What is your time orientation? Are you past-, present-, or future-oriented?

For the discussion topic in our in-person group this month, the topic chosen was How To Stay Present. I ruminated on this for quite a while, and realized… I’m not sure it’s always necessary to stay present! I see value and shortcomings in all time orientations.

My default response to life is to dream big, and dream often. Phrases used to describe me might be that I “have my head in the clouds” or that I am “in my own little world.” There are benefits to this mindset. I tend to see the best in people, and can almost always find a silver lining. I believe anything is possible if we put our minds to it.

And there are downsides, too. I get so caught up in thinking about what will be that I often miss out on what is. Eckart Tolle talks about “the power of now.” It’s a profound reminder that right now is literally all there is. There’s no sense obsessing over the past or the present, because the past is over, and the present hasn’t happened yet. It’s such a simple concept, yet one of the hardest to truly live into in our daily lives.

What is your time orientation? 

Redefining Love is all about self-awareness. I use the terms intention and curiosity a lot. So as I was exploring our relationship with time, I started there. And I realized, there are three different types of people as it relates to time orientation: past oriented, present oriented, and future oriented.

Past oriented:

These folks are always thinking about what my grandpa used to call “coulda, shoulda, woulda”:

I could have done that differently.

I should have traveled more in my 20s.

I would have made different choices if I knew then what I know now.

They also tend to focus on things that happened in the past, both good and bad. Past-oriented people can carry a grudge like nobody’s business. They are grudge masters. Forgiveness is a struggle for them. If they have a good experience, they might get stuck there, in the “good old days,” and long to return to what was.

Past-oriented people are also the keepers of the stories. They are the family members who know all the family history, can name every face in the old photographs, and never forget a birthday or anniversary.

The primary words to describe a past-oriented person’s approach to time are regret, resentment, and nostalgia.

Present oriented:

Present oriented people are often the life of the party. They don’t always consider the consequences of their actions, because they aren’t thinking about what will happen. They are thinking about how they can maximize their current experience.

There are many benefits to being a present-oriented person. They are really good at soaking up every moment of joy, and they often are good at finding the lesson in every experience, even when it’s hard or painful.

Present-oriented people are often late for things, and their sense of time and space can sometimes drive their friends, family, and coworkers bonkers. The primary words to describe a present-oriented person’s sense of time are disorganized, scatterbrained, and FUN!

Future oriented:

American culture tends to reinforce a future-oriented approach as the best way to do life. Setting goals, saving money for retirement, and delayed gratification are hallmarks of the prized Western work ethic. And the ideal of being “always prepared” is valued by Boy Scouts and busy moms alike.

But there are also downsides to always looking ahead. People who are future oriented tend to be worriers because they can imagine every possible outcome of a situation. And, they get so wrapped up in looking forward to the next big thing, or anticipating the next crisis, that they neglect to notice the beauty and lessons of life happening right now.

The primary words to describe a future-oriented person’s sense of time are organized, goal-oriented, and responsible.

Here’s a caveat to this description of future-oriented people, based on my own experience. (I am on the future-oriented side of the spectrum.) Being future oriented can also manifest as daydreaming, which can make them seem a bit “out of it.” It can also lead to procrastination. A future-oriented person can envision their to-do list from start to finish, which can be very overwhelming! 

The continuum of time orientation

Like so many other things, I see our concept of time on a continuum. Most of us land somewhere on a spectrum from a deep past orientation to a firm present alignment to an exclusively future orientation. Here’s a diagram to show what that looks like:

Most of us move around on the continuum throughout our lives, depending on our age, temperament, and current circumstances. It’s a whole lot easier to “live in the now” on a beach in Hawaii with your favorite people than while laying in a fetal position buried beneath the covers after a hard breakup or scary health diagnoses.

How do you determine your default? 

Most of us have an in-born, natural default on the time orientation continuum where we feel most comfortable. To determine what your natural inclination might be, look back at your childhood. Were you an anxious child, always worried about “what if?” Or maybe you were a child who had a hard time moving on after someone hurt your feelings.

Or, maybe you were more like my younger son, whose standard toddler explanation for pretty much all behavior was, “Because now.”

As in, “Why are you putting your kinetic sand all over the floor?”

To which he’d respond, “Because now,” while letting another lump of sand drop from his tiny, dimpled fist.

Over a lifetime, humans learn how to adapt to survival skills and cultural expectations. But when we are kids, we are just doing life exactly the way we were programmed by our DNA.

Time orientation, anxiety, and depression 

Its tempting to assume that anxiety manifests primarily in future-oriented people, and depression primarily manifests in past-oriented people. But that is not necessarily the case.

Anxiety happens when fear of external events is internalized and camps out inside our head and body, even when the event is over or hasn’t happened yet.

Depression is debilitating, overwhelming sadness that stems from a complex mix of internal hormone imbalance, temperament, and experiences, and can occur in anyone, regardless of their time orientation.

Here’s how anxiety and depression might show up for each category of time orientation:

Past oriented anxiety:

Someone who is naturally inclined to focus on the past might get stuck on something that happened to them, and live in fear of it happening again. This leads to a natural susceptibility to phobias and reoccurring thoughts. (Although it’s possible for anyone to experience a phobia, regardless of their natural inclinations. I will discuss this a bit later in the post.)

Depression can show up in past-oriented people as they struggle with forgiveness and hurt feelings over past experiences.

Present oriented anxiety:

There are a lot of benefits to “living in the now.” But our world is not really supportive of this type of mindset. We like our structure in the modern world. Every hour of our day is planned. And so, if you’re someone who is very focused on the here and now, modern life can be challenging.

I’ve noticed that my present-oriented younger son needs a heads up before we have somewhere to be or a task to complete at a certain time. He gets very focused on what he’s doing, with no thought of what’s next on the agenda for the day. He doesn’t like surprises, and he needs frequent reminders when things are about to change.

Present-oriented people often get very immersed in their experiences, which makes them highly sensitive and empathetic. When someone else hurts, my sweet boy hurts, too. He has big feelings. This makes him a kind, thoughtful friend. It also means that he needs a little extra attention paid to teaching him how to manage all those feelings in a healthy, productive way.

Future oriented anxiety:

A stereotype of future-oriented people is that they are neurotic and obsessed with details. In reality, as we’ve already discussed, a tendency to always be thinking ahead can create debilitating overwhelm and worry that leads to an inability to act. (I suffer from this on a massive scale!)

The future that future-oriented people can envision is not always a bright and happy one. Sometimes, we can see all of the bad things that are possible in terrifying detail. When this happens, anxiety and depression might not be far behind. Because they can clearly envision the desired outcome of every task, future-oriented people are also highly prone to perfectionism.

How trauma can alter our time orientation. 

Life experiences can subvert our natural inclinations and inborn temperament. Here’s an example:

When I was a kid, I was left in the middle of a huge lake after falling down while water skiing (yes, it was terrifying, and yes, it was a cruel “joke” that wasn’t at all funny). To this day, I am deathly afraid of open bodies of water, in spite of the fact that I was a competitive swimmer and swim coach throughout my childhood and early adulthood. It’s not that I can’t swim. It’s the fear of the unknown and abandonment that gets my heart racing.

I don’t typically dwell on the past, especially bad experiences, but this experience made such an imprint on my subconscious that it’s been very hard to overcome. This is an example of why we should avoid putting ourselves and others in a box. I tend to be on the future-side of present on the continuum, but due to this traumatic experience, my relationship with large bodies of water is rooted firmly in the past.

How to overcome your inborn time orientation? 

First off, let’s talk about the term “overcome.” I don’t like it. Your inborn temperament is not something you must overcome or recover from. You are just right exactly as you are. So the first step is to overcome the idea that you must overcome yourself.

We are all born fully loaded with a unique set of strengths and shortcomings that can be utilized to the benefit of ourselves and the world around us. Learn to love yourself just as you are.

I’m also not entirely comfortable with the term shortcomings, although I have yet to find a term to use in place of it. My discomfort lies in the idea that what might be a shortcoming in one circumstance might be a strength in another. If you were to put Simone Biles on the court at an NBA basketball game, she’d never get the ball. But if you put Shaquille O’Neal on the uneven bars, they’d break! Everything is relative.

The trick is to know yourself so thoroughly that you discover how to utilize all your inborn traits for success, rather than comparing yourself to others. And then, to surround yourself with people who appreciate what you have to offer the world.

Do your homework

Explore yourself! It’s entirely possible to alter behaviors and inclinations that are not serving you. The first step to this is, again, self-awareness. You can’t fix something if you don’t even know what’s broken. This requires intention and curiosity, as you explore the parts of your life that aren’t working. Once you’ve identified a problem, you can set about working towards a remedy.

For tips on how to work maladaptive behaviors through and out, see the five-part Redefining Love blog series: How We Get Trapped in Toxic Circumstances.

The question is not whether your time orientation is “good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative.” The question is how well do you know and love yourself? Once you explore your relationship with time, you can then begin working on loving yourself enough to determine what parts of you are working as-is, and what parts of you could use a little extra attention.

Isn’t being present best? 

Yes and no. As we’ve discussed in this post, there are pros and cons to each mindset. There is value in honoring the wonderful memories of the past, and learning from the hardships we’ve experienced. There is value in planning for the future. And there is value in enjoying life, right here, right now.

What’s best for you might not be best for everyone else. Here’s an example from my own life:

I am obsessed with photographs, particularly of my kids. I still print out all my photos, and have endless albums in my basement. My husband and I often joke about what on earth our two boys are going to do with all mom’s carefully maintained photo albums after I’m gone. (I’m totally happy letting them figure it out. I won’t be here to care one way or another!)

A few months ago my older son found me in the basement browsing through photos, enjoying all the sweet memories. When he saw what I was doing, he gave a disgusted “ugh” and said, “How can you look at all these old photos? It’s so depressing!”

I was shocked! How could photos of my adorable kiddos be depressing?

He explained, “All I see when I look at those pictures is how easy life was when I was a kid. Every year, life just gets more and more complicated.”

And so, it’s just a matter of perspective. My future-oriented son doesn’t want to reminisce about the past, and at 16, he’s starting to worry about what challenges might lie ahead in adulthood. It isn’t bad or good, it just is. He’s provided valuable insight into his worldview, which is the first step to managing his mindset.

Being your true self is best! 

There is a place in the world for each and every one of us. And there is a time and place for every season. The key is to remain flexible and aware.

We all slide up and down the time orientation continuum. Sometimes we revisit the past, sometimes we are firmly rooted in the present, and sometimes we must plan for the future. The trick is to not get stuck there. Allow yourself the flexibility of thought to be gentle with where you need be in any given moment.

I’m not sure Eckart Tolle would agree with me, but I see value in holding onto memories, good and bad. These experiences are part of what makes us who we are. Every experience is a lesson – an opportunity to grow – even when it’s hard.

And there is value in planning for the future. This gives us direction and motivates us to get out of bed every morning!

And of course, there is value in savoring the present, because in the end, right here and now is all we really have. The past and present exist only in our heads.

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To learn more about the Redefining Love Way, I encourage you to browse the site. Have questions? Feel free to email me at sara@sarabethwald.com, or schedule a free discovery call. 

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