Maybe it is time to replace your old luggage?

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As summer approaches, some lucky people are getting their luggage ready in preparation for travel. But whether any of us gets to travel this summer or not, we are all already carrying our ‘psychological luggage’ with us.  So let’s address this familiar emotional condition, and call it:  “Dragging your old luggage.”

Think of it this way. Just as we retrieve our old luggage from storage for a planned trip, we have a tendency to pull out our “psychological luggage” as we journey through life. Quite often we find ourselves complaining about different past experiences- our childhood, past regrets, or any unfair treatments we have endured. This state of past thinking occurs naturally as we form our life stories, which we rehash to others, but even more often to ourselves. We tend to carry the way we perceive our past in the same way we lug around a heavy suitcase: it slows us down and exhausts us by the time we get to our destination.

Here’s the problem. Holding on to our life stories packed in our “old luggage” is compounded by our belief that the past holds so much weight in our lives on a daily basis. Not only do we often believe  the past has the power to determine our future, we also assume that much of our present and future abilities are determined by this past. So, if we believe that the past’s power can influence our present, we are, in essence, dragging our old luggage in our journey through life.

So, how do we remedy this situation? Dragging your luggage can become heavy and tiresome, but there’s a simple premise to consider that can help you lighten your load and make your journey more enjoyable. It’s the concept of prospection.

Prospection explains a type of thinking we all engage in when we contemplate our future. So, rather than focusing on aspects of our past, or dwelling on the mishaps of the day, prospection is a thinking activity in which we make mental simulations about our future – even for this afternoon or this evening! In a sense, engaging in prospection is engaging in making mental simulations about our future.

Consider our luggage analogy. We might say that we can use prospection as a tool to choose the contents we want to pack in our new and improved luggage. And indeed positive psychology research tells us that we are very much drawn into thinking about the future, and that we actually spend a lot of time prospecting. Likewise, this type of into-the-future oriented thinking motivates us to keep going forward and make good decisions.

As a matter of fact, you might even be prospecting right now as you are reading this article! Perhaps you are thinking about how you can make sense of this notion of “repacking your luggage”, or whether you’d like to reject or accept the idea, or you may even be thinking how you might apply the concept in your life. All of these thoughts and cognitive activities are constantly, and at times, unconsciously, engaging you in creating mental simulations about your future.

Of course many of you may believe that you already think a lot about your future; but remember, the focus here is on employing the new mental simulations to motivate you and encourage you to action. In other words, your prospection is your GPS tool that allows you to find your way. In fact, it is this GPS, your view of the future, not your past experiences that often drives and motivates you to take action in order to reach your end destination. Acknowledging our mental simulations allows us to open up and inspire ourselves, to unpack our old luggage and start filling it up with some great positive new items.

Let’s return once again to the traveling analogy. So, say you are planning a romantic getaway with your partner, but you had the unfortunate experience of breaking up with a previous partner during a past vacation. Of course, the knowledge of that past negative experience might influence your current travel plans (for example, you probably would not choose the same resort destination), but it is your future thinking that enables you to plan for this new vacation and be optimistic that this getaway will be romantic and fulfilling.  Even if you do have concerns about this upcoming adventure, and thoughts of the hurtful last experience surface, what’s important to remember is that your past experience does not determine your future one; you still plan to get away, and you still trust that you can have a great time.

What is the take-away message?

Accepting and acknowledging past influences is important. We are all influenced by our past. However, we are influenced by it, not controlled by it. We must take into account, and become more actively aware, that we are forever changing, gaining new experiences and new perspectives.  And, more specifically for our topic of the day, we are engaged in prospection. We are generating internal representations of futures and in fact choosing among them. Therefore, there is an enormous advantage in getting more in touch with our internal future simulations. It can allow us better insight into our internal world, which is more future-driven than we sometimes realize. Connecting to our internal mental simulations will empower us to envision new possibilities and direct our goals accordingly.  It will motivate us to pay closer attention to our into-the-future thinking and be more actively selective about what we wish to focus on.