I have been thinking about this idea of The Reboot, which I wrote about in my previous post. Clearly, I’m not entirely empty in my old noggin. I had an actual thought and pondered it, too! Have I ever felt like this before in my life? Why, yes, I have!
After I graduated from college I felt a lot like I do now. Aimless. Anxious. A bit scared. That’s a good question to ask by the way: “Have you ever felt like this before?” It helps you gain insight into what’s going on internally and responsively. We often know a lot about ourselves with the advantage of hindsight. Looking back upon my 22 year-old self, I know exactly why I felt so untethered and aimless after I graduated. I can blame that lesser known symptom of PTSD called ‘a sense of a foreshortened future’. I’ve written a few blog posts on this topic over the years. It has dogged me relentlessly, and I’ve never been able to fully shake it off. It’s very difficult to even describe how it feels.
I think that the best way to describe what living with a sense of a foreshortened future feels like is to relate it to the concept of object permanence. Object permanence is the term used to describe the concept that objects exist even though they can no longer be seen or heard. This is why, for example, babies love the game peek-a-boo. Very young infants have not yet developed object permanence so they, therefore, do not know that their mother, for example, exists when they cannot see or hear her. Peek-a-boo must then be a very thrilling game for babies if you think about it.
Apply the concept of object permanence to your own concept of survival. Imagine playing a metaphorical game of peek-a-boo with your life. One day your sense of security is in front of you. The next day it’s gone. Another day, it’s been given back to you. Another day, it’s vanished. This endless game of “Will I live or will I die?”, or at least a perceived sense of dying, begins to define one’s reality. Nothing is permanent. Security and a sense of being loved, the most coveted and needed objects, are never permanent. What happens to a person who lives like this? If a person can develop Stockholm Syndrome in as little as 72 hours which shows just how little it takes to completely break down a personality, then what do you suppose happens to the neural networks of a person’s brain who is exposed to long-term trauma?
“Children learn their self-worth from the reactions of others, particularly those closest to them. Caregivers have the greatest influence on a child’s sense of self-worth and value. Abuse and neglect make a child feel worthless and despondent. A child who is abused will often blame him- or herself. It may feel safer to blame oneself than to recognize the parent as unreliable and dangerous. Shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and a poor self-image are common among children with complex trauma histories.
To plan for the future with a sense of hope and purpose, a child needs to value him or herself. To plan for the future requires a sense of hope, control, and the ability to see one’s own actions as having meaning and value. Children surrounded by violence in their homes and communities learn from an early age that they cannot trust, the world is not safe, and that they are powerless to change their circumstances. Beliefs about themselves, others, and the world diminish their sense of competency. Their negative expectations interfere with positive problem-solving, and foreclose on opportunities to make a difference in their own lives. A complexly traumatized child may view himself as powerless, “damaged,” and may perceive the world as a meaningless place in which planning and positive action is futile. They have trouble feeling hopeful. Having learned to operate in “survival mode,” the child lives from moment-to-moment without pausing to think about, plan for, or even dream about a future. ” (The Effects of Complex Trauma)
What can we learn from this in order to overcome something as complex as a diminished future orientation? I think that asking questions of ourselves is the place to start:
- How do I feel about myself (do I feel worthless or inherently bad?)
- How would I rate my self-esteem?
- What is my self-image like?
- Do I blame myself for any past mistreatment or abuse? Do I make excuses for the person or people who hurt or neglected me? (e.g. “Well, s/he had a hard life.” or “They didn’t mean to do what they did.”)
- Do I feel hope about my future?
- Do I feel that my present actions can affect change somewhere as in what I do matters?
- Do I feel like what I say or do matters?
- Do I feel powerless?
- Do I feel competent? Do I feel capable?
- Do I feel like damaged goods? Do I feel broken? Has anyone ever told me that I was broken?
- Do I feel like no matter what I do it won’t make a difference anyway so why bother?
Anything that disempowers you in the present will detract from your ability to see into your future. It keeps your mind looking into your past. You become locked into a past/present paradigm because the mind, from what I have understood, wants to solve the unsolvable problems . And, what are these unsolvable problems?
We are supposed to be loved and nurtured by the adults in our lives so that we can grow up to reach and even exceed our potential. The mind will never be able to resolve and overcome the impossible and diametrically opposed realities that we knew. There are no answers for them. There is no way to balance these equations. Then what? We get stuck in an endless feedback loop of shame, self-blame, sickness, and slow deterioration seeking attachment because we are made for attachment, and, yet, we can’t. We survive. In the now. Stuck in the past because we need to find an answer. We must fill in the variables. Solve the problems. Do we exist outside of what we experienced? Are we defined by these bad experiences? Are we permanent? Is anything that anyone says even real or believable?
Who are we anyway?
It is like living in a constant identity crisis. Until we find a way to stop the cycle.
How do you put a stop to this and begin imagining a future? Oh, isn’t that the question!
I can only speak for myself. If you were exposed to complex trauma for an extended period of time, then I would suggest taking those questions to a therapist trained in dealing with trauma. Not every therapist is equipped to help you. I would also suggest meditating on the idea that you do have a future. There is time ahead of you. Also, there is no rush to figure it all out today. Whatever dreams you may have held dear at some point in your life might still be possible, and, before you naysay, ponder this. Even if it takes you ten or twenty years to accomplish something, don’t be so quick to give it up.
The time is going to pass anyway–whether you pursue your desires or not.
The question then is: What do you want to do while the time passes? You do have a say even if you feel like you don’t. This is how you begin to overcome a sense of a foreshortened future. It’s not easy. In fact, it might be incredibly daunting.
It is, however, oh so possible.