If you were to meet with several different career coaches, you’d find at least one thing in common: They’d guide you to imagine your desired future.

They’d all understand the power of imagination. Like them, you’ve probably heard of the studies that show that when athletes, performers, and leaders imagine a vivid picture of success, their performance often improves dramatically. 

What many coaches don’t understand— or at least, don’t discuss— is the impact of trauma on imagination.

In my first sessions with most coaching clients, I guide my clients to envision the next horizon of their work and lives. Most clients quickly identify several ingredients of the life they desire. But I occasionally have clients who, try as they might, are unable to imagine much of anything. 

When I was a new coach, I felt perplexed by these clients. I couldn’t understand why they struggled. But as I inquired further, I realized that they had something in common: 

All of my clients who struggled to imagine the future had experienced trauma.

Some had lost their jobs after the market crash in 2008, had been fired unexpectedly, or gone bankrupt and lost their homes. Others had experienced the devastating and ongoing trauma of racism or poverty. Some were survivors of childhood abuse.

While most people understand the power of imagination, what many people don’t understand— or at least, don’t discuss— is the impact of trauma on imagination.

Most people think of trauma as an event that happened to us, but this is inaccurate. Rather than being the event itself, trauma is the emotional response to a distressing experience. This experience can be a singular distressing event like a car accident or a rape, or it can be ongoing, complex circumstances such as racism or emotional abuse. 

A trauma response occurs when the event overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, and they are unable to integrate the emotions involved in the experience. It’s as though part of them remains frozen in time. When they experience something which reminds them— usually unconsciously— of the original event, they respond to the event today as though they were reliving the experience from the past. 

In The Body Keeps the Score, a seminal text on healing trauma, Bessel Van Der Kolk writes: “Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities— it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true… When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotions, they suffer from a failure of imagination, a loss of mental flexibility. Without imagination, there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.”

If your brain seems to freeze up and go blank whenever you try to imagine the life you long for, know that this may be a symptom of trauma.

Maybe you work in a helping profession rife with secondary trauma, and you witness so many horrible things happening to other people that it seems selfish even to imagine what you want. Or perhaps your experience of poverty, oppression, or abuse convinced you that you’d be let down if you even dreamed about what life could be. Part of you decided that imagining a different future wasn’t worth the potential pain and disappointment. 

In Emergent Strategy, black feminist author and activist adrienne maree brown writes: “Imagination is one of the spoils of colonization, which in many ways is claiming who gets to imagine the future for a given geography. Losing our imagination is a symptom of trauma. Reclaiming the right to dream the future, strengthening the muscle to imagine together as Black people, is a revolutionary decolonizing activity.”

In these times of planetary crises, I believe that our survival hinges on our ability to imagine a different future. Those of us who long for a better world have a responsibility to learn how to dream.

So, how do you reclaim your imagination from the ravages of trauma?

The good news is that over the years of working as a coach, I’ve found that it doesn’t have to take long to reclaim your ability to imagine. If you suspect that trauma is holding you back from imagining what’s next in your life, the first step to getting unstuck is to acknowledge what you’ve gone through and where you’re at. It can even help to say something as simple as, “That happened. And it’s hard for me to imagine a different future. I want to learn how.”

The second step is to seek support. I’ve found that it’s very challenging to heal from trauma on our own. We, humans, are relational creatures, and we usually need the support of another person with the skills and presence to help us heal. In my work with clients, I source from my training in systemic constellations to help clients acknowledge and move past traumatic experiences, and I often find that this is enough to help them move forward. Other times, I insist that clients seek the support of a trauma-informed therapist. If you’re needing to heal from trauma, I encourage you to seek the support of a therapist with training in Somatic Experiencing (traumahealing.org) or Internal Family Systems (selfleadership.org/find-an-ifs-therapist.html). You can click on either of these links to look for a practitioner.

The third step is to build your imagination muscles through repeated practice like you would build your muscles at a gym. Most of the practices to help you develop your imagination skills center around tuning into your body and asking yourself what you want. For example, you might commit to a daily practice of asking yourself the following questions: What do I feel in my body? What do I need? And what is my next step to meeting my needs? The more you tune into your body and respond to your needs, the more the part that’s been hurting can trust you and the more you’ll feel supported to imagine the future you want. If you’d like, you can practice asking yourself these questions now.

Finally, please know that healing is possible. One of the victories of neuroscience in the last couple of decades is that we now understand what an incredible learning instrument the human brain is. Even into the final stages of life, our brains have the capacity to develop new ways of knowing and being. With dedication and practice, you can reclaim your ability to imagine and create a life you love.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Much love,


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