question and see what will come into your mind. Probably your mind will produce some obstacles. Write them down! And then repeat the same question. See what your subconscious mind tells you. Write it down! And repeat the question until your subconscious mind doesn't have any obstacles left.

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Key point:

Apply negative visualization to imagine every roadblock and obstacle which can stand in your way towards your goals.

The result of mental contrasting

Result of Mental Contrasting

The result of doing this process of mental contrasting will leave you with the belief that you will be able to achieve your goals and also with the feeling that it will not be easy. There are a lot of obstacles you need to be aware of, and you need to work on.

But the process doesn’t stop here!

Doing mental contrasting only once is better than doing no mental contrasting at all, of course. But to really take advantage of this process, you should apply mental contrasting every day. A new belief is not built overnight. Your subconscious mind needs repetition. Furthermore, you will grow every day towards your goals. This means that doing mental contrasting every day, will give you new insights about new obstacles which are correlated with the new you, or obstacles you have never thought about before.

Make it a daily habit

So, make it a daily habit of applying mental contrasting for your goals, and you will be set for success! You will have more motivation to achieve your goals and also a higher chance of achieving them.

In the research of Oettingen, not all participants who performed mental contrasting had the same level of motivation and higher chances of success. Oettingen found that participants who had expectations based on earlier experiences of succeeding, who applied mental contrasting, were significantly more energized and more promptly engaged than the other participants. So, mental contrasting has the power to get you motivated, energized and to propel you into action, if you also belief that you will be able to achieve your goal. That’s why the second step in the process is also very important.

To be really successful, you need both steps: you need to do positive visualization to strengthen your belief that you will be able to achieve your goal and to set your expectations of yourself high. And you need to do negative visualization to see and manage all obstacles you will encounter on your path to your goal. If you get aware of the obstacles and know that you have a good chance of overcoming them, then you will be motivated and energized to come into action. On the contrary, if you doubt that you will overcome the obstacles, then you will be less motivated and start to procrastinate. This is why your goals need to be realistic. Challenging, but realistic.

So, another benefit of doing mental contrasting is that it has the capability to show you whether a chosen goal is realistic or unrealistic. If your goal is unrealistic, then you need to change your goal until it is realistic.

The hidden power of mental contrasting

Hidden Power of Mental Contrasting

Mental contrasting is a very powerful tool, and as you have seen, it has the power to get you motivated and energized to work on your goals.

Let’s explore why mental contrasting works so well:

Mental contrasting gives you the chance to reflect on yourself

The first huge benefit of Mental contrasting is, that it will help you discover why your current self doesn’t match your future goals. So, using mental contrasting is an excellent way to reflect on yourself, where you stand now with regards to your goals and what you need to develop next. Mental contrasting is a way to explore your mindset and your way of thinking. You can use this to your advantage to find out which steps you need to take. This can be action steps towards your goal, but it can also be to turn negative beliefs into positive beliefs.

Participants in the research studies of Oettingen, who performed mental contrasting, often experienced insights. Their eyes were brightening, and bodies were straightening in the chairs, suggesting an unusual combination of relief and focus.

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Key point:

So, give yourself a chance to get to know yourself better and start performing mental contrasting on your goals.

Mental contrasting leads to a subconscious connection between your future self and current self

The second benefit of Mental contrasting is, that it is a great tool for connecting your future self with your current self in your subconscious mind. The future reality of you having achieved your goals will somehow blend with your current reality.

This means that as soon as you think about your future goals, your mind will automatically bring up your current reality. You will be immediately reminded of the obstacles you need to overcome.

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Key point:

So, mental contrasting will give you a constant subconscious spur to take action.

Mental contrasting helps you create a behavior to overcome obstacles

The third benefit is that, according to the research of Oettingen, mental contrasting forges powerful, subconscious associations between the obstacles you perceive and the solutional behavior (what you need to do to overcome the obstacle and achieve your goal) you need to take to overcome the obstacle. The association, in turn, explains actual, observable changes in behavior.

Let me give you an example:

I am working on a project to write a book, and I have set myself a deadline of writing 1,000 words every day. It is Saturday, and I had to spend my day with family occasions. Now, it’s Saturday night, and I would rather spend the rest of the evening also with my family instead of working on my daily milestone of writing 1,000 words.

The obstacle, in this case, is, that I will spend my time with my family and not on my assignment. The solutional behavior would be, to limit the time spent with my family, on this Saturday evening, to let’s say one hour and then start working on my assignment, even if it will take me until midnight.

To apply mental contrasting in this situation, my subconscious mind will create a strong subconscious association between the obstacle of spending my time otherwise and the solutional behavior of just spending my time otherwise for one hour and then starting to work on my assignment. This cognitive association increases the chance that I will take action towards my goals. (By the way: it is Saturday evening 23:30 pm as I am writing these words, just so that you know that I am serious about my goals.)

Let’s do an exercise:

Step 1: Pick a goal you are working on. In my case, it’s the book project. What’s your goal?

Step 2: Visualize all possible obstacles you will encounter on your way to your goal.

Step 3: Decide what the most important or the most urgent obstacle is you need to deal with. In my case, it’s how I can balance my family life in the weekends with my writing goal of 1,000 words every day. What’s your most urgent obstacle you need to deal with?

Step 4: Visualize your obstacle. See the movie in your head of how your obstacle will appear in your life and how you will react to it. Let’s call this “Visual A.”

Step 5: Now develop a solutional behavior for your obstacle. See the movie in your head how you will successfully deal with the obstacle. Let’s call this “Visual B.”

Step 6: Now the real fun begins!

Step 6a: Visualize “Visual A.”

Step 6b: and immediately after that visualize “Visual B.”

Step 6c: After that: create a break-state: open your eyes, if you had closed them to improve your visualization, and pay attention to some object in the room where you are in.

Repeat steps 6a-6b-6c at least 10 times. It should you take only 1 minute or so.

Did you notice that the last couple of repetitions, as soon as you visualized Visual A, you immediately saw Visual B in your mind’s eye?What you have now done, is to connect a neural pathway in your subconscious mind between Visual A and Visual B. So, as soon as you will start to think of Visual A this picture will immediately dissolve into Visual B, causing you to take action.

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Key point:

Use Mental contrasting to overcome obstacles.

Mental contrasting will make you better at interpreting negative feedback

The fourth major advantage of using mental contrasting is that you will be able in handling negative feedback. Negative feedback is everywhere around us. This is almost a fact of nature. No matter how good your presentation was you’ve just given, there will always be a small percentage of people who don’t agree with you. Instead of letting this negative feedback defeat you, you better learn to handle it constructively. Mental contrasting is a great tool to help you with dealing with negative feedback.

According to the research of Oettingen, participants who used mental contrasting were better able to handle negative feedback. They would translate the negative feedback into effective action plans for realizing their goals. The same participants who used mental contrasting had also higher self-esteem than participants in the control group. Using mental contrasting helps to perceive negative feedback constructively. The negative feedback was identified as a deficit that could be mastered in the future. The negative feedback was seen as something restricted to the given situation and as something which was repairable through effort. In short, the negative feedback was perceived as a chance to learn and to grow and not as a personal attack.

When doing mental contrasting, you learn how to deal with obstacles effectively in a constructive manner. And negative feedback is just an obstacle like any other. Mental contrasting makes dealing with obstacles a habit, and as such you get a higher self-esteem because you know that you are capable of dealing with obstacles effectively.

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Key point:

Use mental contrasting to use negative feedback in a productive manner.

Beat your procrastination by using mental contrasting

The fifth benefit of mental contrasting is that it helps you to beat your procrastination. If you are like me, then you are probably also procrastinating. This is probably one of the negative habits we all have in common. And although you know that procrastinating will make you much less successful, like anyone else, you still do it.

But now you have a great tool with mental contrasting to fight your procrastination!

Procrastinating is just an obstacle like any other obstacles. And using mental contrasting will help you acknowledge this (the important first step in any behavioral change!) and deal with it. By contrasting the two visuals of you procrastinating on the one hand and the solutional behavior of you coming into action, on the other hand, your subconscious mind will create a shortcut.

This shortcut will lead you directly into action mode as soon as you start thinking about procrastinating.

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Key point:

So, defeat your procrastination once and for all and start performing mental contrasting!

Use mental contrasting to develop mental toughness

The sixth benefit of mental contrasting is that it will help you to develop more mental toughness. When Viktor Frankl was reflecting on how to master the challenges of life (in his case living through Nazi concentration camp during World War II), he wrote that it was not relevant to ask what you expect from life. Far more relevant is what you will do about it.

Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. This is where mental contrasting will help you.

Mental contrasting will make you more responsible for your actions. It will put you in the drivers’ seat. Instead of complaining about what life did to you, you will take action on what needs to be done.

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Key point:

Use mental contrasting to develop mental toughness.

Make mental contrasting a daily habit. Incorporate it into your morning routine.

Mental Contrasting as a Morning Routine

Mental contrasting is a great tool to train your mind to be more resilient. Developing mental toughness will serve as a great asset for you, so you will be more successful in achieving your goals. The best way is to make mental contrasting a daily habit.

Mental contrasting will be your two-edged sword:

You will become more successful because you use mental contrasting to achieve your goals on a daily basis.

You will become even more successful because you develop mental toughness by using mental contrasting regularly.

So, what are you waiting for? Start using mental contrasting right here and right now!

Okay, let me help you to start with mental contrasting.

Download the Mental Contrasting Cheat Sheet for FREE here

Start with downloading this FREE cheat sheet on mental contrasting. Then, immediately start using the cheat sheet for your most urgent goal right now.

Are you ready to take your success to the next level?

Beyond Mental Contrasting

Mental contrasting can be made even more effective. The trick is to develop an action plan for every obstacle you encounter. There is a whole method for this, called WOOP. In this method, you combine mental contrasting with setting implementation intentions, and this will make you even more successful in achieving your goals.


You were probably already familiar with positive visualization before. In this article, I’ve shown you that only using positive visualization is not doing you a great job. It even turns out that people who only use positive visualization are more depressed than people who use negative visualization. Instead, I’ve shown you another type of visualization which is way more effective: Mental Contrasting.

Don't stop at positive visualization. Also apply negative thinking and you will be more successful!

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Mental contrasting gives you a higher chance of achieving your goals, more energy and it will develop your mental toughness which makes obstacles in your life a piece of cake, as well as dealing with negative feedback for that matter.

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Over to you

Please leave a comment below by telling us how you are using mental contrasting in your life.

Thank you already in advance for sharing your thoughts and insights!

About Harry Heijligers.

Harry Heijligers has been a project manager for more than 25 years and a NLP trainer and mental coach for more than 17 years.

On his website he writes about personal transformation and becoming successful in whatever dream you pursue.

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