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When You Can’t Stop Looking Ahead, Look Backwards

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There’s a particular emotion we all know, but I don’t think it has a name. It’s the distinct, perplexing feeling of remembering the first hours after waking up, and finding it unbelievable that that happened today.

It’s most obvious late in an eventful day, particularly if you woke up unusually early. Usually it’s a “big day” in some sense, with a lot at stake—an exam, a wedding, an early flight, a presentation.

You’ve probably felt it while traveling, especially on the first day of a trip, when you made an early departure, arrived in a new city by afternoon, and then started sightseeing before dinner. By bedtime, the memory of waking at dawn and loading the car, back in your own driveway, in your home city, seems so distant to the present moment that it couldn’t have been today.

I’m sure part of this feeling comes from the unusual length of those kinds of days. But I think a bigger part comes from how drastically our emotional state has changed since the day began. The feeling of scrambling against clocks to make everything work is starkly different from the feeling of relaxing into the first evening in a new and interesting place, having forgotten what time it is.

Whatever we name it, this perplexing emotion is a more than just an interesting experience. It reveals an oversight we are continually making about the nature of our worries.

We all know what it’s like to remember how singularly worried we were last month about some upcoming, important event. Now that we’re beyond it, all the worrying we did seems unnecessary. We wish we could have told ourselves that all we had to do was attend to what we could and let things unfold.

Trouble is magnified when we look forward in time

In one of his talks, Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein points out a human tendency we seldom recognize: we spend most of our lives anticipating the next significant experience to happen to us. The typical occupation of the human mind is to lean towards some seemingly important or pivotal experience that’s coming up today, or in the coming week or two.

Sometimes this upcoming thing is happening later in the day, such as a flight, or later this month, such as a presentation at work. It can even be something a few moments from now, such as when the microphone finally comes to you during one of those dreaded “Tell us something about yourself” circles at the beginning of a workshop.

Whatever the scale of it, there is almost always, at the fore of our minds, some primary, upcoming experience that it’s hard not to keep picturing, fearing, and rehearsing for.

Whether this anticipated event is a speech, a date, an exam, or a conversation with your neighbor about their dog’s bathroom habits, the only worry we have is that it will result in some sort of pain, such as embarrassment, boredom, loss, physical unpleasantness, or even more uncertainty.

Because we’re so unwilling to experience pain, we obsess over this impending experience, trying to explore and rehearse its possibilities so that we can somehow remove the uncertainty from it, and at least know what we’re in for.

This obsessing has a kind of magnifying effect on the event’s ultimate importance, however. When we’re preoccupied with the latest Primary Upcoming Experience, we tend to see it as much more concrete and pivotal to our lives than it will be once we’re able to look back on it.

Of course, we can’t look back on the current Primary Upcoming Experience, because it hasn’t happened yet (and may never happen). But we can look back on what was heavy in our minds in the past. When we think about what we were preoccupied with this time last year, or last week, or yesterday, we can get a sense of how drastically, and frequently, the feeling of what’s important right now changes.

Then when you turn your gaze forward again, you can more easily understand that this newest seemingly-pivotal experience will unfold the same way all the others did:

  • it will happen differently than how you pictured it, in significant ways
  • it may or may not be painful
  • the most painful parts will pass relatively quickly
  • you won’t know what it will mean for your life until a lot of time has passed

Lastly, your preoccupation will shift to a new “most important thing” after this one is resolved.

This is the ephemeral nature of human experience, and remembering the gist of it can really take the edge off our current worries. So when it seems like you can’t stop looking forward, look back. They all came and went, and few of them seem to justify the worry we suffered over them.

Because we overlook the ephemeral, passing quality of the events in our lives, we engage in this habit of obsessing over the latest uncertainty, stretching its potential pain into days or weeks of guaranteed pain, in the form of worry. By perpetually trying to guarantee for ourselves a painless future, we are perpetually creating a painful present.

Moving away from worry means giving up the idea of a painless future

We’re very accustomed to worrying, and it’s such a conditioned pattern that there’s no slam-dunk antidote. The mind just jumps into scenarios and visions. To make things worse, our culture also does a great job of fueling and celebrating worry.

Over time, we can decondition our patterns of rumination, through self-reflection and meditation. But in the mean time, we can temper the heat of worry considerably whenever we remember the ephemeral, quickly-passing nature of our experience.

There really isn’t any way to look forward, in any reliable sense. It turns out we’re always in the position of entering a new and unpredictable experience, even on a presumably routine day, and we might feel safer if we acknowledged that. That way, we could count on self-reliance and resilience to get by, rather than clairvoyance, which we don’t have anyway.

There’s something exhilarating about really taking that on board. The future isn’t knowable enough to justify flow-charting our responses or rehearsing certain catastrophes. We have no idea what we’re walking into, and it’s obvious—when we look back at our decades of misplaced worries and unforeseen setbacks—that we never have.

Imagine the perspective you might gain if you were to write down on an index card, every Sunday evening, what upcoming thing you’re most concerned about right now—and what you believe will happen—then dump them out at the end of the year, and have a good laugh.


Photo by Christian Fregnan

Abhijeet Kumar August 13, 2017 at 11:13 pm

One consolation I have about this state of human existence is it is the experience of every single individual. If there is nothing to smile about, just reading this can bring a broad broad smile.

David Cain August 14, 2017 at 9:33 am

I also find that thought really comforting. History is nothing but the results of human responses to their emotional experience.

Abhijeet Kumar August 20, 2017 at 11:41 am

This along with https://www.raptitude.com/2017/03/only-thing-get-good-at/ are timeless gem pieces.

Vishal August 14, 2017 at 2:21 am

Loved this succinct post, David. Reminds me of a quote on an investment website I had read. I’m paraphrasing – we take a few points in the recent past and draw a straight line to forecast. But life doesn’t move in a straight line. It twists and turns and shatters in unexpected ways. Only when we study history do we understand how people behave when it does.

Similarly, instead of fussing over uncertainty of a possible event, we can turn to the past to examine how we handled a similar event. When I took up a new profession, I felt uncertain since I understood little about it in training. I tensed up when I wondered what the future held. But when I looked back, I found at a time when I was in tech support and I knew nothing in the beginning, but could soon dish out advice while playing games on the computer. The self-reassurance that I could repeat it made me settle into my new role much faster.

Thanks for this reminder.

David Cain August 14, 2017 at 9:18 am

For sure… Even though we’re bad at predicting particular events, the fact that we’re always growing and gaining experience is a pretty reliable pattern, even though when we tend to picture the future, we tend to assume the person dealing with it will be the person we are today. We forget to factor in growth.

DiscoveredJoys August 14, 2017 at 2:47 am

Wise words. One of the kindest things you can do is encourage worried people to consider their past worries and successes.

When Mrs DiscoveredJoys was worried about stepping up to her new job I encouraged her by pointing out how she had mastered previous life changes through her own efforts. When I had people working for me I would encourage them by pointing out how they had already grown into their jobs.

Perhaps when you are accustomed to do this for other people you can learn more easily to do it for yourself…

David Cain August 14, 2017 at 9:21 am

It’s strange how we can often see things more clearly for others than for ourselves. I guess it’s the effect of not being so directly tied to the experiences that might unfold, because they aren’t our experiences. But maybe that distance does help a person gain a more useful perspective.

Linda August 14, 2017 at 4:05 am

David, this was exactly what I needed to read this evening! Thanks so much for posting this.

I have a house move coming up which I’m dreading (finding another rental, organising cleaning, packing, moving, unpacking, address changing…) And although I’ve done this 4 or 5 times now already without too much hassle, I still dread it so much. Looking backward I can see I can just chill out and we’ll organise things as we need to, and everything will be just fine!

David Cain August 14, 2017 at 9:22 am

I moved not long ago and I remember flipping back and forth between those two perspectives:

1) There’s too much to do! How is everything going to go right?!


2) Things are going to transpire anyway; everything will get done one way or another; I’ve been through all this before.

I guess if we could train ourselves to remember #2 whenever we feel #1 coming on, we’d keep a more or less even keel.

Neil August 14, 2017 at 4:54 am

This is definitely an approach worth taking on board! I recommend putting some social media share buttons on these posts.

David Cain August 14, 2017 at 9:25 am

Hmm I wonder what happened to them? I think one of my plugins turned off when I updated.

sandy August 14, 2017 at 6:52 am

“By perpetually trying to guarantee for ourselves a painless future, we are perpetually creating a painless present.” Wise words indeed!

Mrs. Picky Pincher August 14, 2017 at 7:54 am

Wise words. :) I think there’s so much truth to the fact that we’re pain-averse. I know I spend most of my life worrying about what’s coming next. For me it’s usually mundane crap like what’s for dinner, what am I going to do tonight, etc. I think we could all benefit from learning how to live in the present.

David Cain August 14, 2017 at 9:28 am

I agree, and that means learning to experience discomfort in real-time. I don’t think anything has helped me more than sitting with restlessness, boredom, indignation, indigestion, weird emotions and bodily feelings in meditation. We can experience pain without much suffering, if we learn to do it in a nonreactive way. My propensity for worrying has definitely shrunk over the years, and I know it’s because I feel more confidence in my ability to experience pain when it does come.

Tonya August 14, 2017 at 8:34 am

Classic worrier here! It’s definitely a hard habit to break. I find too much time on my hands and I start dress rehearsing for all aspects in life. Even when I’m aware I’m doing it. For instance a tiny mole. I already made an appointment to get it checked out but its weeks away because the doctor is out of town. Meanwhile I start imagining telling my family I have skin cancer. I wonder how I’ll tell people. I wonder how they will react. Will I continue working? Will I feel sick from treatment? Should I stop putting money towards my 401k. I wonder who will be at my funeral? AHHHH! It’s barely a tiny mole and I’m already planning my funeral! At least I can laugh about it? :) PS, I stopped watching the news ages ago and recently took another social media break. Funny how much that all helps.

David Cain August 14, 2017 at 9:32 am

It’s amazing how quickly the mind jumps ahead. Make a doctor’s appointment, and fifteen seconds later you’re lost in an imaginary talk with your family about cancer. It just takes a little seed of doubt or possibility of pain, and fearful part of the mind jumps all over it.

There are a few ways to reduce this phenomenon, but one of them is just to reduce the number of “seeds” — limiting news is a simple one that goes a long way.

Steve Mays August 14, 2017 at 12:09 pm

In my more rational moments I’m aware that all worry and anxiety is imagined. It’s made up. And I have a good imagination. If I’m going to spend a hour a day “imagining” something bad happening… why can’t I spend that hour imagining something good happening?

Why not visualize myself (with wife and dogs) sitting on my deck, 20 years from now, healthy and happy, drinking a beer?

It’s just as easy to paint that mental picture and way more pleasant. Even more effective if I describe the scene aloud or write it down.

Perhaps our consciousness really does create our reality.

Ellen Symons August 14, 2017 at 10:36 am

I love the index card idea. I am starting that right now.

David Cain August 16, 2017 at 2:37 pm

You know it’s funny, I didn’t actually decide to do this until you said you were going to. But I just made a worry box and put it under my desk.

Steve Mays August 14, 2017 at 11:59 am

This post reminded me of the saying, “You never hear the bullet that kills you.” Or something like that.

No matter how many hours one spends in worry and anxiety, we rarely focus on the few bad things that occur. In my experience, it’s always something unexpected. Unanticipated.

Let’s say that’s the case 90% of the time. That means whatever you’re worried about probably*won’t* happen.

David Cain August 16, 2017 at 2:39 pm

You could even go farther and be sure that our fears won’t come true, or at least that they can’t happen quite what we think. The future scenario we think we’re getting a glimpse of in our worries is actually composed of past pain, not future pain. We can’t see it because we’re not psychic.

Martin August 14, 2017 at 11:32 pm

‘The benefit of hindsight’ I call this..

David Cain August 16, 2017 at 2:41 pm

It’s more than that. There’s a benefit in hindsight in finally having certainty about how things turned out. But it also allows us to see the context in which the dreaded upcoming experience is happening — one of many, none of which have the all-determining effect we assume the primary upcoming experience to have just because it’s currently the most emotionally salient one.

Happy Lucky Zoe August 15, 2017 at 8:52 am

Oh, my God, David! Your timing for this article is so perfect for me right now. You know… I’ve been reading your blog for a good three weeks now and I said to myself that only when I finish reading it all I will write a comment or an e-mail to check in as a new fan and reader. But this was amazingly surprising, so…
Actually, this matter that you described is of great importance to me. I’m drafting a blog that will deal with this phenomenon of always expecting something for your day, your week, your life… and realizing afterwards that it is never as we expected. But many times is even better. :)
Anyways, a big thanks to you for your amazing writing and insights all the way from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

David Cain August 16, 2017 at 2:46 pm

Welcome Zoe, glad you found us here. We deal in expectations so casually, as if we always pretty much know how things will go down. But we actually have no ability to predict what the experience of the next day, week or month will be like, which is what our worries are all about.

Myfinancekits August 16, 2017 at 4:13 pm

If anyone is only looking forward, a lot of mistakes will be made. Looking back help you to reflect and strategize effectively for better results

David FAHRLAND August 18, 2017 at 4:47 am

Simplify: just “Wake up” to Life and “Stay in the NOW”

Omer August 19, 2017 at 5:42 am

Thank you for the thoughtful lesson.
However, I’m not sure I accept the conclusion. Preparing for large (or small) events has oftentimes been useful for me. (Despite the fact I sometimes did fly by, preparing an important presentation five minutes before the event…)

Caitlin August 22, 2017 at 4:55 pm

I happened to read this just now whilst waiting for someone to call me for a work-related thing that I was really dreading and nervous about. Couldn’t have timed this better. Now I’m like *shrug* not even worried anymore. Love this concept and am going to try to practice it more often. Thank you!

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