Those suffering from Complex PTSD may live their lives as if there is, literally, no tomorrow. This might include spending all of their money as soon as they get it or entering into destructive relationships. Also, individuals may be completely uninterested in setting themselves long-term goals as they feel it would futile. They may, too, not engage with mental health services and be prone to risk-taking. They feel hopeless about the future because to have hope would entail the possibility of again being disappointed which they no longer have the strength to cope with. Feeling this way has been termed by psychologists as having a sense of a foreshortened future’ which I look at in greater detail below.
The DSM (Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders) lists one of the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a ‘sense of a foreshortened future.‘ It is this specific symptom that I wish to concentrate upon in this article.
The psychologists Ratcliffe et al. (2014) suggested, based on their research, that this involved several elements of altered feelings, perceptions, and beliefs, some of which I consider (although not exclusively) below.
NEGATIVE VIEW OF THE FUTURE :
An individual suffering from a ‘sense of a foreshortened future’ may have an extremely negative and pessimistic set of beliefs about the future; these may include :
- I will die young / soon / prematurely / imminently
- I will never have a rewarding and successful career
- I will never find a partner / have a family.
In other words, the individual who is experiencing a ‘sense of a foreshortened future’ regards the future as bleak, empty a without meaning.
It follows. of course, that the person’s feelings and emotions in relation to the future will also be negative – rather than being hopeful about it, s/he may fear and dread it.
ALTERATIONS IN PERCEPTION OF TIME :
Also, such a person may experience severe alterations in his/her perception of how time operates, including :
- changes in perception of the passage of time and feeling unable to ‘move forward into the future’
- changes in how PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE are experienced
- changes in how the relationship between the PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE are experience
- the experience of flashbacks (in which the past is experienced as ‘happening now.’
- a change in perception of the overall structure of experience
FEELING THAT LIFE IS OVER :
Freeman (2000) coined the term ‘narrative foreclosure’ which refers to a strong sense that one’s ‘life story has effectively ended.’ and that there is no further purpose to it, no further meaning that can be derived from it, and no possibility that it will contain deep relationships with others or achievement of any kind. The individual affected in this way may also cease to feel s/he cares about anything or can be committed to any cause or project in the future.
In short, a sense of nihilism, (feelings of extreme pessimism, extreme skepticism, that life is meaningless and that existence itself is a terrible thing, that nothing can be known for sure and that values are baseless) may prevail.
LOSS OF TRUST :
Also relevant to an individual developing a sense of a foreshortened future is that it is likely to be intertwined with a general loss of trust which may manifest itself through beliefs such as :
- others cannot be trusted and pose a threat to me
- the world is a dangerous place that I should interact with as little as possible
THE ‘SHATTERING’ OF ONE’S EXPERIENCE OF THE WORLD AND OF OTHER PEOPLE :
Greening (1990) puts forward the view that the individual’s ‘relationship with existence itself becomes shattered’. For example, the experience of trauma may leave the individual with a fundamentally altered view about the safety of the world (Herman, 1992) and his/her place within it; the world seems meaningless, other people undependable and dangerous, and the self of no value.
LOSS OF PREDICTABILITY :
The individual, too, may come to see life as essentially random and unpredictable, feel that s/he can exercise no control over it, and that, therefore, there is no prospect of life unfolding in a dependable, coherent, cohesively structured way – s/he may feel s/he is no longer traveling through life on a reasonably straight set of tracks, but, rather, on tracks that twist and turn at random and from which one may be completely derailed at any time without warning. Indeed, Stolorow (2007) refers to how the individual may lose his/her sense of safety and of any meaningful ‘continuity’ in life.
Such a person may feel that ‘anything can happen at any time’ and that these things will, inevitably, be very bad. Because of this, s/he may feel perpetually trepidatious and vulnerable – alone in an alien, sinister, hostile, and frightening world; a world in which there is no structure to hold one in place, no coherence and nowhere one can feel safe or a sense of belonging; it can seem as if the foundations of one’s life are now built on sand rather than on solid ground and, as such, one’s life is liable to collapse at any time and without warning.
AN UNSHAKABLE SENSE OF IMMINENT DEATH :
Any future goals the individual had may now seem meaningless and pointless – even absurd; linked to this can be a feeling that one is no longer moving forward in life and that there is no worthwhile direction in which life can go – any direction feels equally futile and devoid of meaning.
And, because the individual now sees only emptiness lying ahead of him/her in life this can translate into a perception that future time itself has somehow dissolved and has been replaced by a kind of ‘temporal vacuum’. This, in turn, leads to a feeling that nothing of meaningful substance lies between the present and death. Future time is anticipated as a void and in this sense ceases to be real – therefore, DEATH FEELS ABIDINGLY AND PERPETUALLY IMMINENT; no buffer of a meaningful, substantive, solid, structured, ‘block of time’ is perceived to lie between NOW and DEATH’S OCCURRENCE; instead, just a nebulous, indistinct haze of ‘virtual nothingness.’ (This is a difficult concept to relate to, or, even, comprehend if one has not experienced such an unhappy state of being – or, perhaps more accurately put, non-being – oneself).
To all intents and purposes, therefore, to an individual suffering from a ‘sense of a foreshortened future, it feels as if one’s life is already over. Indeed, Herman (1992) noted that it was not unusual for those who had been affected by the experience of severe trauma to report feeling as if they were dead or as if part of them had died.
Children Of Narcissistic Parents
According to Julie Hall, author of ‘The Narcissist in Your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free, who have been devalued by narcissistic parents and have internalized their parents’ negative attitude towards them, particularly if they have been cast as the ‘family scapegoat’ are especially likely to develop a sense of a foreshortened future. Negative family attitudes towards them that such children may have internalized include:
- I am of no value
- I don’t deserve and am unworthy of the good things in life
- I can’t function in life like normal people
- I’ll never be able to hold down a job
- Life is precarious
- My life is doomed
- I am utterly unlovable
- I will fail at everything in life
- My family will not support me, but undermine me
- I will never be able to overcome the negative effects of my past
The psychologist and expert on trauma and its effects, Herman (referred to above), suggests that there are three main stages involved in recovering from PTSD – to read my article on these three stages, click HERE.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)
Freeman, M. (2000). “When the story’s over: narrative foreclosure and the possibility of self-renewal,” in Lines of Narrative: Psychosocial Perspectives, eds M. Andrews, S. D. Sclater, C. Squire, and A. Treacher (London: Routledge), 81–91.
Greening, T. (1990). PTSD from the perspective of existential-humanistic psychology. J. Trauma Stress 3, 323–326. doi: 10.1002/jts.2490030213
Hall, J. The Narcissist in Your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free, Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2019.
Herman, J. (1992/1997). Trauma and Recovery, 2nd Edn. New York: Basic Books.
Radcliffe, M et al. What is a “sense of foreshortened future?” A phenomenological study of trauma, trust, and time. Department of Philosophy, Durham University, Durham, UK. Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK