Situations happen, more often than we are comfortable admitting, where we wish we’d done something other than what we did. We may attempt to pass the behavior off as a result of hunger, lack of sleep, another person’s actions towards us, or a mental diagnosis, but all of these are simply pointers to some version of the common phrase: “that wasn’t who I really am.” In other words, we are quite comfortable with imaginatively projecting a version of ourselves who acted other than what actually happened. We empathize with, and perhaps even envy, a version of ourselves that exists only in our mind. Self-control becomes a conversation about who we wish to be.
Explore Your Future Self
Thankfully imagination is not tied only to a past of recrimination and self-doubt. It can move into the future as well and bring with it versions of yourself that indeed do exactly what you desire to do. The same mechanism can be a tool for leaving us stuck in a past of impossibility, where we get caught up in a world that now never could be, or allow us to explore a future that we in fact do want to live in.
The nature of the present rarely allows us to consciously select what we supposedly find most important. Only in contemplating what we wish we’d done differently or in looking to how we’d like to be, does what we Value come into focus. That Value is used to color an entire situation in what has become fixated as being most important.
Narrow Perspective is a Trap
There’s a trap here though, one of narrow perspective-taking. Bring to mind those occasions when something seemed to suddenly appear out of your peripheral vision. When focused on a task and startled by someone suddenly being next to you. Perspective-taking is powerful, but it is also extremely limiting. We lose sight of what is around us. While this is great for pushing behavior in service to a goal, it is incredibly poor for keeping in mind the broader world and all its influences.
What you’re doing when using the past to pass judgment is funneling it through a present already mired in its own limitation. Values guide the selection of behavior to support them. When you say you should have done otherwise you’re effectively saying you should have cared about something differently in that moment. But that’s the problem right there, you’re no longer in that situation which existed. Further, you’re no longer the you that existed then. You’re someone new, someone who has more information than previously, someone who has the capacity to judge what has come before because there is now a ‘before’ to consider.
A Value Always Exists
The fact is that the you in the past did care about something, a Value that called out a behavior to support it. The behavior was something which, in that context, was seen as the only possible thing to do. If you pause and reflect for a moment, odds are you’ll be able to see what that Value was and perhaps acknowledge that it’s still something you care about.
Here is where the imagined you of the future can be greater than the past. It simply has more to build with. The future can be one of recognizing how in every situation is a Value that may be selected to guide behavior, yet acknowledging how there are always more Values that matter to you. Rather than getting caught in the trap of narrow perspective and risk behaving in a way that undermines or ignores a Value, you can take the time to contemplate what all there is you care about and how best to support them.
Self-control is not about control, shaming or manipulating yourself through a technique. Self-control is the flexible mental space to see the many Values that exist in a given moment and act within that greater appreciation towards the best version you believe yourself capable of being.
The future awaits the you that you want to be.
Yong, Ed. Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self. The Atlantic. December 6, 2016.
Hayes, Dr. Stephen. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life