There are two states of mind we can be in when it comes to temptation: zooming in and fantasizing about the rush, or zooming out and seeing the broader picture of how things will play out if we act on our impulses. Knowing where our actions will lead before a tempting situation takes hold gives us a chance to make an informed decision. It’s only prior to getting swept up by the current that we are in a position to plan steps that can help us stay in control. But even then, without a believable, palpable and personally relevant view of the consequences, primitive instincts will triumph over protecting our longer range interests.
The end result of many actions are predictable and seem like they should be obvious. Of course we think this when we’re observing how other people are behaving, or when looking back at our own behavior. But issues that affect us all at one time or another can get in the way of seeing the road ahead, and grasping it in a way that’s meaningful and sustained enough to reign us in. These issues fall into two categories: functional blindness and capacity issues (temporary or ongoing).
Obstacles to recognizing predictable consequences:
- Functional blindness. Functional blindness occurs when people know the facts intellectually, but are detached from their feelings, or have shallow/compartmentalized awareness. Because the information doesn’t feel real, or the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, it’s as if they don’t really know — making them emotionally or psychologically blind.
- Capacity issues: People may be limited in their capacity to project realistically into the future due to psychological issues such as denial or overuse of fantasy, as well as inadequate or undeveloped executive functioning. Even when generally intact, executive functions — which allow us to regulate emotions, think ahead, see things realistically, and put on the brakes — are deactivated by stress and by the subjectively determined force of particular temptations. (Some people may also simply lack the capacity for insight in which case other therapeutic, more didactic approaches may be needed.)
The solution: Time travel and the road back to wisdom
The good news is that temporary or ongoing lack of perspective about what lies ahead can be intercepted by virtual time travel. Using our imagination to fast forward through time in our minds is a strategy that brings us into contact with to our future self. This part of us holds knowledge and wisdom in a form that we can relate to without defensiveness, making it a natural choice to enlist as our guide.
A case of functional blindness:
Robert, a 45 year old business executive, was on the brink of re-engaging in an extramarital affair. In spite of genuinely loving his wife and kids, and valuing family life, he was curiously unreceptive to considering steps to protect himself. This attitude persisted until he was able to actually experience fear of losing everything that mattered to him.
The approach that worked was to align with Robert, rather than engage in a struggle with him about his resistance to help (however tempting) and/or trying to get him to listen to reason.
Robert was able to break through his emotional detachment using visualizations of the future that leveraged what mattered to him. In the visualizations, emotionally relevant details were elaborated on to make it real and intensify his feelings — ultimately overpowering his denial and disconnection.
Therapy exercises like the ones below helped Robert come back to himself, regain perspective, and make a decision to stop acting out:
- He was asked to visualize himself continuing on the same path, fast forwarding to the end of his life to see how he felt as he looked back. Instead of being happy, he found his future self facing emptiness, loss and regret.
- Robert fast forwarded through time some more. . The therapist helped him envision getting busted for having an affair (which he agreed seemed likely) and visualize dreaded scenarios based on his fears:
- He imagined his wife finding out and leaving him -shattering his family. He visualized himself alone in the silence of an apartment without her or his kids.
- He visualized his wife finding out, collapsing to the floor as she had previously when she discovered his affair, but this time she had a heart attack and died- leaving him alone and horrified.
Seeing into the future when it feels personal and tangible can mobilize people when they are stuck. This approach helped Robert come back to himself by making real what was at stake for him – activating his fear of loss and breaking through the emotional disconnect that blinded him. As in this example, often it’s not until the fear of loss is greater than the pull of fantasy or fear of change that people can shift from an escape mindset to a self-protective decision.
A case of limited capacity issues in college: Executive function deficits and peer pressure:
Adam, a sophomore in college, cared a lot about his grades, but had trouble with time management and being realistic in his assessment of himself and situations. He struggled with wanting to be true to himself, and not being weak or a “beta” male. Feeling insecure socially, however, led him to compromise himself, and then becoming confused about what he wanted. This semester Adam got into a pattern of hanging out with friends almost every night and drinking too much. Though it was no longer fun for him, Adam didn’t want to say anything out of fear that his friends would give him a hard time or he’d hurt their feelings.
Adam: I’m panicking because I am so behind.
Therapist: What’s been going on? How have you been organizing your study time?
Adam: Well I’ve been trying to do that and not get distracted but every time I am studying, my friends come in and expect me to go out with them. We end up staying out too late and drinking too often.
Therapist: How have you tried to deal with this?
Adam: Well I’ve tried to say something a couple of times and they tell me to just hang out for one Netflix show. But even if I don’t get roped into more, it’s too hard for me to settle back down.
Therapist: Why can’t you tell them the truth that you are falling behind and overwhelmed and set some boundaries about when you can hang?
Adam: I think I’ll be ok. My classes aren’t that hard and I can catch up.
Therapist: What would happen if you said something?
Adam: I can’t. Drew seems so well-intentioned. It would be like hurting a baby deer.
Therapist. Wow — that so nice of you to care so much about his feelings that you would sacrifice yourself. (Therapist says this facetiously — knowing that Adam doesn’t want to be a “beta” male)
Therapist: Well let’s think about this together. If you have to keep this up so you don’t disappoint them, let’s fast forward to the end of the year imagining that you keep on doing the same thing. Can you visualize yourself in the future?… Ok, what happened? How do you feel? (Aligning with Adam to be on the same team. Helping him anticipate the consequences and see how he feels. )
Adam: Oh I can see that I’m definitely on academic probation. I’m so mad at myself for not doing all the things I really want to be doing in college.
Therapist: Is that ok with you though? (Taking a back seat role and helping Adam be explicit about what he wants and doesn’t want. Increasing his awareness of his own conflict about where his choices will lead.)
Adam: OMG no. Plus my dad will kill me. Well, I’ll just hang with other friends and that will break the flow. (Unrealistic, “easy” solution. Not thinking things through.)
Therapist: So if you do that, and hang with other friends, how will that solve the problem you have now? How will you manage your study time in that situation? (Neutral questioning with a curious – tone – versus directive or critical – to help Adam evaluate more accurately what will happen, and empower him to make decisions from the inside out. )
Adam: It will probably be the same thing with them. (Laughs)
Fast forwarding into the future centered Adam so he could see more realistically for himself the path he was choosing. Realizing what he is giving up when he accommodates his friends provided him with the resolve and strength he needed to set boundaries, reorienting him to follow his own lead.
A case of limited capacity in extended adolescence: Denial, attraction to risk taking, difficulty planning and thinking ahead
Isabel, 21, who often did things that made her feel bad about herself, especially while drinking, talked about an upcoming party weekend visiting her friends at college. She had felt proud of her recent success in avoiding texting a guy there whom she’d been involved with but decided was trouble. Isabel seemed determined to continue to stay away from him.
Isabel: “I’m psyched!”
Therapist: “Are you going to contact Zach?”
Therapist: “How confident do you feel about your ability to have restraint when you get there?” (Trying to gauge Isabel’s plan.)
Isabel: “Very confident.”
Therapist: “How will you do that?”
Isabel: “It’s not that hard. I just know I don’t want to – that’s all…You can’t plan everything. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. I don’t like to do that. I don’t want to overthink it…”
Therapist: “Ok, so if you envision yourself on your way home coming back from the weekend, and you’re feeling good, what would have happened and not happened? (Helps Isabel think ahead and connect actions with consequences in a way that is her own and doesn’t feel imposed or controlling. Increases awareness so she can be in a position to take charge of whether she’s in control and make an intentional decision.
Isabel: “ I wouldn’t have hooked up with Zack or anyone else.”
Therapist: “What about that feels good?” (Helps Isabel articulate and connect to what matters to her, reinforcing her values.)
Isabel: “Because it doesn’t feel like me to do that. I always feel weird after. I think a lot of my friends don’t really see me for who I am.”
Therapist: “Oh- okay…I realize that there are a lot of things you can’t know beforehand, but some things are predictable. Can you help me imagine a scenario that’s pretty obvious and is foreseeable?….Like there you are at the party doing shots. Zack texts you or you run into him. Then what do you do? (Helps Isabel be realistic without being judgmental.)
Isabel: “I will hook up with him.” (laughs because it’s obvious)
Therapist: “Why?” (Helps her make the explicit cause-effect connection between drinking and going against herself.)
Isabel: “Well it’s obvious, once I’m doing shots that’s just what’s gonna happen… I didn’t think about that part before but I actually don’t want to be drinking this weekend at all.
This approach was then applied to drinking allowing Isabel to anticipate and problem solve effective and ineffective ways to manage this temptation too.
How does time travel lead to a brighter future?
There are many situations in which cause and effect can escape us – which is why the phrase: “What was I (or the other person) thinking?” is so popular. But, fortunately, there is an easy and teachable remedy to help inoculate us. Imagining oneself in the future provides an easy bridge to a longer range view of ourselves and wisdom that may be blocked or immobilized. Tapping into the future self imparts a unique ability to reflect with perspective on decisions that have yet to play out – imparting knowledge of how you will feel while there’s still time to turn back. In addition, this window provides a point of view that allows consequences to feel real, but be experienced at a safe enough distance to be tolerated without having to deny or disown them.
Disclaimer: The characters in these examples are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.