You can feel you heart beating faster, your palms sweating, and your breath shortening. No, you're not having a heart attack - you're just worrying. A drastic and life changing event has occurred and all you can do is replay it over and over in your head, each time falling into a deeper state of anxiety. You try to snap yourself out of it and think toward the future, but now your mind starts visualising countless versions of the future that have been negatively influenced by this one event. You're not worrying anymore - you're panicking. Your mind is jumping so quickly between replaying the event (somehow it seems worse each time) and fearing the future (which also somehow looks worse each time) that you're out of control. You literally have no control. You wander aimlessly, you miss your train stop, you bump into a stranger causing him to spill his coffee on you, and you step right into a puddle that you hope is just water. You're so focused on other things, on the other tenses in your life, that you do not pay attention to the present tense. You miss out on living because you are too worried about something else.
Apart from being annoyingly written in the second person did that story conjure up any emotions in you? Does it sound familiar? Perhaps a little too familiar? If so then you need to change how you view the past, future, and present tense in your life. The attitude of being attached to, and driven by, the past and the future is very detrimental. It causes stress, anxiety, and worry. In fact, this style of thinking is the cause of every negative emotion in your life.
Even if the above example was foreign to you, the chances are that you are still too focused on the past and the future, and not enough on living life to the fullest in the present.
The Past is for Learning, not Worrying
The biggest mistake people make when referring to the past is that they do so from a position of negativity - worrying and stressing over actions and events that cannot be changed. No matter what your past holds the simple fact is that you cannot do anything about it. You cannot edit out the bits you do not like or add in something new that you wish you had done, just like you cannot go back and change the historical events that have shaped humankind.
Revisiting the past over and over again is a form of masochism. It is basic self torture and it provides absolutely no benefit to your life.
When we look toward the past we see it through the lens of our current situation. We see it and judge it based on our current level of knowledge which is not fair to the past. The past occurred in a different time, a time when we thought differently, had less experiences, and had less knowledge. To take a major decision from our past and hold it up for analysis against our current thinking is saying that every time we make a decision we should first look into the future and see what the outcome will be of that decision and how we will judge it in the future beyond that.
I think it's safe for me to assume that no-one reading this article has the ability to look into the future. I'm happy to be proved wrong though. :)
So when looking at the past, we need a paradigm shift. We need to view it differently. The past is not meant to be judged, ridiculed, or regretted. It is not meant to be dwelt on, replaying events over in our mind and drudging up associated negative emotions. The past is simply not meant for worrying - it is meant for learning.
The past is only useful when we can learn something from it.
We can look back at past events - the electric car, the moon landing, or the time you cut your hair into a Mohawk and dyed it green - and we can learn from them. Maybe these were great ideas, or maybe not. Either way, we cannot change them but we can learn from them. The next time someone dares you to get a crazy haircut you can weigh it up using the lessons learned from your past experiences. That is what the past is for.
If you got up every day regretting that silly green Mohawk then you are not learning from it – you are torturing yourself for no reason. Once you have learned the lesson then there is no other benefit that looking to the past can provide and it is time to move on.
The green Mohawk is an obviously silly example but I did it that way to illustrate a point: we cannot change anything in our past, no matter how small and inconsequential, like a silly haircut. But we also cannot change it no matter how large and life-altering the event was. All we can do is learn from it and use that knowledge to grow and shape our lives for the future.
The Future is for Planning, not Worrying
Onto the next biggest focal point for worry and stress in our lives - the future.
The future, by its very nature, is unknown. It is the future. It is magical, it is forever changing, and it is uncontrollable. No matter how much you think (and worry) about the future the simple fact of the matter is that you cannot control it and it will probably not turn out the way you think. In fact, I guarantee that it wont. And the bigger the future event that you are worrying about is, and the longer into the future that it is, the less likely that it will turn out even remotely like you expected.
The future we worry about is just a state of imagination that exists in our mind. The real future is just the result of all the individual actions that occur from now up until that moment, at which point it stops being the future and becomes the present for one brief second until it passes and then it is just another part of our past.
We cannot predict what happens tomorrow, next week, or next month. Worrying about these future tenses of our life is pointless because it is guaranteed that things will change between now and then. If you were asked "where you will be and what will you be doing in 5 years?" do you really think that you would get it 100% correct? Do you really think that in 5 years time everything would have occurred exactly as you intended?
The future is not for worrying, but for planning. And only loose planning at that.
Your life will never happen as you plan it and that is great news because what a boring life that would be. A life where everything happens exactly as planned is an unhappy life. The reason for this is that you NEVER have the knowledge, skills, or experience to plan exactly what you want for the rest of your life. What you think you will want in 10, 20, or 30 years will be very different to what you actually want when you get there.
Planning for the future is just a means of preparation. A plan is not an exact execution but rather simple preparedness for a predefined list of possibilities.
Setting goals is the best method of planning for the future. Our goals are used as guiding principles in our lives and they shape our actions. By considering all the options and setting our goals we define the direction in which we want to travel, and we can use this knowledge to guide all of our decisions and actions in the present.
The Present is for Living, not Worrying
The present tense - the moment in which we have the most control, the moment in which we can define our life, and the moment that we waste worrying about every other part of our life.
Worrying is wasteful, especially when done in the present. Each moment you spend worrying and stressing in the present is preventing you from living your life. You miss out on actually experiencing and enjoying life, and instead spend it filled with negative emotions.
In the present you still only have control over your own actions, thoughts and decisions. Everything else is outside your control and is superfluous to you living a happy and enjoyable life. If you cannot change it then why worry about it? Instead of taking a negative viewpoint and worrying about the present, focus your mind on what is in your control. Focus on living.
Living means being in the moment, paying close attention to what is happening all around you but more importantly what is happening inside you. Listen to that internal voice that tells you what to do, acknowledge your feelings and what causes them, and observe how you respond to all external stimuli.
Doing this brings your mind into the present. It focuses your attention on what is occurring around you right now and how it affects you. Being cognisant of this creates an amazing sense of self awareness and control in your life. It allows you to dictate the terms that shape your life and experience a truly happy and fulfilled life.
By creating this positive energy and laser-like focus on the present you can achieve much more in your life. You can make conscious decisions that use your past experiences and future plans as motivators, but always stay focused on the present moment. This is one of the key secrets to being happy in life.
How do you view the past, future, and present?