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An Inability to Visualize a Positive Future Can Be a Trauma Sign

Here's what that means, and why it's so important.

Key points

  • An inability to visualize a positive future for oneself can be a warning sign of trauma.
  • Part of trauma recovery includes seeing a desirable future and taking steps in the present to secure it.
  • Two exercises can help us get in touch with our older, future selves.

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

In the 10 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 almost always 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 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—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.

The costs and consequences of not being able to visualize a future

Whether you struggle because of any one of the above reasons (or all of them together), the inability to visualize a positive future for yourself can have many deleterious 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

Each and all of these tasks, when properly considered and planned for, are, arguably, essential in supporting someone in leading 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.

What can be done to help someone visualize a positive future?

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 (and the directory here on Psychology Today is a wonderful resource to help find a great trauma-informed therapist).

In addition to brain-based and/or trauma-informed talk psychotherapy, when working with my clients and online course students, I assign two 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.

Many apps can help you do this. 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. Notice how you feel as you do this exercise.

2. Act as if.

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? Journal about this. Notice how you feel as you do this.