Coming across the term maladaptive daydreaming disorder for the first time can be a light-bulb moment. Suddenly everything falls into place. You have a name for this thing you’ve been doing all your life, and, more importantly, you now know that other people do it too. But as the initial excitement subsides, you’re likely to be left with a lot of questions. And most significant among them might be – what do I do next?
1. Understand the difference between maladaptive daydreaming and immersive daydreaming
The first thing you should do when you come across the term maladaptive daydreaming disorder is consider whether you really have it. Maladaptive daydreaming disorder is much better known than its non-pathological form, immersive daydreaming, and this can lead people to the mistaken belief that having vivid, fanciful daydreams is automatically a bad thing. It’s not. If you have enduring, vivid daydreams involving a complex plot and a cast of characters, that’s a sign that you have immersive daydreaming. It’s only if you’re so addicted to your fantasy world that it interferes with your daily life that you have maladaptive daydreaming disorder.
I’ve written here and here about the distinction between immersive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming disorder. But, in short, the style of daydreaming (vivid, fantastical, complex plots lasting more than a few minutes) is exactly the same in immersive daydreaming and in maladaptive daydreaming disorder. The content of your daydreams can’t help you distinguish between the two. What matters is the relationship you have with your daydreaming. If it’s a positive thing – helping you relieve boredom and stress, allowing you to work through difficult problems and emotions, and bringing some excitement and creativity into your life – then you’re an immersive daydreamer. If your daydreaming is getting in the way of you living your best life – if it’s making it difficult to work or study, or you’re missing out on experiences and relationships in the real world – then you may have maladaptive daydreaming disorder.
It’s important to be clear in your own mind whether you’re an immersive daydreamer or a maladaptive daydreamer, because immersive daydreaming is NOT a mental health problem. If you’re an immersive daydreamer, it’s important that you don’t allow all the negative messaging about maladaptive daydreaming to trick you into thinking there’s something wrong with you.
2. Accept your daydreaming for what it is
Regardless of whether you’re an immersive daydreamer or a maladaptive daydreamer, the next thing you should do is accept that your daydreaming is simply a function of the way your brain is wired. Everyone has their own way of solving their problems, managing their emotions and generally making sense of the world. Daydreaming is the way we do it. You’re always going to talk to characters in your head. You’re always going to have experiences that happen only in your imagination. It might not be the way everyone else thinks, but this is normal for you. And it’s OK.
Even if you’ve concluded that you have maladaptive daydreaming disorder, the important thing to remember is that it isn’t the daydreaming that’s the problem; it’s the way you’re using it. If daydreaming has become your coping mechanism, if you’re using daydreaming to avoid real life, if it’s become so important to you that you’re having trouble functioning in the real world, then that’s a problem. But that isn’t and wasn’t inevitable. Plenty of people live happy, successful, fulfilled lives as immersive daydreamers. The only difference is that somewhere along the line, your real life wasn’t what you wanted or needed it to be. You suffered because your needs weren’t being met. And you discovered that you could temporarily alleviate that suffering by escaping into your daydream world. And then you realised you preferred daydreaming to real life, so you kept going back. None of that was your fault; you were just using the talents you had to survive as best you could.
Even if you’re trapped in the misery that is maladaptive daydreaming disorder, your daydreaming is not the issue. The issue is whatever made real life so unbearable that your only choice was to escape from it. Blaming your daydreaming for your problems isn’t going to make that issue go away.
The third thing you should do once you realise that you’re an immersive or maladaptive daydreamer is connect. My resources page has details of Reddit and Facebook groups where you can chat with other daydreamers. If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent your whole life wondering whether you’re the only person who makes up stories in your head and still has imaginary friends. Knowing you aren’t alone can be liberating, and validating. Suddenly, instead of being the only one, you’re part of a group. We all need to find our tribe; we all need to have places where we can be our authentic selves without fear of judgement or rejection; we all need somewhere where we don’t have to keep secrets. In time, hopefully, you’ll have the confidence to be open about your daydreaming in real life, but if you’re not there yet, connecting with other daydreamers online is a good place to start.
Finding out that you’re a daydreamer – and that other people daydream too – can be life-changing. It was for me. But that change isn’t going to happen overnight. It will take time for you to figure out what being a daydreamer means to you, what relationship you want to have with your daydreaming, and how you can use it to live your best life. You’ll work through those questions in your own way, at your own pace, and the answers you come up with will be unique to you. But one thing’s for sure. You understand yourself better now that you have a name for the way you think, and that can only be a good thing.