The Downside of Imagination

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 16, Issue No. 1a
May 1, 2017

By Dan Coughlin


An imagination is an incredibly powerful tool.

It’s through your imagination that you can see a future that does not currently exist. With that picture in your mind you can start to take steps toward making it a reality. This is how all meaningful progress happens. First in the mind, and then in physical reality.

The Downside of Imagination

However, without realizing it, we can create in our minds future situations that are very negative and seem very real, or we can relive situations from our past that no longer are happening. Either way we are eating up valuable time and energy on negative images that don’t exist.

Situation #1

(l learned this exercise in a really interesting book called, “Loyalty to your Soul” by Ron and Mary Hulnick.)

Imagine you’re sitting in a chair in the middle of a room. Your ankles are tied together and your hands are tied behind your back. Your legs and torso are tied to the chair. You have a handkerchief tied around your head and through your mouth. There is a two-foot machete on a small table about ten feet away. There are only two doors into the room. Coming through each door are five angry gang members with guns. You have done something to make them very mad. They are coming to hurt you or maybe kill you.

How do you get out of this situation?

You can’t move or speak. You can’t take back what you did, and they are getting closer and closer to you. What’s the only way out? Keep thinking.

Notice the exercise started with the word “imagine.”

The only way out is to stop imagining it.

Situation #2

Your annual performance review is in two days. You very much want a raise and a promotion. You see your boss at a meeting. He seems to be in a very bad mood. You imagine that he’s angry at you. You think he wants to punish you for a decision you made last week. You’re convinced that you’re either going to get demoted or fired. The raise is out of the question based on the way he’s acting at this meeting. You start thinking about how you’re going to explain this to your spouse. You start to feel sick to your stomach. All your years of hard work are going out the window because of one bad decision last week. You notice that everyone in the meeting is staring at you. They all know what you did. You wish you had never made a decision. You promise yourself to never make any decisions in the future. You’ll just do what the boss wants every time. That way you can never get in trouble. You’re feeling hopeless and helpless. Fear and anxiety are rising.

How can you ever get out of this terrible situation?

Answer: stop imagining it.

Let the Negative Image Go and Create a Positive Image

We sometimes create negative future situations in our mind about our boss, employees, customers, colleagues, friends, family members, finances, work situations, and so on. Then we mentally embellish the situation until it becomes impossible to fix.

What’s the only way out?

Stop imagining it. It never really happened. Let the negative thoughts go. If need be, imagine what you do want to have happen.

Situation #3

Ten years ago you coached a youth sports team. You were really excited to be with the kids and teach the game. You loved bringing the kids together to teach the fundamentals and build teamwork and give out high-fives and pats on the back. You wanted to create kind of an ideal situation where everyone got along and enjoyed playing together. Then you started dealing with parents who didn’t like where you put their son or daughter on the field. They didn’t like the way you coached. They wanted you to stop yelling encouragement and directions. Then others wanted you to talk up more. They didn’t like your messages to the team because you mentioned some kids but not other kids. You recall the intense conversations with parents as though they are happening right now. You’re getting angry as you relive the parents telling you what to do and why your way was all wrong. You keep the argument going day after day in your mind. Every time you do it you get all worked up again.

What’s the only way out of this situation?

Stop imagining it. It isn’t really happening right now. It’s over. Let the negative thoughts go.

Interrupt Your Negative Memory and Replace Your Negative Thoughts

These kinds of situations can happen all day where we relive past negative situations from years ago with our spouse, children, boss, colleagues, employees, customers, and suppliers. As we relive these situations, we get ourselves into an extremely negative state of mind. The negative emotions of helplessness, hopelessness, fear, anger, and worry become very real within us.

Negative mental creations are like weeds in a yard. They can crop up and take over an otherwise healthy mind. Whenever you imagine a negative past event, close your eyes and shake your head back and forth.

Then say to yourself, “Stop imagining it. Wake up.”

Then move forward with your day. If need be, relive the healthy, positive experiences from your past. The key is to take control of what you are imagining.

An imagination is an incredibly powerful tool, but it’s only useful if we handle it with care.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

Back to Newsletter Page