The negative emotions your daydreaming is trying to protect you from

There are some experiences and emotions that immersive and maladaptive daydreamers don’t experience as often as most people, if at all. Sometimes this is a good thing – it’s great to have a range of tools for dealing with negative emotions. But it can also be damaging. We feel emotions for a reason, and if we run away from our emotions without giving ourselves time to feel them and understand the message they’re sending us, we can end up making things worse. So let’s look at how our daydreaming tries to protect us from some common emotions and consider when escaping into a daydream might do more harm than good.

Boredom

Boredom is one of my biggest daydreaming triggers. If there’s nothing going on in the real world to occupy my mind, I drift off to somewhere more interesting. This comes in handy when boredom is a short-term inevitability – when I’m stuck in traffic, for example, or waiting for someone who’s running late, or being held in a telephone queue. In those moments, I can happily daydream not only to pass the time but also to calm any frustration I might be feeling about being kept waiting.

But if you’re using daydreaming to relieve boredom on a regular basis, you might need to consider whether you’re really using daydreaming to avoid doing something else. I often tell myself I don’t have anything to do, so I might as well daydream. Usually, the truth is that I have plenty of things to do, I just don’t want to do them. And that’s when daydreaming starts getting in the way of real life. In my case it’s housework, but it could be studying, starting a long-term project, having a difficult conversation, or any number of other things that need to be done but which we’d rather avoid.

Worry

We all worry sometimes. It’s a natural response to the discomfort of not knowing what the future holds and/or not being able to control that future. Diving into a daydream is a useful way to head off worry before it gets out of control. We imagine things so vividly that if we let ourselves dwell on the worst-case scenario, we’re going to experience all the pain and trauma of a version of the future that might never happen. Much better to spend our time in an imaginary world where everything always works out for the best.

But if we dive into a daydream at the first sign of worry, we deny ourselves the opportunity to shape our future. We don’t take time to think about what outcome we want and how we might go about getting it. If you daydream to avoid worrying about a job interview, for example, you don’t give yourself a chance to think through the questions you might be asked and how you could respond to them. The interview arrives before you know it, and it’s only as you walk through the door that you realise you could have prepared better.

Loneliness

We all need to feel connected to other human beings (even if you’re an introvert). But at times that’s easier said than done. There are all sorts of reasons why you might not have the human connection you need, whether that’s long-term because social anxiety makes it difficult to make friends, or short-term because your friends happen to be busy with other things. We’ve all had times when we’ve looked for connection and not found it. But we have a solution for that. We have our imaginary friends. They’re available 24/7, never let us down, always understand our point of view, and never need to burden us with their own problems.

But however much you value your imaginary friendships, they never take the place of real-life friendships. Real-life friends and imaginary friends are different, and we need both. Our imaginary friends help us escape the pain of loneliness, but they don’t help us make real-life connections. Your loneliness is a signal that your need for real-life human connection isn’t being met, and that’s not something that can be addressed through your daydreams.

Boredom, worry and loneliness are uncomfortable. They’re supposed to be. They exist to make us question what’s going on and assess whether the life we’re living is truly the life we want to live. They motivate us to make changes for the better. And we need that. So don’t be too quick to run away from these emotions by jumping into a daydream. First, take a moment to ask yourself why that emotion has come up. If it’s something inconsequential, such as you’re waiting in line, or your friend didn’t pick up the phone, then fine; it’s OK to decide the emotion isn’t helping you. In that case, you can go ahead and daydream instead of letting the emotion spoil your day. But when the emotion is showing you what’s missing from your life, escaping into a daydream won’t help you fill the gap. And as uncomfortable as the boredom, worry or loneliness is, your best option is work on improving real life. Then you won’t have to fight or escape from the emotion, because once it’s no longer needed, it will fade away all by itself.

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