The Toxicity Of Trying To Live In The Past Or In The Future
Hanging on to guilt is trying to live in the past. Fear is trying to live in the future. The only place we can really live is now.
By David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)
There are two personality traits that will make your life easier if you can acquire them:
- Not Living In The Past — Letting Go Of Guilt
- Not Living In The Future — Not Suffering Today The Pain You May Encounter Tomorrow
Not Living In The Past — Letting Go Of Guilt
Guilt is the memory of doing wrong combined with empathy for the person hurt by that wrong.
People who have no empathy can’t feel guilt. They are sociopaths.
Guilt is an effective mechanism to correct bad behavior. It motivates us to recognize our mistake, do whatever we can to fix the damage we’ve caused, and commit to do better the next time.
But because we don’t have a time machine, that’s all we can do. Beyond that, continuing to punish ourselves with guilt is worse than useless. It’s a harmful choice to live in pain and in the past, and we need to stop it.
Unfortunately, many people don’t allow themselves to get past the guilt. In a form of masochism, they feel that they deserve to be punished so they let the guilt sit there, nurturing it and slowly poisoning themselves.
And, if any happiness does happen to enter their life, they push it away because they think they don’t deserve to ever be happy again.
“How dare I be happy when Billy is dead? What kind of a person enjoys a party after they’ve done what I’ve done?” they ask themselves as if having a decent life is immoral and they deserve to be unhappy forever as punishment for their mistake.
If we had a working amnesia machine we could free ourselves from guilt by erasing the memory of our wrongful conduct.
But we don’t, so in order to survive we have to turn off the guilt by an exercise of will. We have to tell ourselves:
“What’s done is done. I’m sincerely sorry for what I did. I’m going to do everything I can to never make that same mistake again. I’ve done everything I can to make amends. I can’t go back in time and undo it. Continuing to punish myself over mistakes I cannot fix is an exercise in masochism and futility. I cannot live in the past.”
To save ourselves, we need to turn the guilt into just a memory of the past and not constant suffering in the present.
Not Punishing Yourself Today With The Pain You May Encounter Tomorrow
Living In Fear Of What Might Happen
Planning is a powerful tool we can use to have a more successful life or at least a less mistake-filled one. By anticipating problems we can often avoid them. By anticipating opportunities we can often take better advantage of them.
The problem comes from having a personality that is obsessed with predicting some kind of a potential future pain and then choosing to live in fear today of the pain that might or might not happen tomorrow.
People who live this way construct a mental series of ever more dire events like a row of dominoes and then, over and over, they imagine them toppling.
Your company is having problems. You know that you might get laid off. You lie in bed worrying,
- What if I lose my job?
- If I lose my job, I won’t have health insurance.
- If I lose my health insurance and I get sick, the hospital bills could bankrupt me.
- If I get sick and I don’t go to the hospital, I could die.
This is common. To some extent we all do this, but it’s an exercise in trying to live in the future, unnecessarily suffering the feared failures and disappointments of tomorrow, today.
When we do this we not only choose to experience today the pain we might feel in the future, but if the feared event does occur we suffer that pain twice — both now and also later.
And if the disaster doesn’t happen, we’ve tortured ourselves for nothing.
It’s one thing to recognize a potential future problem and another to punish yourself by worrying about it now before it actually happens.
The future does not yet exist. Those painful events do not yet exist. They may never exist.
Recognizing that a problem might arise is an act of logic.
Living in fear now of all the bad things that might happen to you later is just another way of trying to live in a future that today is only an illusion.
We cannot successfully live in the future any more than we can live in the past. No good will come from trying to do it.
Suffering Today From A Pain You Will Not Experience Until Tomorrow
From time to time we find ourselves in situations where we know that at some point in the future we will experience pain — a pending operation, a court hearing, etc.
People who choose to live in the future allow tomorrow’s pain to poison today’s happiness.
I used to marvel at the mobsters who seemed to be able to enjoy life while under indictment or awaiting sentencing. How could they tune out the knowledge that in a few weeks they were going to be thrown into prison?
I think the key to dodging that bullet is being able to force yourself to recognize that tomorrow does not exist and, for you, may never exist. You have to have the mental toughness to refuse to live in tomorrow, to refuse to experience future pain in advance.
Easy to say. Difficult to do.
We Cannot Live In Yesterday Or Tomorrow
The people who instinctively, automatically, don’t feel the lure of re-living today the pain of the past or anticipating today the pain of the future are lucky indeed.
For the rest of us who don’t have that innate ability, we constantly need to remind ourselves that
- the past is irretrievably gone
- the future does not yet exist
- all we have is now
We deserve a now that is not tainted by
- old mistakes we regret but cannot undo or
- a future pain that has not yet arrived.
It’s not easy to let go of the guilt and fear. Not everyone can do it. But we need to try and even if we are only partially successful, it’s worth the effort.
— David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)