This article first appeared on Happify
Most of us tend to live a fair bit in the past or in the future. We ruminate about what we did wrong when things don’t go our way. We worry about what can go wrong when we face uncertainty or are called to step outside our comfort zone.
At the same time, this uniquely human ability to time-travel helps us learn from our failures, reflect on our behaviors, and visualize and plan for a better future. The secret to a well-lived life, as professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University Philip Zimbardo has found, is in having the right time perspective. This means not just knowing how much of our time to spend in the past, present, and future, but also being able to engage with these different stages in positive ways.
In my work to help people show up with self-worth and confidence, I’ve found that asking ourselves two questions when we’re caught in the mental chatter of rumination or worry allows us to sift between the essence and the noise, make better decisions, and show up fully every day.
Step into the Past: What would my 4-year-old self want?
It’s counterintuitive to ask ourselves what our immature selves would have done in a situation that calls for insight and rationality. But it’s often reason that makes us prey to “paralysis by analysis,” disconnects us from our true desires, and hooks us onto other people’s expectations of us. “Reason is slave to passion,” philosopher David Hume said back in the 18th century. We justify our fears, rationalize our reasons for playing small, and avoid situations under the pretext that it’s the better decision.
Asking the simple question, “What would my 4-year old want?” allows us to be vulnerable in the face of confusion, loneliness, or frustration. We connect to our true needs and desires, the true expression of who we are, and the interests, strengths, and callings that draw us. Many of us are disconnected with this authentic self, either because we learned to suppress it very early on in our lives, or because we got pulled into the demands of a world that expects us to be a certain way.
When we come back home to ourselves, we can make informed decisions that do not leave us out of the picture. This doesn’t mean being oblivious to our situation, but being able to adapt to the situation from a place of authenticity. Carl Rogers, the father of humanistic psychology, found that this relational aspect is an essential component of our authentic expression.
Step into the Future: What would my 80-year-old self say?
It can be hard to imagine our future selves without feeling a sense of disconnect—and harder still to hear that voice when we are in the throes of a stressful situation. That’s why it’s important to visualize our older version often. It’s also important to talk to ourselves in our future voice so we strengthen it and are able to connect to its wisdom, courage, and perspective when we need it the most.
Professor Paul Gilbert at The Compassionate Mind Foundation calls this wiser version of ourselves the Compassionate Self, and research shows that relating to ourselves with compassion allows us to be courageous in the face of uncertainty, and open-minded in the face of failure. We could all do with an 80-year-old in our heads, given how often we beat down on ourselves just when we need ourselves the most. Often, we turn our backs on opportunities because we’re afraid of uncertainty, and catastrophize the outcome.
But our 80-year-old self has lived through it all. He or she can allay our fears, reassure us that we’ll be fine, and arm us with the very resources, both internal and external, we need to step into our bigger lives. In his latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, historian Yuval Harari writes of what’s needed of us in these volatile and changing times: “Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, learn new things, and preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations.” Our 80-year-old self can be our greatest guide.
And here’s the best part: Being connected with your little child and your older self weaves the thread of continuity that ultimately gives life the timeless coherence of meaning and wholeness.