Complex PTSD And ‘A Sense Of A Foreshortened Future.’

 

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“It was as if her life had been brought to a full stop: she couldn’t look forward, couldn’t picture what tomorrow might bring.”

Ragnar Jonasson, The Darkness

From the age of about 14 or so, shortly after I had been thrown out of my narcissistic mother’s home and had gone to live with my father and religious fundamentalist step-mother,  I remember often lying in bed, unable to sleep, worrying that there was no way, as an adult, I would be able to hold down any job that involved socially interacting (I was awkward, could rarely think of anything to say due largely to acute anxiety, and, on the rare occasion I did think of something, it was invariably the wrong thing) with others to even a small degree (which seemed to exclude just about any job I could think of at the time) let alone ever form a meaningful and lasting relationship with another human being (to a lesser or greater degree, these bleak adolescent predictions have proved to be far from inaccurate). And, as an adult too, I never make long-term plans as I am convinced I will not live long enough to implement them. As we shall see below, such thoughts are not uncommon among those suffering from complex PTSD and can be symptomatic of having developed a foreshortened sense of the future.

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. They may, too, not engage with mental health services and be prone to risk-taking. They feel hopeless about the future. After all, to be hopeful entails the possibility of being disappointed and, perhaps after a series of traumatic losses during childhood, they feel they cannot cope with further disappointment. Indeed, such individuals may be completely uninterested in setting themselves long-term goals as they feel it would futile.

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

 

TREATMENT

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.

Reducing PTSD/Complex PTSD symptoms, in general, can substantially reduce a sense of a foreshortened future. You can find a free search facility to help you find an appropriate PTSD/Complex PTSD therapist HERE (sponsored link).

Time perspective therapy – SEE BELOW:

 

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TIME PERSPECTIVE THERAPY:

LIVE EFFECTIVELY IN THE PRESENT AND TAKE A POSITIVE VIEW OF THE PAST AND PRESENT

Based upon Zimbardo’s and Boyd’s (2008) Time Perspective Theory, a therapeutic technique known as Time Perspective Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword, and Sword) was developed.

Time Perspective Therapy is predicated upon Zimbardo’s idea that the way in which we view and relate to the past, the present and the future strongly influences how we think, feel, behave and perceive events that are going on around us.  According to this theory, each individual may be represented, to a greater or lesser degree) by any of the following types.

 

  1. THE ‘PAST-NEGATIVE’ TYPE

  2. THE ‘PAST-POSITIVE’ TYPE

  3. THE ‘PRESENT-HEDONISTIC’ TYPE

  4. THE ‘PRESENT-FATALIST’ TYPE

  5. THE ‘FUTURE-FOCUSED’ TYPE

  6. THE ‘FUTURE-TRANSCENDENT’ TYPE

 

Let’s look at each of these in turn :

  1. THE ‘PAST-NEGATIVE’ TYPE: this type of individual is preoccupied with the negative aspects of his/her personal past experiences

  2. THE ‘PAST-POSITIVE’ TYPE: this type of individual feels nostalgic about the past and might describe it with phrases like ‘the good old days

  3. THE ‘PRESENT-HEDONISTIC’ TYPE: this type of individual seeks immediate pleasure and has an impaired ability to delay gratification

  4. THE ‘PRESENT-FATALISTIC’ TYPE: this type of individual has a tendency to feel that making plans and decisions ‘now’ (i.e. in the present) is futile as the future is predetermined and beyond their control – in this way, they may develop a kind of ‘whatever will be will be…‘ attitude.

  5. THE ‘FUTURE-ORIENTED’ TYPE: this type of person adopts an optimistic view of the future, is able to delay gratification for the sake of the longer-term good, makes confident plans for it, is ambitious, and sets him/herself challenging goals.

  6. THE ‘FUTURE-TRANSCENDENT’ TYPE: this type of individual focuses on his/her belief that an ‘after-life’ exists.

The degree to which individuals can be represented by the above types can be measured by the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI).

 

Childhood Trauma And Time Perspective Type :

Individuals who have suffered severe and protracted childhood trauma and who have, perhaps, as a result, gone on to develop conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) or complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex-PTSD) are prone to :

  • ruminating excessively upon the negative aspects of the past 

  • feelings of  helplessness and powerlessness

  • feelings of profound pessimism about the future

  • seeking instant gratification in an attempt to reduce intense psychological pain (e.g. drinking, smoking, drugs, gambling, promiscuous sex)

In terms of Zimbardo’s time perspective theory, therefore, such individuals tend to score highly on the following scales :

  • PAST NEGATIVE TYPE (e.g. obsessively dwelling on one’s past mistakes)

  • PRESENT HEDONISTIC TYPE  (e.g. frequent heavy drinking to ameliorate, in the short-term, mental pain)

  • PRESENT FATALISTIC  TYPE (e.g. feeling powerless to affect the future)

It can be seen, then, that scoring highly on the three scales representing the above three types can suggest a poor state of psychological health.

Instead, it is more conducive to good mental health to :

  • make positive use of the past (e.g. remembering good things, learning from past mistakes, etc)

  • learn to live more in the present but not in such a hedonistic way that it jeopardizes the future

  • learn to take a more optimistic view of the future and to plan for the future.

Time Perspective Therapy :

TIME PERSPECTIVE THERAPY (developed by Zimbardo, Sword, and Sword), based upon cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT),  can help us develop healthier / more balanced time perspectives and this, in turn, can improve many areas of our lives including our relationships, our social lives, and our careers.

 

SELF HELP FOR A SENSE OF A FORESHORTENED FUTURE:

  • Behavioral Activation An excellent free resource to find out more about BEHAVIORAL ACTIVATION can be found HERE(external link).
  • Decide upon your priorities in life and set short and long-term goals to achieve them
  • Use visualization to picture yourself at various stages in the future having attained particular goals
  • Practice self-care and self-compassion
  • Compile a list, in chronological order, of your main accomplishments in life, so far
  • Try to build up a system of social support and avoid isolation by developing friendships and relationships and joining support groups- this may involve overcoming social anxiety.

 

REFERENCES:

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

 

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