Fast Life / Foreshortened Future

Craig* was raised by his drug-addicted mother. “My childhood was like being in the Kelly gang” Craig noted cynically “only a lot less glamourous”. Intelligent and driven, Craig had started businesses, acquired many skills, and made and lost a lot of money. “My problem is, when things are going well, I always find a way to f**k things up”.

Why is it often that the people who can least afford to get into trouble, find themselves in trouble?

Why do some people seem to self-sabotage their future wellbeing by prioritising immediate gratification?

When we ask these questions and look to people in poverty, we often come to judgemental conclusions: “He deserves what he gets, being so lazy”. “If she didn’t want to be poor, she shouldn’t have had so many children”.

A less blameful theory for the perpetuation of poverty is offered by the Life History Theory. This theory developed from observations of animal biology. Some species of animals, such as rats and many fish species, have many offspring relatively early in their lifecycle and provide little for their upbringing. Other species, such as whales and humans, have fewer offspring, later in life and devote considerable resources to raising them.

Evolutionary psychologists considered these two parenting styles to be strategies. They postulated that humans might enact one of these two strategies based on their life history. Individuals exposed in early life to hazardous or unpredictable circumstances, might develop a Fast Life Strategy (kind of like the rock and roll lifestyle – live fast, die young). Whilst those exposed to stable childhoods might develop a Slow Life Strategy (sort of like a boring middle-class existence).

How does this relate to mental health? Remember Craig? His life history was full of traumatic events:

“I would literally see my mum shoot up daily. I called the ambulance more than once, which was a big deal in our house cause we didn’t like getting authorities involved”.

Craig was in and out of foster care as a child. He was in trouble with the law throughout his adolescence. Unsurprisingly Craig did not develop a strong stable sense of a future self. He made decisions that solved whatever current problem he was facing, but often the solution caused a disaster down the track:

“I’ve always been good at identifying opportunities, plus I’m a bit of a risk taker, I’ve always been able to make money happen. Unfortunately, I always either bite off more than I can chew, or my stupid ex does something, or I get back on the drink, or someone starts a fight with me, and then I’m back to square one.”

It is true that trauma can lead to an expectation of a short life. One of the most common statements that clients with heavily traumatic childhoods tell me is that they never thought they would live very long. This is a common symptom of PTSD – a sense of foreshortened future. Craig understood this feeling:

“I kinda know that I don’t really have that long to live. I’ve known so many people who have died before their time. Life is short, you have to take what you can get”.

Often traumatised people can’t see beyond a certain age, for example past 30 or past 40. I’ve worked with more than a few clients who have lived past their expected time of demise (for example, people who are aged 32 who never thought they’d live beyond 30). They are often left confused and stuck with poor decisions made in their younger years. Debt, broken relationships, lack of education. It can be hard to recover from the Fast Life Strategy.

Healing the trauma – loving your future self

One of the most effective strategies that I use with traumatised people is to imagine a future life. Creating an elaborated future with family, work, friends and hobbies, makes it easier to prioritise long-term goals. This future often feels boring to the traumatised/fast life person. It can be spiced up by imagining confronting someone who put you down (e.g. an abuser) and telling them how well you are going.

Another useful strategy is developing or strengthening a Healthy Adult or Wise Mind persona. This is like having a good internal parent or coach. This internal voice encourages the individual to make wise, reasoned choices that benefit the long-term, not just respond to current needs.

Ultimately, engaging in trauma-focussed work is helpful. Processing emotions and healing the original wounds that led to the sense of a short life.

“These days I don’t do anything big without asking my Healthy Adult “Is this going to f**k me down the track?”.


* Name and key details changed

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