Guilt and shame are two emotions that are familiar to many of us, but if you’ve been feeling guilty or ashamed of your daydreaming, it’s worth considering the difference between them and what you can do to reduce the suffering they all-too-often cause.
We feel guilt when we’ve behaved in a way that goes against our values or our sense of what we think is right. The emotion is directed at the way we behaved, not at who we are. So, for example, you might feel guilty if you intended to spend the morning working and ended up daydreaming instead, or if you turn down an invitation to meet up with a real-life friend in favour of spending more time with your imaginary friends. Guilt helps us to keep our daydreaming at a healthy level. It has a role to play in alerting us if we start daydreaming too much, and in motivating us to keep our daydreaming under control.
Shame is usually a stronger emotion than guilt and occurs when we feel bad about who we are as opposed to how we behaved. There are two types of shame: internal shame is when we judge ourselves as being unworthy or inadequate; external shame is when we fear that other people will judge or reject us. So, thinking you’re weak for not being able to control your daydreaming would be internal shame. But if you think someone would perceive you as weird if they caught you pacing or talking to yourself, that’s external shame.
Unlike guilt, shame is rarely, if ever, a helpful emotion. Because guilt is directed at the behaviour, feeling guilty can motivate us to behave better next time. But shame is directed at our sense of who we are, and that’s not easy to change. If you’re ashamed of being a daydreamer, it’s tempting to think that the only way you’ll ever feel better about yourself would be if you could stop daydreaming, and the only way to protect yourself from the judgement of others is to keep your daydreaming a secret.
But there are ways to reduce shame without having to change who you are. If you’re struggling mainly with external shame (fear that others will judge or reject you), there are some techniques from dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) that can help. Firstly, check the facts. Do you know that the people around you will reject you if they know about your daydreaming? What evidence do you have for that? Are they generally judgmental? Would they be open to learning how you daydream and how your daydreaming affects your life? Secondly, DBT advocates using opposite action to diffuse uncomfortable emotions. Opposite action involves acting opposite to your urge. So, for shame, the urge is to keep the thing you’re ashamed of a secret. The opposite of that is to talk about it. If you start opening up to people about your daydreaming, the hold that the shame has over you will gradually weaken. Initially, talking about your daydreaming can feel scary. That’s OK. I’d recommend you start by connecting with other daydreamers online (there are links to several Facebook groups on my Resources page). That way, you can practice talking about your daydreaming in a safe space where you know you won’t be judged or rejected.
However, if your shame is internal (you feel that being a daydreamer makes you a bad person), it can be really difficult to overcome it. It can still be done, but it will probably involve a long process of understanding your daydreaming and the factors that led to you having a negative relationship with it. Those factors will be different for everyone, and in many cases you may need to work with a counsellor or therapist to explore how best to have a more positive relationship with your daydreaming.
Awareness of immersive and maladaptive daydreaming is still low. Most normative daydreamers have never stopped to consider whether there is any other way to daydream. Research into maladaptive daydreaming is still in its infancy. This is both a problem and an opportunity: a problem because you can’t just tell someone you’re an immersive daydreamer and expect them to know what you’re talking about, but also an opportunity because when you do choose to open up to someone you can explain your daydreaming in whatever way feels right to you. I believe that keeping secrets about who you are, or feeling ashamed of a trait you were born with, eventually causes more distress than the rejection we are trying so hard to avoid.