Which has more pull: Past or Future?

This idea caught my attention the other day: Learning to pay attention to the difference between taking an action in order to avoid the past vs. taking an action in order to realize a possible future.

When I’m motivated by the future, I find I have more energy. That future vision can give me extra strength to tackle difficult decisions, to take a little more risk, to withstand more pain in order to achieve something greater. When I’ve been called on to mediate a difficult situation, I’ve learned again and again that if all the parties can agree on a shared vision for the future, the details of how to get there are far easier to negotiate. Even talking about past grievances can be less painful if preceded by a conversation about the future.

In contrast, when I am primarily trying to avoid the repeat of something that happened in the past, I feel defensive, stuck, or anxious. I am protecting myself. I find my capacity to listen and empathize dimishes. I am acting from a place of having been hurt. Paradoxically, my efforts to protect myself somehow help keep that hurt alive. It shows me that the hurt still has power over me, that it’s still very much running the show.

This came up when I was thinking about recent conversations I’ve had about difficult topics. In some, I felt powerful, awake, and alive. I was very much myself and in the present, talking clearly about what I wanted or what I needed to take care of myself without being demanding. The more I talked about it, the more energy I had and the better I felt.

In other conversations, I felt myself making a resolve to “do the right thing” or “get it over with.” My chest was tight and it felt like my vision was narrowed. I found myself nervous about choosing the wrong words, sure that I had to get it right or else I would be misinterpreted and everything would fall apart. Afterwards, I found my inner critic replaying those scenes over and over again in my head, chastising myself for word choices or even for having the conversation at all.

It’s becoming clear to me that in the first example, I was trying to achieve something for the future. In the second, I had no vision for the future, I only wanted to avoid a repeat of the past.

I want to learn this distinction because not only do I feel better in future-motivated conversations, they also have a tendency to go better. I’m more likely to achieve what I really want. Also, past-avoiding conversations have a way of making me feel more isolated while future-motivated ones leave me feeling more connected.

I want to be able to switch or at least stop myself from just reliving the past. I want to step into the future, and I want to be able to do it at will.

Of course, while I’m in the middle of something, it’s hard to stop and recognize what’s driving me. But I’m starting to sort out the clues. The easiest to identify are physical. If I feel my chest tightening and my vision narrowing, then I may be projecting some past pain on the present moment and it’s time to pause. If I feel my energy increasing, then I may be getting drawn into a vision of the future, and it’s a good time to articulate that and nurture it.

Oddly enough, the key to being able to switch from past to future is to get even more grounded in the present. If I can pause long enough to figure out what my body is telling me at that exact moment, I have a better chance at making a choice about how I want to be. And if get that choice, I’m going for the version of me that’s more alive.

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