We Think of Our Future Selves as Strangers
Try to imagine your birthday next year. Now visualize yourself in 20 years, on your birthday. Did you see yourself through your own eyes blowing out the candles? What did you see in 20 years? Was it someone else, unfamiliar, who was blowing out the candles? For many people, it is extremely difficult to connect to a future version of themselves. I know that I never imagined the person I am today when I thought about my life 20 years down the road.
This disconnect between our current selves and that future version that is out there in the distance can make it difficult to make life choices that are beneficial to our future selves. Not having an emotional connection to our future selves makes it more difficult to make long-term plans, fulfill the goals we set for ourselves, and complete long-term projects. Given that our recovery journey is a long-term project, I’m sure you can see the importance of developing an emotional connection to our future selves.
The Science Behind Connecting to Our Future Self
The importance of connecting to our future selves is grounded in scientific evidence. Scientists from Stanford University used fMRI scans of research participant’s brains to compare neural patterns. Their research focused on the rostral anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, which experience more activity when a person thinks about himself. They found that when people were asked to describe their self ten years from now, their neurological patterns were similar to those patterns formed when thinking about another person such as a celebrity, instead of resembling the neurological patterns formed when thinking about their current self.
This same data was evidenced across the board of the research project. So, from the perspective of their brain, the future self was a completely different person. Those participants that had the widest variance between their view of their present and future self were also the least likely to defer immediate gratification for future rewards. These are the people for whom procrastination can be a serious problem.
If the part of your brain that lights up when you think of your current self is not the same as the part that is engaged when you think about your future self, it makes sense that it is difficult to take action today for some future version of yourself that you don’t feel connected to. For most of us, it’s the here and now that feels important. The “just for today” takes precedent over the “what about ten years from now.” Why not eat that extra piece of cake?
These same researchers found that by helping participants develop an emotional connection with their future selves, they were also more likely to participate in more future-oriented behavior. The correlation between a strong emotional connection to our future self and a willingness to put in the necessary work today to reap the benefits for our future self indicates how valuable and nurturing this relationship can be.
Impacts of Disconnection From Your Future Self
When we are disconnected from our future selves, we are less likely to consider the impact that today’s actions have on our future. Our biases towards thinking in terms of the present make immediate gratification a more tempting option. We can see, feel, and taste the impact of our decisions in the present, but their effects on our future selves are a lot less tangible. For many of us who have struggled with addiction and substance abuse disorders, this is an all too familiar mindset.
Plus, we all tend to be overly positive about the expectations of our ability to make better decisions tomorrow. This disconnection impacts those who don’t struggle with substance abuse as well.
Here are a few areas of our lives that can be impacted by a disconnection with our future selves:
It can be much more difficult to save money for retirement when you can’t even begin to connect to the version of yourself that is 40 years in the future. So, instead of putting that tax refund into a retirement fund, you take a trip to Disney. But what if you had a picture of your 75-year-old self on your computer screen while you were making that decision? Would you still go to Disney? The research shows that simply having an avatar that resembles our aged self can cause us to deliberate a little longer and make a better choice for our future self.
How many of us can relate to the “I’ll start my diet tomorrow” syndrome? And then tomorrow comes, but your brain is still not connected to that future version of yourself, and instead of starting that diet, you have that piece of cake or take a nap instead of a walk. Would you still participate in behavior that can put you at risk for chronic disease if you felt emotionally connected and responsible for that future version of yourself?
Would you still cheat on a test or steal that purse if you knew what the impact would be on your future self? If you could see your future self, sitting in jail, would you be as likely to break into someone’s house to steal a TV? Research shows that those who have an emotional connection to their future self are less likely to behave in unethical ways.
Making sacrifices today for a better future in 20 years can be a tough sell when you have no real connection to that person. Sleeping in on the weekend is much easier than studying for a test, especially when you lack a connection to that future Fortune 500 version of yourself. Besides, you can get up early next weekend. Unfortunately, next weekend you will still have that present-day mindset that put you in this situation last weekend.
Would you choose to snort cocaine just for fun at that party you went to after work if you could see your future self dealing with withdrawal symptoms? Or would you still go to your daughter’s birthday party drunk out of your mind, if you could see your future self, living alone in an apartment because your wife divorced you and you no longer have custody of your children? The immediate gratification we derive from a substance can quickly turn into abuse and addiction for our future self that we never connect with our actions at the moment.
The thing is, until we change from a present-day bias in our thinking and connect more emotionally to our future selves, we will keep putting things off and making decisions that are based on immediate gratification.
Your Connection to Your Future Self Impacts Your Recovery Journey
It isn’t that difficult to see how a disconnection to the future version of ourselves contributes to the choices that many of us made that lead us down the path of substance abuse. The immediate gratification of getting high or having that drink was much more tangible than the idea that our future self might end up in a rehab facility, especially when our mind thinks of our future self in the same way it views a stranger. Why would we prioritize the health and happiness of someone we aren’t connected to above the happiness and immediate gratification of this real-time version of ourselves?
If this disconnection to our future self contributed to the person we are today, then it is only logical that we can choose to connect to our future self in such a way as to make better decisions and to support our recovery process. Instead of only seeing ourselves as an alcoholic or an addict who is confined to that role, and all that comes with it, we can focus on our future selves and the goals we have for the future. If we can emotionally connect to a non-using version of ourselves, and make choices that will support that vision, then, based on science, we should find those positive choices are much easier to make.
Visualization is a powerful tool for bringing about change. The more vivid and realistic you can make that vision of a positive future self, and the more you can align it with your present self, the more likely you will be to act in a way that supports that vision. You will find that it is easier to sacrifice the immediate gratification of today to support that future self that you have grown to care about.
Imagine a future birthday party for your children where you are not only present physically but mentally and emotionally too. Imagine getting a promotion at your job or receiving a 5-year coin for your sobriety journey. The more real your goals are for your future self, the more you can connect that person to who you are today.
Another great tool for developing a closer connection to this vision is to write a letter from your future self, thanking your present-day self for having the courage to make the kinds of changes that allowed these positive milestones to happen. What actions did you take? How did you change your behavior? What sacrifices led to that future success?
Benefits of Connecting to Our Future Self
Taking the time to emotionally connect with our future selves can change the way we think and strengthen our ability to make positive choices in the present moment. Making simple changes such as playing out a decision before we act on it can connect us more deeply to our future self. Before deciding to put something off until tomorrow, play out the scenario.
If I don’t finish studying today and put it off till next week, then I’ll have to stay up late after I get off work to finish my studying. If I work late, I’ll be too tired to study and then fall asleep. Then when I have to take the test the next day, I’ll be tired and unprepared… may as well study now. Taking the 20 seconds to walk yourself through the impact of your decision on your future self has now changed your brain’s neural process to think of your future self as being more directly connected to your present actions.
The more time we spend connecting to our future self, the more integrated that version of our self becomes with our present-day self. The most successful people have a strong connection to the future version of themselves and can act in such a way as to bring that vision to fruition. They can delay immediate gratification because they are deeply connected to the future vision of themselves.
Ways to Connect to Our Future Self
Taking the time to focus on better connections with your future self can provide the motivation you need to develop healthy habits in the here and now. Think about what you envision for your future self. What do your relationships look like? What does your recovery look like for your future self?
The following writing prompts can serve as a starting point to developing that connection:
- Try to envision your life five years from now. What does your path look like? What kind of work do you do? Where do you live? How do you spend your free time? How do you feel physically and emotionally? Try to visualize yourself in 10 years, and then farther down the path at 20 years from now. Have you chosen a different path for yourself? Are you doing the same work? Are you living in a different place?
- Write a letter to your “current self “from your “future self.” What type of advice do you think they might offer you? What kind of personal insight into your growth could they teach you? What have they learned in the future that can help you now?
- Take some time in the morning to consider how your present actions impact where you will be in the next 5,10, or 20 years. If that seems too far off, try the prompt using a year from now. Then make a list of actions you can take today that will have a positive impact on bringing you closer to your vision of your future self.
Prioritize a Relationship With Your Future Self
The path of recovery requires that we not only take each 24-hour day, minute by minute but also that we envision a future for ourselves that is full of the things that we define as success and the love and joy of our friends and family. Our journey is a journey of discovering ourselves, and that includes connecting to the vision that we have for our future self. The more we can bring this vision to life and stay connected to this non-using version of ourselves, the more likely we are to make the positive choices that will make this future our reality.
Making a friend out of the stranger that our future self can be, is a beneficial step for anyone who wants to make more positive choices in the here and now. It can help you stop procrastination tendencies, delay immediate gratification, and improve your lifestyle to benefit your future. Take the next step on your journey of self-discovery today.
Experienced Chief Executive Addiction Recovery and Mental Health Professional
Business professional in the Addiction Recovery and Mental Health industry for the past 26 years. Caring, compassionate and strongly motivated to make a difference in the organizations I am affiliated with and welfare of the population we serve. Currently focused on advocating, educating and developing projects leveraging evidence based, real time technology to support individuals in recovery.