I often tell my clients that the best way to predict the future is to design it.
However, we can do it in a way that leads to either sustained motivation or frustration. The difference is all in how you honor your brain’s need for safety.
Steve and Lisa came to me as a couple who were recently engaged. A hiccup occurred about three months into their engagement. Having known each other for years as friends, nobody could miss the love that was blossoming between them. Things were going great. Too great, it seems for Steve. One day, he began to worry about the day he would lose his paradise with Lisa. Since he was in his mid-20s, Steve had seen quite a few of his relationships not work out. That’s when he developed what I call, The Paradise Lost Pattern.
As they sat across from me, Lisa began to tell me about the arguments that had arisen between them. She started out saying how tired she was of his “suddenly negative attitude.” “Just a few months ago, he was on his knees asking me to marry him,” Lisa began. “Now he’s not sure we’ll make it. How do you plan a future when you already doubt things?” Steve quickly interjected, “I know Lisa loves me. But at some point, it’s going to fall apart. It’s bound to happen sometime. I love her deeply, but I just know it will happen one day and then I’ll be back to square one.”
So just how did that rosy future together get pre-empted by a gloom-and-doom story in Steve’s mind? Well, the truth is that Steve was predicting their future based on his past. That’s never a great way to create a great future for love or anything else. Most people think that the function of memory is to remember the past.
However, neuroscience now knows that the function of memory is not to recall the past but to predict the future.
Let that sink in. Memory evolved in brains so that creatures both great and small could predict future danger and therefore survive. Millions of years of evolution were telling Steve’s brain to use his past as a template to imagine his future. In other words, it was predicting rather than proposing a better future. When it came to creating a future with his fiancee, Steve’s memory was playing a trick on him.
Steve’s past included about six or seven very painful breakups. At some point, his brain began to watch out for that danger. It then created a negative future perceptual filter. Here, Steve’s brain very quietly, behind the scenes began to look for all the evidence that the past danger was still lurking in the bushes. Here’s the big problem with all such perceptual filters: It notices what agrees with past experience while deleting what would disagree with past experience. Just try to imagine creating a better future with that running! No matter how well Lisa loved him, his brain wasn’t looking out for that. No wonder she was frustrated.
However, before we judge Steve too harshly, let’s go a little deeper. He came by all of this naturally. Like so many men, Steve wasn’t allowed to admit the hurt he felt from his past loves. Men have long been disallowed to feel anything but anger and cynicism. So hiding his feelings in his future was a bit safer than saying, “I’m scared of things in my past.” As I explained to Steve, “If a memory or feeling isn’t deemed acceptable, like happens with so many men, your brain will then create a ‘witness protection program’ for those past painful memories. It’s called a negative future filter. Here, your past memories go underground and come up again under a new, disguised name called ‘my future with love.’ It is still your past pain except with a new name called ‘the future.’ So we need to clean up your ‘future past’ filter.”
The best way to create a better future is to notice when your brain is predicting your future rather than proposing that better future you want. So here’s the trick to creating a great future. First, you will need to observe when your brain is seeking a safe haven. Don’t judge yourself here. Every great desired state begins on a foundation of safety or else your brain will fight you tooth and nail. If you have ever inexplicably lost your motivation or sabotaged a goal, it is probably because you ignored the safety your brain needed in that great future vision you conjured up. To make achieving that better future easy, simply notice what kind of safety your brain is seeking. Then create a new, positive filter that includes that sense of safety in it. A great positive filter must always preserve the safety your brain wants without carrying forward the past pain.
For Steve, I proposed a new future positive perceptual filter: “ways I can notice that love is already different so that I can trust that love will last.” Notice what follows “so that” was the safe haven for which Steve’s brain was on the lookout. I told him to write this on an index card and read it several times a day for two to three weeks.
If you consciously create such a positive perceptual filter that honors the particular flavor of safety your brain is seeking, your brain will gladly follow you to any goal you desire. You’ll also be surprised how easy maintaining your motivation can be. Creating a better future with love or life can be simple and sustainable. To reach your goals or dreams, first respect your brain’s need for safety. Then dare to train your brain to envision a positive future while honoring that safety. You will be surprised how easy achieving your future goals in love and life become when you honor the safety your brain needs.
Adapted from the upcoming book “Safe to Love Again: How to Release the Pain of Past Relationships and Attract Your Soul Mate.”
Photo credit, Thinkstock, iStock, demaerre.