As a common practice, employers the world over ask their potential candidates a simple question: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?”
This line of questioning is meant to learn a candidate’s headspace, both in terms of their own plans for the future. and where they see themselves fitting within that framework. A candidate who has no clue where they will be in 5-10 years might seem, to an employer, to have no direction or purpose, especially when it comes to their goals within that company.
If a person cannot visualize themselves in a position within the company for which they’re applying, happy, successful, and possibly in a higher position than the job they’re applying for, how are employers to have faith in their prospective employee’s motivation for applying?
It’s similar for those in recovery from substance abuse disorder. The ability to visualize ourselves in a position of health, happiness, and continued recovery without relapse is paramount to recovery. As I explored the benefits of the visualization of success in recovery in part 1 of this blog series, I’ll likewise explore the detriments of not visualizing our future selves regarding our recovery—a roadblock many of us experience on our journeys of recovery.
Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Good-Looking Corpse
James Dean once said, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” As morbid and disturbing as this quote is, I’ve found that it resonates with the youth of today in a big way. In fact, the sentiment has even evolved into a more modern iteration: “YOLO,” which is an acronym for “You Only Live Once”. The reasoning behind this phrase is that this is the only life you are given so you might as well live life right up to the hilt. You can find this phrase on t-shirts, mugs, water bottles, and even blankets, for some reason.
At first glance, this “YOLO” mentality might seem fun, clever, and certainly less morbid than Dean’s viewpoint. Unlike Dean’s reckoning, there is less emphasis on death in the future and more emphasis on our lives in the present, which serves to make it much more attractive to youth. Unfortunately, the phrase has also shifted in meaning as it’s become popular, as the most viral catchphrases often do. Instead of a “seize the day/carpe diem” sentiment, it’s become a rallying cry of unaccountability and encouragement to take unnecessary risks. The mindset is exceedingly harmful because it completely separates who we are today from our future selves, who will inevitably experience the fallout from today’s decisions.
Teens’ Future Planning (Or Lack Thereof)
It should come as no surprise that the younger subset of the populace has a tough time imagining their future selves as themselves, just “older”. So, it follows that making life-altering decisions that might affect a teen’s life later comes from this disconnection from their future selves. When teens make decisions like committing a crime or cheating on an important test, they often focus on the immediate consequences—punishment from parents and teachers versus the fact that a conviction will affect their permanent record and academic dishonesty will one day look unfavorable on a college application.
We are predisposed to miss the connections between our present and future selves. In social media, we see that adults today are being taken to task for problematic photos, comments, social media posts and other communiques of their youth, sometimes decades in the past. At the time, most of these individuals had no regard for what the behavior could mean for them in the future. While I can’t speak to the fairness of asking an adult to answer for the “crimes” of their younger, more frivolous selves, it is very much a reality today, especially with social media—and social evidence of the dangers of disconnection with your future self.
Inability to Visualize Future Self and Its Harm
Believe it or not, this mindset is not just employed by teenagers, as evidenced by the adults the world over who use this “YOLO” phrase unironically before they engage in risky or dangerous behavior. While a teenager’s lack of impulse control is backed by science because their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, the science behind an adult’s risky behavior lies heavily in how we fail to visualize our future selves. Similarly, in teenagers, risk-taking and James Deansian “Rebel Without a Cause” behavior is also understandable and can serve a purpose. Some of the risks taken in youth will not result in positive future outcomes, but may provide life lessons. For adults, the consequences are much more dire.
For example, an adult who does not plan for their end-of-life expenses by way of life insurance could leave their family with hefty funeral expenses and a mountain of debt when they inevitably die. Yet, many of us do just that. While we’re living life, the concept of death is too scary and too troublesome to think about, so we procrastinate and “put off ‘til tomorrow what could be done today”.
Another instance of our need to visualize our future selves as they connect with our present decisions is when we make plans for retirement. By the time we reach federal retirement age at 65 years old, those of us who don’t have a retirement fund or pension must either ask for financial help from children or other family members or keep working to support our expenses. Where we fail, so to speak, is in visualizing ourselves as a retired person later in life when we’re younger. For a time, I, too, fell into the trap of this mindset, until my current path helped me see that the successful person I am today is connected to my past decisions as well as the self I will be in the future.
Why Do We Procrastinate on Important Decisions?
According to fMRI scans run by Hal Hershfield of the Harvard Business Review with G. Elliot Wimmer and Brian Knutson of Stanford: “Many people feel disconnected from the individuals they’ll be in the future and, as a result, discount rewards that would later benefit them. But brief exposure to aged images of the self can change that behavior.” By being able to visualize themselves as physically older using a visual aid, subjects in the Hershfield study were able to shift their thinking in favor of striving for future rewards.
He further studied how people viewed themselves in the future as compared to how they viewed Hollywood celebrities like Matt Damon and Natalie Portman. Surprisingly, people tended to view themselves in the future and the actors in the same light – as strangers.
Hershfield found that, after reading about celebrities’ lives in gossip magazines, social media, and the like, we continue to regard them as strangers even with our “inside look” into their day-to-day lives. This is because they are strangers – we have never met these people in person, and we have not developed any kind of meaningful interpersonal relationship with them. Our inability to empathize with them, especially with the disparities in income and lifestyle, is normal and understandable.
However, the realization that we largely view our future selves the same as we view celebrities is somewhat alarming. This disconnect and the perception of our future selves as strangers is apparent when you consider alcohol, drug, and even tobacco use. Even with decades of scientific knowledge, readily available on the internet, of what happens to healthy lungs over years of smoking, people still choose to do so. They see their respiratory health as “future me’s” problem, unable to see the irony that “future me” and “current me” have the same set of lungs.
Future Visualization in Recovery
When we make decisions to use illicit drugs or develop a dependency on addictive substances, we are not visualizing our future selves at all. Much like the hypothetical smoker above, we are laying the burden of consequence on a future stranger, not connecting them with ourselves. Drinking to excess with friends seems like a fun time in the moment, especially with alcohol’s inhibiting effect. For many people experiencing addiction, the impact large amounts of alcohol or drugs have on the body, whether a hangover the next morning or liver failure from repeated excessive use years later, are still “future me’s” problem.
The disconnect can persist once recovery begins, delaying progress towards a future of sobriety and health. For this reason, during recovery from substance use disorder, future self-visualization is key. A therapist or mental health professional might implement the techniques employed by Hershfield and his colleagues mentioned above, such as displaying an age progressed photo to help lock in a person’s connection to their future self and what that might look like. Another way of doing this is to have a person close their eyes and really visualize, vividly, where they are in their recovery in a year’s time, 5 years’ time, and moving forward. By doing this, we are seeing ourselves as successful in recovery and truly identifying with our future selves. This further solidifies our motivation to achieve that goal of sobriety/successful recovery.
Conversely, by remaining disconnected from our future selves, we’re unable to see ourselves in sobriety—or even visualize what the alternative of remaining in addiction might truly mean for us. We remain blind to what sobriety might look like in terms of our relationships with our family and friends, our future work success, and how sobriety now affects our future selves. Without building these connections, that sober person in our future is a stranger, diminishing our personal investment in them, and making that goal much harder to achieve.
In many instances, inability to see ourselves as a sober person in the future, free of substance use disorder, can discourage us from continuing to receive help. Or, it can hinder and prolong our journey of recovery. Instead, work to develop a true connection with your future, sober, self, and continue your recovery in harmony with your goals for success.
Start Visualizing A Better Future Today
At ECHO Recovery, we are committed to educating the public about recovery and all the latest science behind it, including future-self visualization as a method of motivating a person to seek help with substance use disorder. We are also passionately fighting the stigma of substance use disorder and its negative effect on those in recovery.
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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.