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A Foreshortened-Future View in Adult Children of Narcissists

What it is, why it happens, and how to heal.

Source: Andrew Martin, Pixabay.
Source: Andrew Martin, Pixabay.

Children of narcissistic parents, particularly children who are routinely devalued or scapegoated, commonly internalize feelings of vulnerability, hopelessness, and imminent threat that create a sense of foreshortened future. Like other long-term trauma sufferers, children from narcissistic families often harbor the belief that they are fundamentally damaged and that their life is precarious, unmanageable, even doomed.

Growing up, such children experience disruptions to their sense of personal agency that make it difficult to imagine themselves becoming adults and achieving normal milestones such as having a job/career, committed relationship, home, or family. Often without consciously realizing it, they feel unworthy or incapable of those things, and they carry such beliefs into adulthood, continuing to expect that their life will be cut short or that things they hope for, if they dare to hope, are not possible for them. When other people talk of their futures, they may feel a sense of dissociation from their own and alienation from those who have confidence in having relatively full, long, and stable lives.

Destructive Family Messages

A foreshortened sense of the future in children and adult children from narcissistic homes is a symptom of complex posttraumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) that results from direct or implied messages in their family, such as the following:

  • Their life is unimportant or worthless.
  • There is little or no support for them in the world.
  • They don’t deserve good things.
  • They can’t function on their own.
  • They can’t do what most people can do.
  • They will never be able to hold down a job.
  • No one will ever want/love them.
  • They aren't as capable or deserving as their parents/siblings.
  • They should not compete with or outshine their parents/siblings.
  • They are part of an underclass of the undeserving.
  • They are destined to screw up their life.
  • Their family will undermine or destroy anything good in their life.
  • Everyone in their family is a mess and they are too.
  • They can never overcome their past.

Messages like these are devastating at any age, especially for young people starting out in life. Such messages typically reflect narcissistic parents' own projected insecurities or attempts to undermine or pathologize their children to feel superior, discourage competition, create dependency, get sympathy, rationalize scapegoating, justify controlling behavior, and/or support the family narrative.

In adulthood, illness and financial woes, which often go hand in hand and are more common in people with CPTSD, may amplify a foreshortened-future view of life. The instability that frequently comes with health problems and money worries tends to breed more of the same and create vicious cycles of disability, unemployment, debt, hopelessness, and isolation.

Chronically doubting our survival and ability to thrive is a deeply demoralizing state of mind that adult children of narcissists may live with for years without understanding that it is a result of trauma. The experience is a fundamental loss of faith and a feeling of disconnection from oneself, others, and life itself.

But a fractured and fatalistic view of the future is not something anyone has to settle for. It is important for our own well-being and the well-being of the people who care about us, especially our kids, that we address this belief system and take steps to overcome it.

Strategies for Healing a Foreshortened-Future View

Here are some ways to help yourself (or someone you care about) build confidence in the future:

  1. Create a timeline of your major life accomplishments and keep it updated.
  2. Make an ongoing photo album or scrapbook of important events/highlights in your life.
  3. Practice visualizing yourself in the future at different ages and what you would like your life to be like.
  4. Write down goals you have for the future, including personal and professional goals.
  5. Make short- and long-term social and/or travel plans. Challenge yourself to make plans for one week from now, six months from now, and five years from now.
  6. Read inspirational quotes and stories about people who overcome hardship.
  7. Challenge yourself to do something you’ve wanted to do, such as planting a garden, building a deck on your house, or learning another language.
  8. Reach out to trusted friends and share your steps with them.

Adapted from The Narcissist in Your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free, Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2019.

References

Ratcliffe, Matthew, et al. “What Is a ‘Sense of Foreshortened Future?' A Phenomenological Study of Trauma, Trust, and Time.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 5, 17 Sept. 2014, p. 1026., doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01026.

Dryden-Edwards, Roxanne. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms, Causes, Treatment.” MedicineNet, September 14, 2018. https://www.medicinenet.com/posttraumatic_stress_disorder/article.htm#p….

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