An Inability to Visualize the Future (Let Alone a Positive One) Is a Hallmark of Trauma

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From Psychology Today/Annie Wright LMFT: “‘Why do I struggle to visualize a future for myself, let alone a positive one?’

In the 10 years I‚Äôve been practicing as a clinical psychotherapist, I can‚Äôt tell you how many times I‚Äôve heard some iteration of this question. And the question is almost always paired with some degree of incredulity that there are people out there who can really, truly do this‚ÄĒthink 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 unbelievable to someone with a trauma history that this is possible, just 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‚ÄĒlet alone a positive future‚ÄĒis 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.

2. Trauma can impair executive functioning.

3. Trauma can alter one‚Äôs self-perception fundamentally.”

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Not a fan of this. Why do some people struggle to image a future? Because, for some of those people, they legitimately don’t have access to any sort of thriving future under current socioeconomic conditions. Tired of therapists constantly excluding this point – one that is vital to a fair and full discussion of trauma and recovery.. Go read the article earlier this week on MIA…

    Do Psychologists Inhibit Awareness of Oppressive Social Structures?
    New study calls for psychologists and career counselors to be aware of its role in reproducing unequal and unjust working conditions.

    https://www.madinamerica.com/2023/12/do-psychologists-inhibit-awareness-of-oppressive-social-structures/

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    • I totally agree. Restricting discussion to abstract “trauma” is a modern form of whitewashing. There’s a reason Gabor Mate is supported by corporations and big money, because he’s not really challenging anything specific about the system that damages souls.

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    • Mac, I completely agree with you.
      To my mind, the author is just rehashing the dubious assumption that the supposedly disordered brains of people who have suffered distressing experiences urgently need skillful readjustment from a “mental health professional” in order to function properly (i.e. according to the therapist’s wholly subjective, culturally conditioned view of what constitutes a “healthy” attitude to reality). If a patient’s traumatized brain fails to respond in a manner deemed appropriate, its circuits must be damaged or scrambled in some way (the latest fashionable idea propagated lately to supplant the now discredited hypothesis of a chemical imbalance). Needless to say, this approach is fraught with severe, life-altering consequences, as one can readily see from the compelling stories of those harmed physically or emotionally by the “treatments” offered by self-styled experts.

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    • You mean the problem isn’t just my inability to “envision and manifest?” (sarcasm)

      Still, I think the traumas I’ve experienced have diminished not only my resilience but my hope, even before trying to jump socioeconomic hurdles.

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  2. Trauma makes the mind within the mind label the world as a hostile place. Predicting the world will not be kind to us would help us to survive in such a world. Looking ahead and imagining a decent future might make us lower our defenses.

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  3. The primary reason individuals struggle to envision a future, particularly a positive one, lies in a similar philosophy we adopt while discussing self-care and the concept of being present in the moment. Trauma represents an intense embodiment of this principle, being the most vividly ‘present’ experience one can endure, where symbolic existence crumbles into stark physical reality. In safe environments, this state is often referred to as mindfulness or living in the moment. However, in the context of trauma, it similarly denotes a profound immersion in the present. Trauma is neither rooted in the past nor concerned with the future; it is an acutely painful manifestation of the present. Consequently, the absence of both forward-looking foresight and retrospective insight can indicate that an individual is trapped in a profound and disorienting ‘moment of abyss’. We can call that capitalism or another name when it is systematic but it is also a relational aspect where one lacks human support. The word trauma, IMHO, is misnomer here!

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    • Love the name! Love the movie! If you lose the limp in your walk that doesn’t truly exist and choose optimism instead of pessimism and have gratitude for the things you do have everyday you will start dreaming about a good future again! And are you the Kaiser soze before he gets his revenge or after he gets his revenge?

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  4. I can visualize a positive future for myself but I can’t visualize the steps that come in between some of which is just ignorance because I was physically damaged and have needed a lot of hand holding through years and years of painkillers and things. So I just don’t know how to do anything.

    And then some are unrealistic because the physical damage is rather permanent, so sometimes a picture where my body is different comes to mind but it’s very much unattainable, and one part of my brain derails the other like slapping it in the face “Why are you even picturing that? Because it’s literally impossible. Stop wasting time” but all my energy is taken up by this argument that I’m having with myself and so then I can’t figure out what steps are to get somewhere else to come up with a different future that I would want.

    But I think the core problem is I don’t understand the process of deciding what you want and then figuring out how you can get there and mitigating the risks along the way I guess , because I’ve never gotten to really just do what I want. I’ve always been restricted by things out of my control. People say that that happens to everyone, that everybody has barriers.

    And sure, everybody has difficulties and things they struggle with, but for some, these barriers are significantly more pervasive and more rigid. Imagine if half of things you had an impulse to do, you have to stop your brain in its tracks, back up, and reassess based on the fact that you can’t do that thing. Not simply that it would be difficult to do, but that you literally can’t do it even if you had access to it and all the resources you needed.

    All this time and energy every time you’re trying to decide like what you want to be and where you want to go and what types of people you want to be around and things like that and half of the time that you’re doing that you’re coming across things that you can’t do that you want to. And you don’t really remember. Like your brain doesn’t remember that it’s had an impulse and to not have it again. So they repeat as well as coming up with new ones.

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  5. Thank you to MIA for sharing this article. It made something click for me and I realized that I do indeed have difficulty visualizing the future. It explains a lot about my life, to be honest. I don’t know why I didn’t realize it before. I think it’s something I can work on now that I’m aware of it.

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  6. This is completely true. I always wondered why I couldn’t do that. Especially when I was a child. It’s still hard as an adult but I it’s a little bit easier . I have had a few good things happen to me now, so perhaps my brain believes it’s possible now. But I can’t tell you how many times I tried, after reading all that law of attraction crap, I couldn’t for the life of me visualize a happy future. At all. How come no one ever talks about that? Maybe I should.

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