Healing the Now by Imagining the Future

Time projection can be an easy way to use cognitive therapy at home

Time projection can be an easy way to use cognitive therapy at home

I began practicing as a psychotherapist in the mid-1990s. I studied many different approaches. I used to train other therapists and became known as a psychological “techniques guy” because I was fascinated by the variety of psychological strategies and tactics we can learn.

You’ll find psychological techniques in books on psychotherapy, as well as in self-help books and even spiritual and philosophical classics. Each individual technique can be classified in different ways. For instance, is it broadly visual, meditative, cognitive, verbal, written, or behavioral in nature? Some are quite complex. Others are surprisingly easy to learn, and work pretty reliably — they often provide “easy wins” for therapists.

I’ll let you in on a trade secret. Most experienced psychotherapists know that one such easy win is what we call “time projection”. That’s the terminology used by early cognitive-behavioral therapists, although you’ll find similar techniques in lots of other types of books. Time projection is a vague term that refers to using your imagination to shift your perspective as if you’re in the future or the past. There many different ways of doing this. Some work better than others. Let me give you my favorite example…

When a client comes into my consulting room I normally begin by asking “How are things?” One young woman, in Scotland, looked at me strangely for a moment and then said “I’m still in shock, to be honest!” (I’m disguising certain details, to anonymize the client.) She told me that the day before she’d gone to her boyfriend’s apartment. He wasn’t expecting her but, some time ago, had given her a key so she let herself in. She found him in bed with another woman. That would have been bad enough, but a heated argument ensued and the other woman attacked her physically, scratching and badly bruising her face. Her boyfriend stood by and did nothing to defend her. Eventually, she fled the scene in tears.

Doing Time Projection

We talked about it for a while. She felt very humiliated. Often clients are depressed about things that aren’t all that bad or worried about things that never happen. This situation wasn’t like that, though. It would obviously be very emotionally painful for anyone to have that experience. So I began by normalizing her distress and letting her know that I understood how she felt. We were probably a good 20 or 30 minutes into the conversation before I felt it was appropriate to shift perspective.

“How do you think you’ll feel about this tomorrow, looking back on it?” I asked. She told me she might be a bit calmer but still shocked and confused. So we talked a bit more. “How about a week from now — will you feel any different looking back on it then?” She said she’d feel bad but would probably be starting to think more about moving on. “So what about a month from now or two months from now?” She’d have gotten over the shock and be focusing on the future. “What about a year from now?”, “Ten years from now?”, and so on… You get the idea.

Arnold Lazarus, one of the pioneers of modern behavior therapy used the same strategy on himself:

“Whenever I upset myself over various issues […] I always picture myself looking back at the incident from about six months in the future. I instantly realise that a few months from now (or sometimes even a few days from now) it will make very little difference. This produces instant relief. I say “Tough luck!” and go about my business.”— In the Mind’s Eye, 1977

You can use this method of time projection with anything, any perceived catastrophe or misfortune. It works about 90% of the time. Very occasionally someone might say that even twenty years from now they’d still be really upset so you’d either talk that through or switch to another technique — it’s the exception that proves the rule. Because this way of doing time projection is so quick and simple and works so well, you don’t need a therapist to do it for you. You can easily use it yourself at home, as a form of self-help.

Getting More Benefit

There are ways to “squeeze more therapy” out of the technique, though, as I like to say. I often ask clients: “So if you’d feel that way about it if it had happened a year ago, why shouldn’t you feel the same way about what just happened a day ago?” (Assuming the “catastrophe” was the day before.) That’s a puzzling question for most people. It’s worth chewing over, though. What’s done is done, to paraphrase Lady Macbeth, and what’s beyond remedy should be beyond regret.

You might say that’s interesting but the experience is still fresh so you don’t yet feel as removed from it as you would in the distant future. Every time you project yourself into the future, though, you get a glimpse of what it would feel like, looking back. Practice makes perfect so if you keep doing that, maybe once per day or more, you’ll get into the habit of feeling more as if you’ve already moved on.

In a sense, you’re just speeding up the natural process of adapting to setbacks and recovering from them. It puts things in perspective. As an added bonus, time projection also tends to encourage people to think creatively about coping strategies.

If you start by imagining yourself in the future having moved on, you can more easily imagine how you got there. What must you do in order to recover from the problem and reach that new perspective? Maybe you spoke to your friends about how you were feeling, for instance, and started making changes in your daily life. It’s long been understood that focusing on ways of coping, both practically and emotionally, tends to relieve emotional distress.

Make It a Habit

Sometimes cognitive therapy techniques can be complicated. Sometimes, though, we make them more complicated than they need to be. This particular way of doing time projection is so simple that anyone can use it. Arnold Lazarus was one of the pioneers of this approach in the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) field.

However, it isn’t just a modern concept. The ancient Stoic philosophers — such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — were doing similar things, as I describe in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor:

“Another simple and powerful technique is to ask yourself how you would feel about the situation that worries you in ten or twenty years’ time, looking back on it from the future. It’s an example of a more general strategy known as “time projection.” In other words, you can help yourself develop a philosophical attitude toward adversity by asking “If this will seem trivial to me twenty years from now, then why shouldn’t I view it as trivial today instead of worrying about it as if it’s a catastrophe?” You’ll often find that shifting your perspective in terms of time can change how you feel about a setback by making it seem less catastrophic”.

For example, Marcus Aurelius likes to remind himself of things that people took great pride in, or worried about, in the distant past. Decades or even centuries later, to others looking back on events from the past, their concerns may seem less important. Marcus tells himself that whenever he sees the statue of one of his predecessors in the office of emperors, such as Augustus or Hadrian, he should imagine himself in their shoes, and realize that one day many of his own concerns will seem like nothing.

“Then let this thought be in your mind, “Where then are those men now?” Nowhere, or nobody knows where. For thereby you will continuously look at human things as smoke and nothing at all, especially if you reflect at the same time that what has once changed will never exist again in the infinite duration of time.” — Meditations, 10.31

I’ve known many people who figured out similar strategies for themselves — it just came to them intuitively. It’s worth practicing these sorts of techniques when you don’t need them so that they come more easily to you when you do. In other words, asking yourself “How will I feel about this looking back on it years from now?” is a good habit to get into.

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