Positive orientation towards your past

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We know three time zones – the past, the present and the future; all three time zones very much define your life, from who you are to where you were, where you are and where you’re going. The renowned psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who was also responsible for the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment, found that the way you orient yourself towards your past, present and future defines your level of success and happiness. His suggestion is that you calibrate your outlook on time to improve the quality of your life.

You have two options for your orientation for every time zone (past, present, future). You can focus on the positives or the negatives from your past. You can be a hedonist or a fatalist in the present. And for your future, you can be goal-oriented or oriented towards post-life rewards, like going to heaven.

The best combination for improving your life is having a positive orientation towards the past, being a moderate hedonist in the present and being goal-oriented towards the future; but not so much goal-oriented towards the future that you also live in the future and forget to enjoy the present. That way, the past gives you strong roots and foundations, your present gives you feelings of personal power and proactive behavior, and your future gives you the wings to seize all the things you want in life.

Past Present Future





Post-life rewards

Any other combination gives much worse results. If you’re focused on the negatives from your past, you hinder yourself with anger and depression and can’t act in the present, if you’re a fatalist in the present, you never act and you place all your freedom and personal power into the hands of others, and being oriented only towards post-life rewards doesn’t give you any ambition to fulfill your own desires and needs. You must also be careful to not be too big of a hedonist in the present, not thinking about the future at all, or be too goal-oriented, not enjoying the present at all. The latter only brings anxiety and a potential burnout into your life.

If we focus more on the past now, the question is how to switch your orientation towards your past (from negative to positive), especially to see all the positive things that happened to you, not only the negatives.

There are four things that can help you have a more positive orientation towards your past, if you have any struggles with that (I hope you had such a nice past that you don’t, but many people do have struggles). Here they are:

  1. Accepting your starting point and being honest with yourself about your limitations
  2. Having a list of personal strengths
  3. Having a list of your past accomplishments
  4. Having a list of things you’re grateful for

Accepting your starting point

If you had a good starting point in life, accepting your starting point is the easy thing to do. The shittier the starting situation you had in life, the harder it may be to accept it. The most important part of your starting point is how much sense of emotional security you have and how much love and affection you received, especially from your mother from when you were born to up to five years of age or so.

Well, it all contributes to the feeling of emotional security – the relationship with your parents, the relationship between them and other primary family members, how stable your environment was at an early age, and so on. Let’s also not forget about the quality of the genes you got and the intelligence level you inherited (nonetheless, this can be developed to a certain extent later on with hard work).

Then we have upbringing. There’s a strong correlation between how much energy your parents invested into your upbringing and your potential for success. The more they read to you, took you to museums, music festivals, art shows, sports games and the more they encouraged your hobbies and confidence, the more talents you could develop and the better picture you got of how the world works and all the possibilities.

If they were too critical, they may have hindered your self-esteem forever; if they never let you overcome challenges completely by yourself, you may feel that you always need someone to push you to do something. Their behavioral patterns for money, running a household, diet and so on, their values and beliefs more or less became a part of your personality, also influencing your destiny.

On top of that, we also have your family’s wealth and their social network, the quality of formal education, the country you were born in, market and social trends, political and economic stability, the technological development level of your country, demographic trends, cultural inheritance and many other factors that define your starting point. Where you were born and to whom are two of the biggest advantages you can have in life.

You starting point may be great, it may be average or it may suck. You can’t change your past, the only thing that you can do is accept it. The good news is that in your adult life, you have the power to change many things. Your starting point may somehow limit your potential, but only to a certain extent. If you take full responsibility for your thoughts, words, emotions, attitude and actions, you can achieve a lot in life, no matter how tough your starting point was. But how can you accept your starting point?

If your past was really traumatic, one way to deal with it is cognitive psychology. With emotional accounting, you can identify cognitive distortions or negative thoughts that influence your dark perception of life and yourself, and correct them. Besides that, there are many other tools for building emotional stability that are more or less scientific, for example psychotherapy, meditation, transactional analysis, trauma release exercises, yoga and many other methods. You have to search and try different options and find the right tool, the right fit that can help you the most with managing your emotions.

If you hadn’t had such a harsh and traumatic past that you need to deal with it with professional help, but still have a hard time making peace with it, let’s look at some less scientific and lighter tools and techniques that can help you see your past more positively.

Seeing what you did get, not only what you didn’t

The first step you can make is focus on the positives. You cannot change what happened, only how you view it. Your past cannot be changed and it may never be forgotten, but it can always be used. No matter how bad your starting point was, there must be positive things you got, be it on the physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual or material level. You should be focused on the thing you did get, not only on what you didn’t. There are, of course, big differences in starting points, but nobody gets everything and nobody gets nothing. Try to find the things that you got, the things you’re proud of, the lucky parts of your past that you’re grateful for. Add them to your gratitude list (more about that at the end of the article).

Your job is to diminish the gap

You have three missions in this life. One is to enjoy life, the second one to contribute (create value) and the third to personally grow, to become the best possible version of yourself. Personal growth is nothing but diminishing the gap between your starting point and who you want to become (your ideal self). Obviously the worse your starting point and the bigger your ambitions, the bigger the gap. But that’s the job you have to do, that’s your mission.

The bigger the gap, the bigger the opportunity for you to grow. The bigger the gap, the more demanding the level you’re playing the game of life in. Consequently, you can become much more skillful and resourceful.

At one point, you realize that you only have two choices in life – the blue or the red pill. You can either feel sorry for yourself for the rest of your life or you take full responsibility for your life and how things are. If you have emotional issues, you talk to a therapist, if you want to progress intellectually, you read, do math or whatever, if you have bad relationship patterns, you read everything about relationships and commit to becoming an authority on how to excel in relationships, if all of your ancestors were fat and you inherited genes that make you gain weight faster, interrupt the unhealthy pattern and become obsessed with being totally fit and living a healthy lifestyle. Whatever it is, you have to take responsibility and deal with it at some point. As I’ve already mentioned, that’s one of your missions in this life, something that life expects from you.

You also have to know that accepting your past is not a one-time event, it’s a process. It’s a process of ups and downs; the harder the past, the longer the process with all its highs and lows. But it can be done. If we look at the bottom line, your past may shape your present, but it can’t control it.

Having a realistic perspective of wealth

Your family’s wealth is, of course, a very important part of your starting point. But you must have realistic perspective of where you stand. Usually people are in a much better position than they think. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have ambitions to earn more and acquire more wealth in the future, but when we’re talking about the inherited wealth and your family’s wealth, you should know where you stand.

These figures may not be totally accurate, but just so that you get the general picture and a feeling of how poor the word really is. If you have around 2,200$ in the bank, you’re in the top 50% of the wealthiest people in this world. If you have 60,000$ of assets, you’re among the 10% of the richest adults in the world and if you earn 25,000$ or more annually, you’re in the top 10% of the world’s income-earners. If you have more than 50,000$ of income per year, you’re in the top 1% of the world’s income earners and if you have more than 500,000$ in assets, you’re part of the richest 1% of the world (source: MSN Money).

GlobalRichList may help you see your more exact wealth position. The point is: it doesn’t matter if your parents helped you financially or not, you’re probably the lucky one from the macro perspective, and you should be thankful for that.

List of your personal strengths

Your past is the reason behind who you are, with all your strengths and weaknesses. You may not like certain parts of your character, but you should definitely be proud of your strengths. And let me repeat that again: your strengths are a consequence of your past.

A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor. Good times are only producing soft people. So your strengths more or less developed from the tough times in your past. The stronger you are, the more difficult situations you probably had to encounter.

Therefore you should definitely perform a personal SWOT analysis, in which you list all your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; you should see all the strengths you acquired as the aftermath of the battles you fought in the past.

Last but not least, you mustn’t forget. Strength aren’t only muscles and power and being better than others at something. The strengths also mean admitting all the limitations you have, being humble and knowing also how to be interdependent relationships, and being loving and caring towards others. Love and tenderness are the biggest strengths you can have in life. To act out of love is not the same as being soft and naïve.

List of your past accomplishments

Your brain has a function that can sometimes protect you from dying, but often also clouds your self-image and self-esteem. What am I talking about? Your brain functions in a way that you remember bad events that happened to you much better and vigorously than good events from your past. Delivered a good speech on a stage. Okay, whatever. Delivered a bad speech. Oh, let’s really remember it, especially before speaking the next time.

Back when humans were still living in a jungle, your brain had to make sure you really remembered everything dangerous – from meeting a tiger to touching fire. The more the world we live in develops, the fewer times you encounter life-threatening situations. Despite that, the same biological mechanism still applies, but instead of meeting a tiger you really remember all the times when you’re in a really stressful situation (like public speaking or whatever) or you failed at something that caused you a lot of emotional stress. Your brain, together with all the strong negative emotions, remembers those moments very well and tries to protect you from doing the same thing again. That is also why comfort zone is so cozy.

On the other hand, all your achievements, moments of success and victories are not that special because they aren’t life-threatening. So there’s no need for remembering them. You tend to quickly forget about all your past victories, especially in the long run. In the short term, victories encourage you to achieve even more and boost your self-esteem, but when the first failure comes, you can quickly forget about all the past victories you achieved and see only your past failures.

A good solution for focusing your brain on the right things is to have a list of your past accomplishments. When your self-esteem goes down or you feel bad after a failure, you should look at the list, just to remind yourself that you’re a winner and that you have many past accomplishments. Every single person on the planet has bigger or smaller accomplishments in their lives that they can list and that can definitely help them see the past in a more positive way.

Gratitude list

Gratitude list

The last technique that can help you to see your past more positively is a gratitude list. Many times, you simply forget how much you already have and all the things that you can be grateful for.

Gratitude shifts your focus from what your life lacks to the abundance that’s already present. Research in psychology has shown that being thankful makes you happier and healthier, it reduces stress and makes you stronger and more resilient. If you remind yourself what you are grateful for every morning, it will definitely increase your level of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy in everyday life.

If you don’t know what to be grateful for, here are some ideas. You can be grateful that you woke up this morning, breathing and with a heartbeat. Life itself is a precious gift. You can be grateful for your health, spouse, family, friends, the employment or business you have, the value you’re able to create, your genes, looks, the outdoors, the technology you can use, the things you own, food and shelter, free time, things you enjoy and so on. If you need additional ideas, you can find many good ideas online, simply search for things to be thankful for in life, although it’s much better if you write them down straight from your heart.

By practicing everyday gratitude, you’ll put your life into a more positive perspective, you’ll realize how much you already really have and you’ll definitely accept your past more easily. With your personal gratitude list, you’ll constantly be aware of the wonderful things in your life.

It may be hard to begin, but you should see gratitude as an emotional muscle that will grow and strengthen with use. There’s always something to be grateful for, so make your list. Last but not least, the more gratitude you have in your life, the more you open yourself up for abundance, meaning getting even more excited about your future.

If you think successful people don’t do that kind of stuff, you’re wrong. Extraordinary results demand an extraordinary way of thinking and actions, that’s a fact. Average people only read about it, successful people really do it. Let me give you an example.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, sets himself annual challenges. In 2010, he committed to learning Mandarin, in 2011 to eating only animals he slaughtered himself, and in 2013 to meeting someone new each day. And guess what, in 2014 he wrote at least one well-considered thank you note every day (Source: Bloomberg).

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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