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Why You Can’t Use the Past to Predict the Future


Here are stories clients tell me by the truckload. “I never had any luck with dating, so I gave up eight years ago,” “I tried intuitive eating when I was younger and couldn’t do it,” or “I haven’t worked since I lost my last job because it was too stressful for me.” What do all these scenarios have in common? Each one uses the past to predict the future.

Why do we do this? Although we’re the only animals we know of who have consciousness about our actions, our brains are still built to use past experience to guide current and future behavior. My cat knows that when she gets too near the pool she loves to drink from, she’s going to get a spritz of water in her face as a deterrent because she’s fallen in twice. This is how cat mind teaches itself what to do and not do.

Here's the problem with applying that process to humans: we change and so do circumstances which usually makes the present far different than the past when we had particular experiences. Using the examples above, I would hope that if you haven’t dated in eight years and have spent time since thinking about what your “lack of luck” dating was really about, you might have learned a thing or two about why you chose the people you did to date. Ditto that you might be in a different stage of life or personal development now than when you tried intuitive eating. And you hopefully have learned something about managing stress or keeping a job since you lost your last one.

For humans, in many circumstances, using the past to predict the future is a waste of time. Are you really as gullible as you used to be when you were dating all the wrong people or have you wised-up? Could you look back over your intuitive eating experience and correct some mistakes you made so that you wouldn’t repeat them now? In the years since you lost your job, have you reflected on and tried to understand why that happened and how you might make sure that now you can manage stress better?

Like other animals, humans are made to learn from our experiences, especially the ones that didn’t work out well. That’s why they remain so vivid in our minds. They stick out not because we want to make sure not to repeat them, but because there are lessons to be learned from them to improve our decisions and our lives. The mere fact that you survived an experience changes you. It makes you a smarter, wiser person so that you’re not the same one you were before you had your upsetting experience.

This is the very good news about using the past to predict the present. If you and circumstances are exactly the same as you were when you made mistakes, that’s one thing, but I’d wager you know more now than you did back then.