Why are we afraid of the future?
We're living in a culture that speaks to our anxieties. We hear 100,000 will die of swine-flu – it's the end of the world as we know it. We are owed and weakened by anxiety. But then you look at all the times the media have screamed red alert, and nothing's happened.
My eldest son has just left Bristol, where he lived with six students, and I was astonished to hear every single one of them is either going into a job, or another course. If you read the papers, you'd assume they'd all be one of the dole.
Nostalgia for the past feeds into our fear of the future. But if you look for evidence that the past was so much better, it's not always true. It's people in our age group who find the future daunting; The young will adapt because they always do.
How do we stop all this dire news from making us feel disempowered and helpless?
What's the positive thing about the future? Its possibilities. We need to allow for possibilities. And that intrinsically can be very exciting. Because we do not know what's going to happen, many things can happen – but that's the problem, too. We like certties. So we tend to project certificates rather than allowing things to be open. And the assurances we know are the uncertainties of the past – we project our past into the future. That can be a problem because people do not project our past into the future. That can be a problem because people do not project past successes – we're more likely to project past anxieties.
We're also afraid of being hopeful and joyful, because we tend to believe that if we're pessimistic we will not be disappointed. We tell yourself good things can not possibly happen to us because we do not deserve them.
How do we get over that sort of pessimism? Look for the evidence. We need to counter the habit of mind that we were lucky today, we got away with it.
We endlessly project the minefield that's out there. We tell ourselves, 'I will not be luck again'. We tend to discount what we have achieved. But you do not fool people endlessly – you must be doing something right.
It is important that you name your fears and your anxieties (for example, 'I'm going to be useless at this new job and I'll get fired'). Then you need to identify times when this has not happened. For example, 'It's going to be new and I'm going to have to stretch myself. How many times have I done OK are bound to outweigh the times when you have not. One has already been through (and survived) more difficult times than one realizes.
Look at the list of your fears and think, what would you say to a friend who's in your position now? You say, 'Look at all the things you can do, and the things you have done.'
How can we build faith I the future?
What we know is not always the safest or the best thing. That's really become an outstanding in the past two years. Living cautiously does not always keep you safest.
For example, the relationship you're in. It's safe, but is it what you really want? One of my clients is giving up a safe job for a certain future. But the price she was paying for safety was too high – she was demoralized and demotivated.
We have a belief that pessimism keeps us safer than optimism. And I think that's faulty. Optimism gives you more resources – you risk disappointment but you feel better, you have more energy, you see more opportunities.
One thing you can do is build a future template, visualize what it is you want, what you need, where you'd like to be in five years' time. Ask yourself, what would the older me say to the 40-year-old me?
'Relationships will get you through'
(Responses to common anxieties)
I'm afraid my children will be unhappy.
The most important thing you can give your children is a sense of optimism. Because if you endlessly give them your worries, it's no use to them. It's normal to want them to be happy, but part of what hey need to learn from us is that being unhappy and having things go wrong is also part of life.
The tendency of look at their unhappiness as failure makes it difficult for parents to be of any use to their children. You do not want to hear about it because it makes you feel bad, but you need to let them express it because it's actually part of letting them know you can get through the bad times.
I'm afraid of failure.
You have to ask yourself, failure to do what? Where are you putting the goalposts? What would be good enough for you?
If you can recognize it, ask, how likely is this?
I'm going to deliver a talk to a conference in San Francisco. What's the worst that could happen? People will say it's not very good. And what really does that change? Will my children still talk to me? Am I still loved?
I'm afraid of losing my job.
Stop the anxiety from becoming overwhelming. Have a fallback position, have a contingency in place. Things are tough. So what have you got to hold on to? Think about what's meaningful. You need to keep your social relationships going, because even when things are really rough, you go through it together. I can not emphasize enough that relationships are the thing that will get you through. It becomes a default position to take your worries out on the people you love, but it's worth looking after them because they are who you will need to help you get over it.
I'm worried that everyone I know is doing better than I am.
It's a human issue – we compare ourselves to others. The thing that will make us feel good or bad about a thing is whether our neighbors are doing it It's now accepted by movements for change that this is how you persuade people to alter their habits – if the neighbors are doing it, people do not Want to be left out. One suggestion is to 'compare down' – think of ways you are more fortunate or more successful than others, not the other way round.
I'm afraid of being alone.
Being alone is not necessarily a victim position. One can choose to join things. There are group activities for every kind of interest. But you have to take responsibility. If you're feeling alone, what are you doing not to feel alone? This is about making that phone call, even if you do not feel like it. It's about reaching out, even if you do not feel like you're going to be welcome. If you reach out and think someone's going to want to hear from you, it's easier. The ones that get through the tough times are the ones who go out and knock on doors.
Part of my task as a therapist is to say, hang-on, what's making you feel as though everything's hopeless? And what are you doing about it?
I'm worried that nothing I do is going to prevent an ecological disaster.
This way of thinking feeds a general hopelessness, and encourages us to think, 'regardless of what I do, it's useless. It's important to do something, to feel that you're making a contribution. Do not write it off as a hopeless cause, because you do not know whether it is. Where's your evidence?
If you're thinking about the future, and you want to do as your neighbors do, a future that involves less consumption is not going to be a lonely, sad world. People manage things if they think everyone else is in the same situation. It's helpful to think, this is not just happening to me. In these times, there's a great importance in a sense of community.