Do we become more authentic in our daydreams?

I have been listening to the excellent The Wisdom of Trauma this week – as I’ve mentioned before, I think Gabor Maté’s work on childhood trauma and addiction has a lot to teach us about why some people get sucked into maladaptive daydreaming at a young age.

In an interview between Gabor Maté and Stephen Porges, they talked about how throughout our lives we have two needs: a need to be authentic, and a need to be accepted. If we are surrounded by people who love and value us for who we are, then we can get both these needs met without conflict. But for some of us, at some points in our lives, that may not be possible.

As babies, or in our early childhood, the need for acceptance dominates. We are wholly dependent on our caregivers, and it is therefore essential for our survival that they accept us. If the only way to be accepted is to suppress our authentic selves, to put on an act and pretend to be someone we’re not, then so be it. We will learn to be whatever we think we need to be in order to be accepted. But the need to be authentic never goes away, and those of us who learned to suppress our authentic selves when we were young grow up with a sense that we are not living the life we were meant to live, and that can cause lot of pain and suffering.

So, where does a daydreamer’s authentic self go when we suppress it? For those of us who become an idealised version of ourselves when we daydream, there are a couple of things that idealised could represent.

An exaggerated sense of what we should be

One possibility is that when we suppress our authentic self in order to be accepted, our daydream self becomes a practice version of what we think we need to be. When we try to be someone we’re not, we usually aren’t very good at it. So if we have a picture in our minds of who we should be in order to fit in, our daydream selves may become that person. In other words, we give our daydream self the traits we wish we had – the traits we think are required for us to gain approval and be accepted. If one of the defining features of your daydream self is that you are universally liked and admired, you may be using your daydreams to experience a sense of belonging that you don’t have in real life. Your daydreams are meeting your need for acceptance.

A refuge for our authentic self

An opposing possibility is that when we suppress our authentic self in order to be accepted, our daydream self becomes a refuge for that authentic self. In our daydreams we don’t have to earn or pursue acceptance – our characters naturally accept us unless our plot demands otherwise. In our daydreams, everything is under our control, so we are free to be whoever we like without fear of the consequences. And the most natural thing we can be, when all external influences are stripped away, is authentic. If you could genuinely imagine yourself being your alter ego, if it feels comfortable, and as though that’s who you could have been in real life if only certain events had happened differently, then perhaps your daydream self is a mirror of your authentic self. Your daydreams are meeting your need for authenticity.

So, whether our daydream selves are more or less authentic than our real-world selves may depend on whether we are currently prioritising a need for acceptance or a need for authenticity. In early life, we nearly always prioritise our need for acceptance – as babies, we can’t choose our family; as children we can’t choose our classmates. We have to get along with the people we’re given. But as we get older, we have more freedom to choose who we spend our time with. We can choose to distance ourselves from those who need us to be something we’re not. We can seek out people who value us for who we really are – the ones who will help us rediscover our authenticity. When we’ve suppressed our authentic selves for a long time, it can be a long hard journey to reconnect. It can take a lot of effort. But suppressing our authenticity also takes a lot of effort. When we decide to reclaim our authenticity, we can redirect that effort towards developing our best life.

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