Forever is composed of nows.– Emily Dickinson
The topic for this week’s blog struck me as I was staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool, distractedly thinking about my lengthy to-do list while swimming laps. I snapped back to reality just before running headfirst into the cement wall lining the pool, indicating just how far away my mind was. It struck me that perhaps I was missing out what I could have been experiencing if I wasn’t so future-focused (we will deep dive types of time-perspectives shortly) If you’ve read my writing in the past, you may already know how firmly rooted I am to the idea of self-awareness. The awareness of time perspective brought me here, to this moment, writing this message to help myself (and you!) live a full, more sustainable, happy life.
Let’s start with the question at the front of our minds: what is time perspective? The time perspective theory is the idea that the way we perceive the past, present, and future impacts our thoughts, emotions, and actions. A Stanford University psychology professor named Philip Zimbardo (you may recognize him as the mastermind behind the Stanford Prison Experiment) developed this theory. His philosophy is based on 5 approaches, or “types.” Review these approaches, or types, below. Which one do you relate with most?
- The ‘past-negative’ type. Having suffered trauma(s) in the past, you focus on what went previously went wrong. You would describe yourself as pessimistic, or as a realist. This can lead to feelings like anger, bitterness, and regret.
- The ‘past-positive’ type. You enjoy remembering “the good ‘ol days” and have a nostalgic view of the past. You keep in touch with family and childhood friends. You enjoy holidays and souvenirs to remind you of the past but may suffer from a cautiously “better safe than sorry” type mentality.
- The ‘present-hedonistic’ type. You are an in-the-moment pleasure-seeker! You may be impulsive, and are reluctant to postpone feeling good, possibly to avoid pain. You may live a less healthy lifestyle, trend towards addictions, and take more risks.
- The ‘present-fatalistic’ type. You feel you have no control of your future and therefore feel stuck in the present. You feel trapped in the moment, powerless to change your future. This may lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, or in some cases risk-taking.
- The ‘future-focused’ type. (sometimes referred to as extreme-future focused) You plan for the future, make to-do lists, and trust your decisions. You are most likely to succeed and stay out of trouble, but may sacrifice personal relationships, intimacy and enjoyment of the present by meticulously planning the future.
Citation: Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo.
The idea of this theory and understanding how you look at the past, present, and future may help you. How? Understanding your needs and values, whether those are reminiscing the past or brightly planning the future, may help you find balance and stability while identify toxic triggers. If you think about it, a lot of people who are unhappy, anxious, rushing around, acting out in a grumpy manner, etc. may simply be out of balance with their time perspective. Picture a coworker or companion that unexpectedly snapped at you recently. It may be a result of them obsessing over past pains, like a divorce or simply wishing it was the way it was before Covid, unable to pull themselves to the present. Another example is someone like myself, too busy plotting a productive day I miss out on the taste of my coffee, the warm shine of afternoon sun, or the smell of fresh rain. We often snap when our mojo is off, and I’m starting to see how essential time-perspective is in achieving sustainability and stability.
We all take time for granted. I think this may be one valuable lesson Covid taught us: we may not realize what we have until it has been taken. Especially intangible things, like freedom and time. We all know living in the past or worrying about the future takes joy out of the present. Understanding time perspective may help us slow down, gain perspective, act with kindness and empathy. So, what are some ways we can balance our time perspective? I’m so glad you asked!
Depending on what your time-perspective is, you may need an individualized approach to finding balance. My first suggestion is to seek a therapist that seeks to understand your past traumas, future burdens, and present mentality. Therapy is always a helpful resource – speaking from experience as I still keep in touch with my trusted therapist from high school! A few examples of balancing time perspective can be found below.
If you identified with the past-negative approach, boosting positive experiences may help lessen the traumas deeply rooted in your past. Boosting positive past experiences or memories may be helpful, as well as identifying bright future events. Enlightening yourself with positive past and present events regularly may be helpful!
If you identified with present-fatalistic, giving yourself permission to do things you enjoy may help balance the fear and trapped feelings you feel in the present moment. Perhaps hanging out with some present-hedonistic types will help! Relationships that have different time perspectives may prove useful to all types.
If you identified with future focused but find you’re a bit extreme or obsessive with planning (or extreme future focused), you may miss out on the pleasures of the here and now, like relationships and intimacy. Making more time for present activities may need to be intentional at first but working it into your future plans by scheduling “activities in the present” may soon become more natural. Asking friends and family to hold you accountable may be wise!
Whether you realize you need to make time to read or give yourself permission to do things you enjoy more, it’s important to deep dive your views on past joys or traumas while understanding how you view the future. This may help you be more present. I know I’ve incorporated simply breathing and taking in my current surroundings as a way to let go of past stressors or future worries. I like the way I feel when I’m in the moment: enjoying the taste of the food I’m eating, the touch of a loved ones fingers interlaced in mine, the smell in the fresh air (or chlorinated pool water, going back to my opening story), or the feel of a hard effort in a workout. Awareness of each sense leads to an experience specific to that moment alone, and all those moments added together make up my life, my memories. Why waste them with negative emotions of the past or future? Reminiscing and planning will always be important ways to remember things or be productive, as long as it’s not at the expensive of my presence.
Be well. Love,