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An Inability To Visualize The Future (Let Alone A Positive Future) Is A Hallmark Of Trauma

An inability to visualize the future (let alone a positive future) is a hallmark of trauma. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

2022 – the new year – is nearly upon us. 

It’s genuinely hard to believe it. 

In so many ways, 2021 flew by for me.

And now, as I sit writing you this essay in the last week of the year, I’m aware that, as usual in a few days time, many folks – myself included – will be making resolutions, plans and intentions for the new year, laying the groundwork for what they hope will be a good, fruitful year and future for themselves.

An inability to visualize the future (let alone a positive future) is a hallmark of trauma. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

An Inability To Visualize The Future (Let Alone A Positive Future) Is A Hallmark Of Trauma

But for so many of my readers who come from relational trauma backgrounds, this – making resolutions, intentions and plans for the new year and for their future – may not be something they feel drawn to do or even capable of doing.

Why?

Because an inability to visualize a future for oneself (let alone a positive future) is a hallmark trauma symptom. 

If you relate to this – if you struggle to envision a future or older/elder version of yourself – and if you’d like to know more about why this might be and, more importantly, how we can help you overcome this, please join me on the blog today to keep reading.

Why do I struggle to visualize a future for myself?

“Why do I struggle to visualize a future for myself, let alone a positive one?”

In the ten years I’ve been practicing as a clinical psychotherapist, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some iteration of this question. 

And the question is always almost paired with some degree of incredulity that there are people out there who can really, truly do this – think forward decades into the future and visualize a positive, happy outcome for themselves and then work backward, taking steps that secure that future.

It sounds as unbelievable to someone with a trauma history that this is possible as much as it sounds impossible for someone with a normative psychological background to believe that others can’t imagine a future version of themselves.

But, incredible as this may seem to some, the inability to visualize a future – let alone a positive future – is indeed a hallmark of coming from a trauma background.

Why is this?

Terrific research has been done and continues to be done on why, exactly, trauma impacts one’s ability to visualize a (positive) future for oneself, and while detailing the full breadth of that research is beyond the scope of this essay, I’ll share the three primary ways I’ve personally and professionally come to understand how and why trauma alters the brain’s ability to imagine a future for oneself:

  1. Trauma alters memory. With trauma survivors, access to autobiographical data points and past memories may be greatly impaired as a result of the brain’s adaptations to the trauma they lived through. And when this ability to reach back into the past and construct a sound, cohesive narrative is impaired, it may make it difficult if not impossible to “mentally time travel” into the future and achieve the mental flexibility required to visualize a future – let alone a positive future. 
  2. Trauma can impair executive functioning. Executive functions – housed in the frontal lobes of the brain – are the set of skills that allow us to, broadly speaking, plan and monitor our actions. For example: organizing, planning, and prioritizing complex tasks; starting actions and projects and staying focused on them to completion; regulating emotions and practicing self-control; practicing good time management, etc. When these critical skills are impaired, it can make it more difficult (if not impossible) to plan and take action towards a (positive) future for oneself.
  3. Trauma can alter one’s self-perception fundamentally. Per extensive research (not to mention this being a core diagnostic criterion of PTSD in the DSM-5), we know that trauma survivors are often left with negatively altered cognitions about themselves, others, and the world in the wake of trauma. Plainly put, negatively altered self cognitions can often leave trauma survivors with a core belief that they are “broken, dysfunctional, and/or unworthy of being treated well” (by themselves and others). With such a negatively altered self-concept, the ability and motivation to plan for a (positive) future is greatly hindered.

What are the costs and consequences of not being able to visualize a future for myself?

Whether you struggle to visualize a positive future for yourself because of any one of the above reasons (or all of them together), the inability to visualize a positive future for yourself can have deleterious, multitudinous impacts on the developmental stages of a human life cycle including but not limited to:

  • Failure to plan for a sound education;
  • Failure to plan for a sound career;
  • Failure to plan for a sound, rooted-in-reality financial future;
  • Failure to cultivate and sustain healthy, functional, rooted-in-reality relationships;
  • Failure to protect and nurture your physical safety;
  • Failure to protect and nurture your medical health;
  • Failure to protect and nurture your mental health;
  • Failure to plan for and protect your reproductive health;
  • And so much more.

Each and all of these aforementioned tasks, when properly considered and planned for, are, arguably, essential in supporting someone to lead a functional, healthy early, mid-and late-adulthood. 

Obviously, then, the ability to visualize and plan and work for a positive future for oneself is critically important. 

So what can be done to help someone who struggles with this to better visualize a positive future?

How can I begin to visualize a future for myself?

If you come from a trauma background – particularly a relational trauma background where the trauma you sustained took place over a longer period of time – trauma recovery work will be essential in helping you begin to better visualize a positive future for yourself.

I’m a particular proponent of brain-based trauma recovery therapies – especially EMDR – to support trauma recovery. 

But trauma-informed talk psychotherapy can be extremely effective, too. 

In addition to brain-based and/or trauma-informed talk psychotherapy, when working with my clients and online course students, I assign additional psychotherapeutic exercises to help them personalize and better realize their futures. Here are just a few of them:

  1. “Age” a photo of you to get more in touch with your older self. FaceApp is one such app that does this, AgingBooth is another, Oldify, or simply Google “age your face app” and you’ll come across other resources. By aging our faces, we start to make something that feels abstract and surreal (old age, the fact that we may someday be 80) feel more real and thus more important to consider and plan for and act in service of. It’s hard to imagine that at age 25, 30, 35, or even 40 that we’ll be frail and elderly when we’re in the prime of our lives. By aging a photo you can connect more viscerally to your future self and in connecting that way, you may not only personalize your future but you may also feel more motivation to take action to support your future.
  2. Practice this visualization to see yourself as an old person in two future scenarios:
    • Scenario One: Close your eyes, settle your body, breathe deeply, now bring to mind your future self at age 80 if you haven’t changed your habits and actions and haven’t planned well for your future. See what kind of environment/home you might be in. See what’s in your fridge. Imagine what’s on your calendar in terms of work versus unstructured time. Imagine having medical bills and what your ability to pay them might be. Imagine wanting to be able to fly across the country to visit your grandchildren (if you choose to have children) – will you be able to do so whenever you want? How will your children – if you have any – be obligated or unobligated to support you financially, logistically, psychologically? How do you imagine you’ll feel about money and your aging body and mind? Will you feel relaxed? At ease? Or worried? Will you have healthy, connected relationships around you or will you be alone? Really lean into this vision and, when you’re ready, come out of it. Feel free to jot down any notes that stood out to you about what your future self may have to endure if you DON’T change your habits and actions and if you don’t start visualizing a future for yourself.
    • Scenario Two: I want you to again imagine that you’re 80 but in this scenario, you HAVE changed your habits, actions, and your willingness and desire to plan for your old age. You’ve implemented the action steps you need to care for your future self – financially, logistically, mentally, physically, socially, and emotionally. Now, envision the environment you’ll be in if you transform these habits and behaviors and your ability to work towards a future. Think about the freedoms you’ll have to work or not work, to travel to see your grandkids (if you choose to have children), or travel to destinations you always wanted to see. Imagine what kind of health you will have, what kind of pride you will have about your life, and how you’ll be able to take care of yourself and your loved ones with the assets and actions you’ve long ago put in place. Really lean into this vision and when you’re done, come back to the room and jot down any notes you want.
  3. Act as if. I’m a big believer in faking it until you make it and so if connecting to a vision of your future self feels challenging and the above exercises yield no motivation for you, try this next exercise and begin acting as if you were an esteemed, self-loving person who cared deeply about their own future. Pick someone you admire. Michelle Obama. Jacinda Ardern. Robin Arzón. What would they do to plan for their future? How would they act if they knew they would live until 80 and wanted to give themselves a great life at that point? How would they approach that situation or choice you’re facing in the present?

Wrapping this up…

As we conclude today’s essay and as we conclude 2021, I want to remind you that if you struggle to visualize a future for yourself (let alone a positive future!) for this coming new year or for any point moving forward, this makes perfect sense if you come from a trauma background.

And I’ll also remind you: the brain is plastic and we can rewire and alter our neural pathways (and thus our cognitions and behaviors) up until the day we die. 

Just because you can’t visualize a future for yourself now, doesn’t mean that this skill isn’t possible.

Please, take heart from that fact.

And now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

Did you relate to today’s essay? Do you struggle with being able to visualize your own future (let alone a positive one)? What is one trick, tool, or habit that has helped you begin to visualize (and plan and work for) your future more?

Please, if you feel so inclined, leave a message in the comments below so our monthly blog readership of 20,000 plus people can benefit from your wisdom and experience.

If you would personally like support around this and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together.

If you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.

And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Marija on  

    Omg, I was just thinking about this issue these days and you send this in an email!! I’ve been struggling for years to figure this thing out and create my life the way I want ut but the problem is – I don’t know ehat exactly I want!? It is all blurry. And this is why my years look alike and its like I am in some circle all the time.

    Sometimes I get so frustrated seeing how some people know EXACTLY what they want. Out of everything. This makes me so angry and I just see myself isolating si much.

    Trying to figure ut out myself. And I know I will eventually, but it is really strange not knowing where you want to go.

    I think this has go do with the fact that I am living with my parents ( I am 38) and by itself it triggeres all from my childhood.

    But its strange – not being able to move forward and also not being at peace with being where I am.

    Thank you for your blog. It makes me believe I am not alone completely.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Marija,

      It’s nice to hear from you again! Thanks for taking the time to comment, I’m so glad that this post resonated with you. I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing your experience, you are absolutely not alone and I know many others can relate to how you feel. Sometimes a little support can be a huge help in figuring things out and I hope this blog continues to feel helpful. If either of my online courses – Hard Families, Good Boundaries, or the forthcoming Relational Trauma Recovery School – could be of support to you on your journey as you visualize and work towards a positive future for yourself, I’d love to work with you there. In the meantime, please know I’m sending you my very best.

      Warmly, Annie

  2. Angel B on  

    Hi Annie,
    As ever, your words help cut through the “crap” of negative self talk and allows me to see the other side, if only briefly. I share these articles with my boyfriend so he can understand me better and start to see how his own family trauma, however ‘minor’ in comparison to mine (his thoughts not mine), have influenced some of his patterns of behavior.
    Today’s article was hard. I’ll have to come back again to it. Those scenarios of visualization practice just scare me honestly; I never thought I’d make it to 44 and I still have breakout suicide thoughts occasionally, so even thinking about me being 80 is frightening. Even though I have a good decent person in my life, I always have seen myself alone at the end, dying with no one knowing for days. I’m an independent person because of my traumas and don’t like thinking that I’ll need caring for but yet the child inside is desperate for that loving support and secretly understands that “we”(adult and child me) need other people. I’ve battled my depression, my trust issues, my emotional mask-wearing & embraced at the end of each one the choices that got me here alive and yet I’ve not been comfortable with planning a clear future. I know I want to go out in the world and support others like me, to let them know a kind person who gives great hugs and amazing massages sees them for who they are and not who they pretend to be to get by. I know I’ve been given a great gift of turning trauma into a most loving and generous person. I know I want a little piece of land by a lake and a forest and a tiny home to live in that allows me to have just my things in it and everything about it is mine. And then I think about sinkholes, and urban sprawl and tornadoes and earthquakes and climate change and politics and femicide and I wonder if I can truly live happy in a world that’s this messed up and visualize a positive future for me or anyone I care about.
    I guess also I’m a little sad about the ‘fake it til you make it’ school of thought…it’s never really worked for me. It’s exhausting faking happy, positive mental health in a world that judges your every move and assumes you’re ‘normal’ until you have a breakdown. And it confuses the heck out of my boyfriend when I have a flashback and breakdown only to minutes later appear as if none of that happened and I’m completely fine and laughing. It’s putting on that emotion mask I’ve been doing my whole life. He says it makes him feel like he doesn’t know who to address..the person that was just crying or the person that has ‘moved’ on and is asking about dinner. I tell him, when in doubt, address the child in me. She’s the one that needs the most immediate support. If I’m uncertain or fearful, it is not the adult in control but the child who has no way of seeing out; take my hand and tell me what will happen next & guide me to the adult me. Sigh. It’s hard work but G*d love him, he’s still willing to try.

    I hope your family had a peace-full holiday and that the weather wasn’t too disruptive. Blessings to all and lots of hugs. Best wishes for the new year.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Angel,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m so glad that these articles feel helpful! I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing your experience, please know that you aren’t alone and that many readers will relate to how you’re feeling. I love that you consider it a gift to have turned trauma into the loving, generous person you are and I hope that you will seek out support for your healing journey so that others may experience all of the wonderful gifts you have to share. You are worth healing and living your dream of a tiny house by a lake and a forest – what a lovely goal!

      If either of my online courses – Hard Families, Good Boundaries, or the forthcoming Relational Trauma Recovery School – could be of support to you as you progress and continue along with your healing journey, I’d love to be of support to you. In the meantime, please know I’m sending you my very best.

      Warmly, Annie

  3. Robin on  

    OMG. Thank you for this essay. I have always wondered why I could never visualize a future for myself. Even now in midlife, I am shocked that I am still alive and that I do have a future. And to be excited by it. The idea of the future is not something I take for granted. I never planned for my future so I feel like I’m on a 10-year delay behind my peers. I am now beginning to allow myself to make some plans, but it definitely feels weird. I’m currently trying to help my teenage niece and nephew to plan for their futures and this information helps. These ideas are not easy to put into words. Again, thank you so much for this essay.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Robin,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, I’m so pleased that this post resonated with you! I’m proud of you for beginning to allow yourself to make plans, even if it feels weird at first. You are so worth investing in your future.

      If either of my online courses – Hard Families, Good Boundaries, or the forthcoming Relational Trauma Recovery School – could be of support to you as navigate your journey and visualize and work towards that positive future, I’d love to be of support to you. In the meantime, please know I’m sending you my very best.

      Warmly, Annie

      • Anne on  

        Thank you so much! Such visualization tools are what I am seeking. As I crawl out of my trauma bunker I am also finding a need for kindred spirits within a support group setting. Seeking that now. So glad to have happened upon your work. Thank you!

        • Annie on  

          Hi Anne,

          Thank you for your kind words, I’m happy that you happened upon my work as well! I think finding a support group is a wonderful idea. Healing from trauma is hard work and creating a support system through a group or a therapist is so important.

          If I can support you through either of my online courses – Hard Families, Good Boundaries, or the forthcoming Relational Trauma Recovery School – as you work toward a positive future for yourself, I’d love to work with you there. In the meantime, please know I’m sending you my very best.

          Warmly, Annie

      • Mick on  

        Hi thank you so much for this article I am a man with 2 daughters in 40s and I been beating myself with questions like why can’t I visualize what I want for myself or my daughter’s I basically feel I’m on survival all the time especially in the last 2 to 3 years and not having structure like I did, now the world is back on as they say I’m just struggling to plan and just winging everything in life ..I pretend to outside world I got things sorted but I just feel exhausted mentally and thinking about let say even Christmas is so hardwork let alone what I want for the next ten years, physically I’m good I exercise but mentally planning stuff and knowing exactly what I want is like FOG, as you mention Neuroplasticity have you got a video or article how one can change their brain 🧠 it’s embarrassing as a man.

  4. Jupiter on  

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. The trouble is that I used to do that exact visualisation exercise in my teens. I was trying to scare myself into turning out differently to my mom. I imagined the ‘worst’ person I could be in my 40s, and the ‘best’. But the reality of my life is still somewhere in the middle, with the worst of one sitting next to the best of the other. The trouble is that some things just don’t seem fixable. I live in a city with spiralling living costs, I’m on a single income, I work 80 hour weeks to try to get promotions. But I still have hardly any savings, I battle with poor impulsive choices (long hours rarely leaves time or energy for cooking), I don’t have hundreds of dollars spare per month for therapy. I worry about my financial future but right now anything resembling a safe retirement looks completely out of reach. I grew up in an environment where the solution to financial problems was “one day we’ll win the Lottery.” I just don’t know how anyone is supposed to make everything work. The world is designed for couples and families. I know what I want for my future, but it’s out of reach. This isn’t just depression talking, I’ve done the sums countless times.

    My experience with trauma is that it really shatters our lives — my parents went bankrupt twice, we lost our home, my brother and I didn’t get to go to the colleges we wanted, we had no support or inheritance. I’ve tried taking responsibility for all of it, putting myself through school and grad school, getting a good job. But all of that effort and personal responsibility doesn’t change social reality. I dream of a little cottage with a garden and a river running at one end. Those properties exist but even at the peak of my career I’d never be able afford one on a single income. The life I want, the retirement I’d like — there are real barriers that aren’t just about my mental health. I find that people get so angry at me when I say this, like I’m just not trying hard enough. Maybe it really is true, I don’t know.

    • Jupiter on  

      (I guess the other part of this is that it took me decades to realise that I wanted anything at all. Wanting things can feel so vulnerable, particularly when there’s no clear way of making them come true. I’ve always been someone who protects myself by being independent and wanting nothing from anyone or the world. I was willing to invest in skills, training, education, my business… but not in my home or my health. I’m experiencing the consequences of this now in early middle age, and it’s really hard to know what to do about it. I feel stuck on a path that isn’t leading anywhere.)

      • Annie on  

        Hi Jupiter,

        Thank you for taking the time to comment and for sharing your perspective and your experience. I’m sure your words will resonate with so many others who find themselves struggling financially even while working overtime. I know you are dealing with a lot of financial pressure so I’d like to invite you to take advantage of the free articles and resources available here on my blog.

        In the meantime, please take good care of yourself.

        Warmly, Annie

    • Sarah on  

      Wow, thank you for being so open and honest–with yourself and us. While I was reading your story, I kept thinking, “this sounds like some I wrote!” And I kinda felt some relief, because it means we’re not alone in how we feel.

  5. Megan on  

    I’m so happy I stumbled upon this article while trying to recover from a bad breakup, I have always wanted marriage, family, a solid career with a good trajectory, and good finances but when I sit down and think about the future I cannot visualize any of it for myself. And quite frankly, it shows in my current life. I am thankful for the exercise in this post as it gave me some hope in being able to visualize and eventually have the things I want out of life.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Megan,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m happy you stumbled upon this post as well! I hope reading this felt helpful and provided just a little bit of comfort. Please take good care of yourself.

      Warmly, Annie

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