Many survivors of child sexual abuse struggle with mixed emotions as they consider the future. Given the trauma they have endured in the past, and its lingering impact in the present, survivors may experience difficulties with envisioning a hopeful and happier future. Looking ahead can be especially challenging when much of a survivor’s energy is spent on responding to the triggers and stressors of the present.
That is where aspirational thinking comes in. As we consider what we want for ourselves and the future, we are more empowered to focus on healing thoughts and actions in the present.
What Is Aspirational Thinking?
Aspirational thinking is directing your thoughts toward the future with the belief that you can heal. It helps shift your focus and behavior away from choices influenced by the reactive limbic system and towards choices that are shaped by the analytical frontal lobe. With this shift in your focus, you can more easily make choices that reflect your hopes, dreams, and the future you want, rather than choices that are driven by fear and emotional distress.
How do you begin practicing aspirational thinking? The answer is simple: by setting intentions.
What Is the Difference Between a Goal and an Intention?
A goal is a measurable mark we set out to achieve; intentions are more about who we are and what we need in the present moment. Intentions are independent of goals; they are lived each day and focus on the aspirations we have and the relationship we’ve fostered with ourselves. Goals can be checked off once completed, but intentions are what we center our goals around. They can take the form of ongoing statements that offer lasting guidance to our everyday lives. Ultimately, goal-setting is about looking forward, while intention-setting is about gazing inward to help you understand the types of goals you want to set.
Intention-setting also gives you the opportunity to align who you are with what you want to bring to the day. When you set intentions, you are empowered to define your aspirations as well as how to live those aspirations each day and move closer toward the future you envision.
Why Can Setting Intentions Feel So Difficult for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors?
Shame can be a barrier that prevents us from setting intentions. Whether it’s feelings of defeat and sorrow, or thoughts like “I don’t deserve to heal,” or “I’ll never be able to carry out the intentions I set,” these sentiments can discourage us from developing aspirational thinking.
We can combat these shame-based thoughts by setting an intention that can help redirect our perceptions of ourselves in a more helpful direction. For instance, if you are having the thought: “I’ll always be stuck in these negative thoughts,” you might write down an intention to help change that belief. You might set the intention: “See myself in a more compassionate light.”
How Do I Set an Intention?
Setting intentions looks different for everyone. They can be set daily, weekly, or monthly. They can be written out as a sentence, phrase, or word. For one person, it might be writing in their planner: “I approach new situations with curiosity and an open mind.” For another, it’s the phrase “body kindness” on a sticky note beside the bathroom mirror. It may even be the word “explore” or “gratitude” or “nourishment” posted onto a vision board and surrounded by images that visualize that intention.
Take an approach that works best for you and is tailored to your needs, interests, and routine. Whatever you try, start by identifying a thought or action that will encourage healing in your life. By doing this, you are developing aspirational thinking. A key part of Aspiration is recognizing that things won’t stay the same forever. Therefore, setting intentions starts with looking ahead and seeing new potential—seeing a future that is different from the way it’s “always” been or the way it will “always” be. It’s about considering what you want and setting the intention to move towards a future shaped by those wants.
What if I Don’t Know What I Want?
As many survivors commit much of their energies on managing the effects of their trauma in the present, it can be difficult to step back and consider what they want for the future.
One way to help you identify what a hopeful future looks like to you is considering these questions:
- When am I the happiest?
- How would I like to stretch myself?
- What emotion would I like to drive my day?
- What would I like to bring to the world?
Along with these questions, below are a few exercises that can help guide you toward some ideas.
The Perfect “Normal” Day
Imagine a typical, average day in your life when everything goes right. This doesn’t mean a day when you win the lottery or go on vacation. Rather, it’s a day that includes your normal routine, but still becomes memorable as one of the best days you’ve had.
Picture what happens during this day, starting from when you wake up to when you go to bed.
- Where do you go?
- What do you do?
- How do you interact with others?
- Who do you spend your time with?
- What experiences do you have?
- What details make it a good day?
As you think about these questions, write down a description of your day. When you finish your description, reflect back on your ideal “normal” day. What insights does it give you about what matters most to you? What everyday things bring you the most joy?
Write down a list of at least three things you learned. Keep that list someplace where you can refer to it when you need a reminder.
Advice from Your Future Self
Another way to develop aspirational thinking is to imagine an interaction with your future self.
Imagine you are in your favorite outdoor space. Perhaps it is a beach at sunset. Perhaps it is a secluded wood or a quiet garden.
Imagine yourself walking through this place and toward a dwelling. This is the dwelling of your future self—an older, wiser “you” who has fulfilled all of your hopes and aspirations. As you walk up to the door of this dwelling to greet your future self, notice how old your wiser self is, how they are dressed, how they appear, and how they move as you walk with them.
Imagine yourself sitting and talking with your wiser self. Notice their presence, their energy, and how it affects you. Take some time to ask your wiser self how they came to be who they are; listen carefully to their answer. Ask what helped them most along the way. What did they have to let go of to become who they are? In what areas of their life did they foster new growth? What new behaviors and thought patterns did they create?
Before you leave the dwelling, your future self offers you a gift. It’s a small box with a message of wisdom inside that can help you in this very moment. You open the box and look inside. What does the message say?
As you reflect on this exercise, here are a few more questions to consider:
- What did I feel in meeting my future self?
- What did I notice about the surroundings?
- What was different about my future self as compared to how I view myself today?
- What things did my wiser self value?
Write Down What Matters Most to You
The answers to these questions can serve as a guide toward discovering what things matter most to you. For instance, if something that matters to you is developing patience, you might write the intention: “I mindfully remind myself that I can be gentle and kind to myself and that healing takes time.” Or, if it is security, your intention might be: “Nurture relationships with those whom I trust and feel safe.”
As you do this, you can have a clearer vision of what you’re journeying toward. Whatever you identify as important to you can serve as reminders to why you’re embracing the belief that healing is possible.
Once you have written down your intentions, you can then create a plan to turn those intentions into a behavior—one that will bring you closer to the future you want.
As you observe where you are at in your healing journey and set your intentions based on where you’d like to be, you are practicing:
- Acknowledgement by recognizing what thoughts and actions you are engaging in now, and whether those thoughts and actions are leading you toward believing you can heal.
- Mindfulness by intentionally and purposefully directing your thoughts and actions towards intentions that can lead to healing.
- Aspiration by considering what matters most to you and what you’d like to see fulfilled in your future.