When I studied Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) I got into the habit of thinking about how the words I choose might influence my actions or the way I am in the world. I had already experimented with this before when I’d finished reading ‘How To Win Friends and Influence People’. In it the author says one of the surest ways we can perpetuate the idea that we’re bad at remembering names is by repeatedly saying we are.
After reading that book I spent weeks telling myself I was good at remembering names. I made a point of making eye contact and repeating someone’s name immediately after they said it to me — in confirmation and as reinforcement. I said that I was good with names — and it worked.
I was reminded of the success of this experiment while studying NLP and I began looking at other things I say which are, in fact, an oral confirmation of something I would like to change or some aspect of my thinking which limits me, intentionally or not.
One such phrase I began looking at was: I’m looking forward to it.
A seemingly harmless phrase that expresses enjoyment at the prospect of something approaching on the horizon of our experience. So minor and also so very common.
I don’t believe there is anything ‘wrong’ with looking forward to things. We all do it and sometimes it’s downright fun. Anticipation is a juicy experience and can be incredibly enjoyable.
But there is a risk that we begin to perpetually look forward and therefore lose our appreciation for whatever is happening in the present moment.
I first became aware of this when I was about eleven or twelve. My mum had been given tickets through work to attend the Grandstand Show at the Calgary Stampede. I’d never been before but I knew it was a showcase of singing, acrobatics and marching bands all rounded off with a fantastic fireworks display.
I was giddy with excitement.
I was overjoyed with anticipation and unabashed glee.
I couldn’t wait for the night to finally come!
When it did it was amazing. I remember it quite well overall. The general thrill of the lights and colour on stage and of course the complete awe and wonder at being that close to the fireworks display.
But what I remember even more clearly was the hangover after.
I remember leaving the venue, bouncing through the parking lot, absolutely full of beans from the whole thing. I was giddy and energized and utterly thrilled and then…
The next morning, it was all gone. And not just gone — it was replaced with a dull ache. There was this sense of nothing to look forward to. A sense of energy having been spent. Of enjoyment cashed in. Of impending boredom and a lot of ‘meh’ on the horizon.
As a child my experience of life took spiderman leaps between euphoric experiences. School was a dull plod between the giddy thrill of Christmas, Spring and Summer holidays. The monotony of life was a dull plod between going camping, going on a road trip, going to Disney World!
Everything was just waiting, waiting until the next thing, and sometimes the next thing wasn’t known. In the case of the Grand Stand show that was it. There was nothing to ‘look forward to’ and I woke up with a hangover of experience.
I wouldn’t have described it as that at the time, of course. I was a just a kid, but I remember the feeling very clearly now, as an adult. I remember thinking about it through my teenage years and struggling with the idea that I always had to have something to ‘look forward to’ in order for my life to feel meaningful or worthwhile.
As an adult I assessed the phrase and its usefulness. Yes, it conveys excited anticipation and appreciation for things to come, but it also has the potential to distract from right now.
There is no point on the horizon when we will only be residing in the things we look forward to. Life is constantly changing, the present moment is constantly changing, and we’re living it in the now whether we like it or not.
So now I make a point of not saying I’m looking forward to things. Not because I don’t (of course I do, I’m only human) but as a reminder to be present and appreciate the richness of what is happening right now.
I don’t want my anticipation to distract me so much that I miss the setting sun on a Tuesday evening or the way the wind can clear a grey sky of clouds in less than twenty minutes. I don’t want to miss the reflection of the moon in a puddle or the sound of the rain hitting my window at night. I don’t want to miss a silly conversation with a co-worker or a gentle moment of appreciative silence with my cat curled on my lap.
Every time I feel the phrase ‘I’m looking forward to that’ slide into my head and skirt the edge of my lips I pause and make a point of noticing something right then and there that is worth being present for.
I can honestly say that I’ve never failed to find something to appreciate that’s happening just then. And it reminds me that looking forward is fine but being present is all we really have.