Stories of the Future
Updated: Jan 11
We spend a fair amount of time worrying about what might happen, forgetting that we’re simply making up stories. Why not change the story?
If you’re human, you make up a lot of stories. We all do.
Ever had any of these thoughts in response to an event?
Bad weather – "It’s going to be a terrible drive to work."
Tax season approaching – "I’m going to owe a ton."
Attending a party – "No one will talk to me."
Planning a party – "No one will come."
Boss calls you to his office – "I’m in trouble."
"I’m not sure I turned off the stove – my house is going to burn down before I get back home.
A recession is predicted for this year – I’m going to go broke."
The more we think about what could be coming, the more we worry or fret about it. Although we don’t know what the future holds, we make up stories and frequently start catastrophizing.
To understand why we do this to ourselves, it’s important to recognize that the brain, or more specifically, the ego, is actually doing its job. That job is to be on the lookout for danger. The problem is, we’ve grown so accustomed to believing the voice in our heads, we don’t recognize that it’s just a story. We have no idea what’s really going to happen.
Think about how many times you’ve worried yourself sick about something, sometimes for weeks, and once whatever it is happens, you say to yourself, “I don’t know why I was so worried” because it wasn’t terrible. Studies show that we spend almost 50% of our time worrying about the future or rehashing the past. Half of our lifetimes! Eckhart Tolle summed it up best, saying
“Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.”
If you think about it, it’s absolutely true. Worrying about something has nothing to do with the outcome.
There’s a ripple effect to this worrisome behavior about the future that can set us back in the present. I just did this recently with a state tax problem I was having that I just shared in a previous episode. This problem, of being erroneously charged $4,000 in taxes, was constantly in the back of my mind. I worried that if I was able to reach an actual person, they wouldn’t listen to me. I worried that they would keep adding penalties and wouldn’t believe me that I’d tried multiple times to reach them. I worried what would happen if I couldn’t get it straightened out. I worried about how I would pay such a large tax bill and how I could fight it since it wasn’t accurate. And on and on. What began to happen from all of this worrying is that I started procrastinating when new letters arrived from the taxing agency, thinking it was just going to be more bad news. My stomach dropped every time I received a voicemail.
One of the exercises we do in our workshops is have everyone write down their story, including what they were thinking and feeling about their given situation. Then we have them go back through their story and cross out anything that is not a provable fact. If I apply this to my story, what’s left is that the state erroneously charged me a tax and I’m in the process of trying to straighten it out. That’s it. No drama, no emotions. The rest is me creating my own suffering making up stories. Even after I spoke with a person who told me once she received a fax from me that reflected the changes she told me to make, she would reverse all of the charges, I immediately tensed when I received a voicemail a week later from her asking me to call. My storytelling started churning almost immediately. Now what? Was she going to tell me she couldn’t fix it? Was I going to be on the hook for the $4,000? I waited a day to return the call. Turns out, she was just confirming that she’d received the fax. Ugh, again, all of that stress from my story, not from what was actually true.
So first we tell ourselves a negative story, which turns on even more stress hormones, causing us to procrastinate on taking action to resolve whatever the problem is or over-reacting when we do deal with the problem and, well, you get the idea.
If your teenager has ever been late getting home, was your first thought, “I’m sure he’s fine?” Probably not. Thoughts of calling his or her friends or the local hospitals might have raced through your mind. Or you might have the type of story where your teenager is always inconsiderate and disrespectful and they’re doing this just to rebel. Try the editing exercise. What are the actual facts?
Mindfulness helps us reign in these tendencies and focus on the present. That doesn’t mean that everything will always go our way. It simply means that we remove the factors in the situation where we are adding to our own suffering based on nothing more than our egos misinterpreting a problem as a danger. And when we’re not causing our brain to flood us with stress hormones, we can actually think more clearly which could result in coming up with solutions to resolving the problem.
Focusing on the present also doesn’t mean we don’t plan for the future, but planning is different than anxious worrying and storytelling. A plan is well thought out and strategic. Once we’ve created a plan, we focus on our present intentions that will lead us to the desired outcome, not the future outcome itself which can be beset with storytelling.
Let’s say you want to get a promotion at work. Instead of clinging tightly to the outcome, which can cause you to create stories every day about obstacles that come up, you focus on doing the best job you can each day. That will ultimately lead to your desire, but you’re living your goal every day instead of focusing on some far-off outcome fraught with danger. That enriches your life as you are aware of the present, vibrantly carrying out your intentions and enjoying all of your present experiences.
Consider the difference in the quality of your days. When we cling tightly to an outcome, we notice everything that occurs that doesn’t seem to align with our goal. Perhaps the supervisor who supports your dream promotion leaves the company. Without mindfulness, you could slip into catastrophizing about what may happen, like now you have no chance at the promotion without your advocate or now you’ve lost your mentor and won’t learn what you need to or the next supervisor may not like you, for example.
Practicing mindfulness spares us from all of this grief, when we remember to use it. Daily external events have little control over our minds. You focus on doing a great job, and you’re relaxed about your performance because you know you’re doing well thanks to the dedication to your intention to do a good job. You’re more open to taking reasonable risks when opportunities arise, allowing you to shine on the job. And mistakes or failures don’t send you into a tailspin because you recognize that this is when you can learn the most valuable lessons, which will only further your progress toward your goal.
It's the same process for any long-term goal. Purchasing a home, building a valuable relationship, starting a family. Relax and enjoy the process. There’s a common idiom that we choose what we want, but don’t control how or when we get it. I think there’s some truth to that because we can’t know the future and we certainly can’t control much of what happens in the external world. But if we stay grounded in the present, it doesn’t really matter. Mindfulness reminds us that everything comes, eventually, and then passes. Nothing is permanent, so being open to that fact eases the grip of wanting something a certain way at a certain time. In fact, if nothing is permanent then there’s not much point in clinging to a specific thing or idea in the first place. We can practice allowing events to unfold and recognizing the value of whatever is produced by them.
This actually ties into new year resolutions, which is pertinent since we’re ringing in a new year. It’s a lot easier to accomplish a daily intention than shoot for a big goal for the new year, so consider what it is you really want without any rigidity. One of the most common resolutions involves releasing weight. If your resolution is to release 20 pounds this year, does it really matter if the end result is 21 or 19 pounds? Does that mean you failed? And of course, if you start the year off with this big goal of releasing 20 pounds, pay attention to how that feels right now. Deprivation, sacrifice? What if instead, you set a daily intention to reduce caloric intake by 10%? Or eat fewer processed carbs? Or increase your vegetable consumption? Or exercise more? Chances are, you’ll meet your goal if you approach this way. But of course, you have to pay attention to your stories.
If you’re invited out to the Cheesecake Factory for lunch, what story will you tell yourself after completing a large-portioned meal plus a giant slice of cheesecake? That you’ve ruined your resolution and will never be able to release weight or that you slipped on your intention for the day, but it was a lovely lunch with friends and you’ll set a new intention tomorrow to get back on track?
One of the easiest ways to practice mindfulness with respect to the stories we tell ourselves is to simply label the thoughts as stories. As I hear my own story saying something like, I’m going to end up having to pay a tax I don’t owe, I simply say to myself, “I’m making up stories.” Or you could just say, “storytelling.” This snaps our minds not only back to the present, but out of the yarn we’re spinning and back to reality.
It really is that simple. If we stay aware of our minds and what they’re doing, we can choose to change directions.
"My teenager is late, but that’s not so unusual for teenagers. We’ll have to discuss boundaries when she gets home."
"My boss has called me to come into her office. I wonder if she’s noticed what a good job I’ve done lately."
"Looks like bad weather this morning. I’ll just leave earlier to make sure I arrive on time."
"A new year means tax season is approaching. I could prepare early so that I know what to expect and it might even be a refund."
"I’ve got a party to attend tonight and am looking forward to meeting new people."
"I’m planning a party and I’m sure most people I invite will attend."
"I’m not sure I turned off the stove, but I probably did."
"A recession is predicted for this year and I’m grateful for the heads up so I can make plans to lessen the impact on my finances."
These are stories, too. The truth is, we don’t know what will happen, but if we’re going to make up a story, why not make it a good one? One that doesn’t prompt the fight or flight response. One that is just as likely to happen as its negative counterpart.
Leo Buscaglia said, “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.”
How many days do we spend worrying instead of enjoying life to the fullest? If we have no control over a problem, worrying about it or making up stories, does nothing to remedy the issue. If we have some control over it, we can fix it, so there’s still nothing to worry about.
We so frequently forget two things. First, that the chatter in our minds is not truth. It’s just a function of the brain and we have much more control over it than we realize. Second, that we have to practice awareness to notice what our minds are doing. We can do that through mindful practices, staying focused on the present moment, on today. It’s just a matter of minding our minds. Are you ready to change your stories?