Taking Responsibility for our Future Selves

We’re going to start here by borrowing a concept from the field of economics, being, “Cost externalizing”. This is a term that describes how a business maximizes its profits by off-loading indirect costs and forcing negative effects to a third party. For example, when a chemical plant pours its industrial waste into the river next door, it is externalizing the costs of proper disposal of the toxins to the citizenry in general, who both have to pay for the medical effects, and eventually for the cleanup when the state agencies have to get involved. Thus, for the company producing the toxins, the cost of production should include the disposal of waste (because it’s part of the production process to produce waste), but instead that cost gets externalized to those without any say in the production. Profit goes to the company, and cost to the third parties.

So, the idea for this article is simply this:

We do the same thing to our selves.

Specifically, our present selves take actions without referring to, remembering, or consulting our “future selves” about the costs of our choices. We all, with remarkable frequency, pretend that there’s just one of us and that our choices only affect “me”, whereas there are multitudes of our selves in the future who have no direct say in the present, and yet are inheritor of the costs of our present-tense decisions. (Admittedly, this can feel initially like an odd idea, but hang in there–it will make more sense.)

So, for instance: When I thought, a few weeks back about what to have for lunch, there was two contenders, pizza, or a homemade salad. In the decision process, when I was not holding my couple-hours-in-the-future self in mind, then the pizza won hands down. Fat and simple carbs? Absolutely! But when I brought that near-future self into the picture and checked in with him, knowing he’d be the payer of future costs, he said pretty clearly that he’d rather be digesting a light salad than the carb-and-cheese overload of a pizza. Not wanting him to have to suffer, I accepted the cost of refraining from pizza, and ate the salad.

To have chosen the pizza, given that I could tell that my future self wasn’t happy with the idea of being left with the cheese apocalypse (without his being able to enjoy the eating), would have been to “externalize” the cost (the unpleasant heaviness) to my future self without his consent. My present self gets the pleasure, but my future self gets pain.

Go ahead and pause now, and think about this at your own personal level. In this moment, as you’re reading this article, what your choices are for the next hour. Are you in the process of cleaning the house? Or working a project at your job? Or at loose ends and the future is up for grabs? Think about the options now from the perspective of present-tense pleasure. Maybe staying in bed has a high pleasure value. Or avoiding cleaning up the desk. Or going for a run. Or getting high. Whatever it might be.

Then with whatever you identify as “high pleasure,” think about what you (your future self) will inherit from your present “high pleasure” choice. Will they be glad that you made that choice? Will they be unhappy with your choice? If you don’t clean up the desk, will they inherit peacefulness and a sense of accomplishment, or shame and a sense of failure? If you get high, will they thank you for the calmed nerves, or feel burdened with sluggishness or hangover?

You check this in two ways: one, by imagining your future self as receiver of your actions, knowing what typically happens when you do whatever it is (say, the avoiding the desk cleaning); and two, by actually asking them what they want. You’ll find, as you practice this, that they will eagerly answer you. There are real consequences for our actions–on others of course, but much more neglected, on our selves, and when we check in, our future selves will let us know what they think.

However–and this is particularly important with those who suffer depression and anxiety–we need to practice this “dialogue through time” with kindness. If there’s hostility between our current and future selves, then, just like any other relationship, there’s going to be tension, conflict, hurt feelings, and an unwillingness to engage in dialogue. It’s going to be, “You’re always being critical and harsh on me anyway, so screw it, I’ll have the pizza and you can just deal with it!”

So, the challenge is this:

The present self has to hold the future selves with responsibility and care; and the present self has to hold the past selves with understanding and forgiveness.

When we think of the consequences of our actions on our future selves, we have to take responsibility for those costs, and then care is expressed by our willingness not to “externalize” those costs onto our future selves (because those costs are actually part of our present decision), to pay those costs in the present. I might get the pleasure of “playing hookie” from cleaning the desk, but the cost, when the desk actually needs to be cleaned, get paid in the future.

Then, for our relationship to our past selves, we have to both hold them responsible–“Yes, you did choose the pizza, and it was a poor choice, because now I’m feeling awful”–but not then shame or condemn them for that. We have to look back with both appropriate assessment of responsibility, and understanding, in order to learn from our decisions and thereby have better “data” for the decisions that are yet to be made. We don’t learn well when under threat of shame or blame; rather, when there is both a clear assignment of responsibility, coupled with understanding and forgiveness, then we feel open enough to admit our mistakes and grow.

So this is what it means to “take responsibility for our future selves,” and as you play with this dialogue with your “selves”, you’ll find it’s a remarkably powerful perspective. Most of us are basically ethical, moral beings, who would not kick a puppy or maliciously hurt others, and feel guilt when we do. But when it comes to ourselves, we are routinely harsh, brutal, and unkind. This perspective, then, is about “leveraging” our already existing social ethics and moral behavior to the job of being more kind with our selves, as “we” inevitably unfold over time.

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