Learning to tolerate discomfort

We daydreamers tend to have difficulty tolerating unwanted feelings and emotions. I think it’s because we never have to. When real life becomes uncomfortable, we can disappear to a better place in an instant; and while we’re there, our real-life problems seem comfortably far away. But the problem with doing this is that we don’t learn other ways of managing difficult feelings. Daydreaming works really well as an escape mechanism, when the distress is just too much to tolerate and we need to feel better immediately, but it does nothing to solve our problems. So when we return to reality, the difficult feelings are all still there, encouraging us to escape again.

If we want to be in control of our daydreams, rather than letting them control us, we need to find other ways of managing difficult emotions, preferably ways that go some way towards resolving the problem. Sometimes this can involve using our daydreams to our advantage; at other times, it means resisting the urge to daydream and looking for a more productive strategy. So how do you decide when it is OK to escape for a while and when you should stay present and work through the emotion?

We have emotions for a reason. When our minds are working as they should, our emotions guide us to do more of what’s good for us and less of what’s bad for us. For example, if we do something nice for someone and they express gratitude for it, that makes us feel good and motivates us to be kind again in future. Over time, those repeated acts of kindness maintain and strengthen our connections to those around us.

The same kind of feedback should work for negative emotions. If we treat someone badly, we feel guilty. Guilt is meant to feel uncomfortable, so that it can motivate us to behave better next time. Where we often go wrong as daydreamers is that we don’t allow our negative emotions to do their job. Instead of feeling them, dealing with them and learning from them, we escape to our perfect daydream worlds and pretend the negative emotions don’t exist. But then two things happen. Firstly, our emotions have to shout louder to ensure they get our attention, so we tend to feel worse and worse. And secondly, we don’t learn the lessons that the negative emotions are trying to teach us, so we keep on making the same mistakes. These two factors trap us in a downward spiral of negativity that can quickly become overwhelming.

When our negative emotions are shouting so loudly that they feel unbearable, I think it’s OK to use daydreaming strategically to bring the emotional intensity down. When I’m really distressed, I’ll ask one of my imaginary friends to just give me a hug. I’ll let him hold me; I’ll soak up all the feelings of love and unconditional acceptance, and I’ll wait for the difficult emotions to subside. If I’m able to focus enough to get further into a daydream, I might imagine I’m walking in my calm place. In both cases, the fact that I’m focussing on a single scene or sensation helps me to keep the daydreaming session short, and I can return to reality as soon as I feel calm enough to face it.

Once I’m feeling calmer, I can take a more detached view of the emotion I’m feeling. In particular, I can decide whether the situation justifies the emotion. Healthy emotions are justified by the situation. So, for example, it’s healthy to feel anger if we’re treated unfairly; it’s healthy to feel afraid in a situation where we could get hurt; it’s healthy to feel sad when something doesn’t turn out the way we’d hoped. When the emotion is justified by the situation, it’s not going to go away on its own. That’s when we have to learn how to work through it. The first step is to feel the emotion without being overwhelmed by it. Mindfulness techniques are really helpful here. For example, tuning into where you feel the emotion in your body can help you to get curious about it. You can then describe the emotion in detail; for example, instead of saying “I feel sad”, you might say “I feel a heaviness in my legs, an emptiness in my chest and I fear that these feelings will never go away”. When you describe your emotion in detail it tends to feel less overwhelming, and you realise you can survive it after all.

Learning to tolerate difficult emotions allows us to navigate our lives with more confidence. We don’t have to avoid challenging situations if we know that we have the tools to cope with whatever life throws at us. If we don’t need our daydreams as a way of escaping from difficult feelings, it becomes much easier to find a healthy balance between real-life and daydreaming.

Other conditions that tend to be associated with maladaptive daydreaming

In their 2017 paper, Eli Somer and colleagues looked at a group of maladaptive daydreamers to see whether they’d been diagnosed with any other mental-health conditions. Their results were striking: 77% of the group had ADHD, 72% had some form of anxiety disorder, 67% had depression, and 54% had OCD or a related disorder. These numbers raise the inevitable question of why. Why do so many maladaptive daydreamers have additional diagnoses? Does being an immersive or maladaptive daydreamer increase your risk of mental-health problems? Does having one of these conditions increase the likelihood that your daydreaming will be maladaptive? Or does the low awareness of MaDD among mental-health professionals mean that maladaptive daydreamers tend to be misdiagnosed with something else?

I suspect all of the above happen to some extent, and there is no single explanation for the high rates of additional diagnoses among maladaptive daydreamers. To try to untangle this, let’s look at each condition separately:

ADHD

A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology looked at whether MaDD is simply an under-reported symptom of ADHD. Given that over three-quarters of maladaptive daydreamers meet the criteria for an ADHD diagnosis, this is a reasonable question. People with ADHD and people with MaDD both have difficulty paying attention to real-world tasks. But in ADHD, the problem with attention typically results from excessive mind-wandering. Mind-wandering involves flitting from topic to topic without consciously trying to direct your thoughts; it’s quite different from our style of daydreaming, which is more purposeful and involves focussing on a single theme or plot. It’s possible that a failure by mental-health professionals to understand this distinction has led to some daydreamers being misdiagnosed with ADHD, but I suspect that in many cases, people do genuinely have both. Both ADHD and MaDD may have their origins in trauma, so it’s possible that if an immersive daydreamer experiences trauma, they could develop both ADHD and MaDD.

Anxiety

Anxiety disorders involve excessive fear or worry, and affect up to 30% of the general population. But why do over 70% of maladaptive daydreamers struggle with anxiety? Anxiety often arises when we feel out of control, so it makes sense that if you’re feeling anxious, you might retreat to somewhere where you have total control – your daydreams. Also, we all have a need to connect with other people, to feel seen and accepted. If you have social anxiety, you’ll find real-life social situations difficult, so you’re more likely to try to satisfy your need for connection through your daydreams. Alternatively, if you’ve been a life-long daydreamer, you might never have learned the social skills you need to navigate real-world relationships, and that might make you more likely to develop social anxiety.

Depression

I’ve written previously about the association between MaDD and depression. As with ADHD, I think it’s likely that MaDD and depression could have a common cause. If something in your life is causing you pain, or if your life isn’t meeting your emotional needs, that can cause depression, but it can also cause you to escape the pain through excessive daydreaming. On the other hand, it’s also possible that MaDD could cause depression. Many maladaptive daydreamers feel deeply ashamed of their habit, and excessive daydreaming can give us unrealistic expectations about what we need to be happy or prevent us from working towards our goals. Any of these factors can initiate or maintain depression.

OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) involves recurring unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions) that drive someone to do something repetitively (compulsions). On the face of it, this sounds very different from MaDD. In OCD, someone has a distressing thought or sensation, and the main purpose of the compulsive behaviour is to relieve that distress. But in MaDD, the main purpose of daydreaming is to be somewhere that’s more appealing than real life. It doesn’t make your life any better; it just helps you forget about it for a while. But what OCD and MaDD have in common is that they’re both about control. In OCD, the compulsive behaviour is a way of controlling the discomfort that arises from thoughts or situations that the person doesn’t have control over. Similarly, MaDD is often about escaping a world we can’t control in favour of one we can.

In conclusion, although MaDD is frequently associated with other conditions, that doesn’t mean that MaDD necessarily causes those other conditions, or that it is caused by them. In some cases, the same underlying factor might lead to the development of both MaDD and another problem. When that’s the case, treating the two conditions separately may be confusing and ineffective. Often, it’s better to address the underlying factor that caused them both. Once that’s been done, it might be easier to tackle any remaining symptoms. With MaDD, once the problem you’re escaping from has been resolved, therapy to address the daydreaming is more likely to be successful; in some cases, the daydreaming may even subside on its own.

When coming back to reality is painful

There are several reasons we might feel bad about daydreaming, but a common one is that when we come back to reality we confront the heartbreaking fact that all the wonderful things that just happened in the daydream world aren’t real. That realisation – that real life is less fulfilling than fantasy – is painful. And we try to escape that pain by retreating back into the daydream. But, of course, that puts us into a negative spiral. The more we daydream, the less we do in real life, and the less we do, the more miserable we become, and the more miserable we become, the more we daydream etc.

The issue here is a problem with acceptance. We don’t want to accept the pain of being in real life. We don’t want to accept that reality isn’t the way we’d like it to be. Some part of us stamps their foot like a petulant child and cries that it shouldn’t be this way. We deserve better. We deserve more. And so we run away to the one place where we know we can get more – our daydreams.

The problem is that running away from a problem doesn’t solve the problem. If we don’t accept that reality is the way it is, we can’t work on making it better. In that sense, our daydreams serve an important purpose. They alert us to the fact that something is wrong. If coming back to real life is painful, it’s because real life isn’t giving you what you need. And you have to acknowledge that before you can begin the hard work of changing it.

But in the daydream world, we can have whatever we want immediately without having to work for it, even if the thing we want is unrealistic or impossible in real life. And it’s the immediacy of getting the reward that causes much of the real-life suffering. We lose the distinction between the present and the future. We think that because the present isn’t as we want it, the future never will be, and the only place we can be happy is in the daydream world. We lose sight of the fact that we can change the future.

Some people think that accepting a situation for what it is means giving up the desire to change it. But, in fact, the reverse is true. Accepting the present is the only way you can improve the future. You can accept that your real life is causing you pain and you can work through that pain in the belief that a happier future is possible.

The path out of hell is through misery.

Marsha Linehan

When we try to run away from the misery that is our current reality, by escaping into the fantasy of the daydream world, we deny ourselves the opportunity to work through that misery and we keep ourselves in hell. It’s only by being honest with ourselves about what is going wrong in our real lives that we can start to change things.

But when we start to look at what’s wrong with our real lives, we can fall into the trap of taking our daydream world too literally. It’s easy to say that what’s wrong with reality is that magic isn’t real, or that we aren’t really dating our celebrity crush. But look below the surface. Probably what’s really going on is that your daydreams reflect an unmet need. If you feel as though you need magic to be real, you might be looking for more excitement in your life. If you need to be in a relationship with a celebrity who doesn’t even know you exist, you might be looking for more connection. Ask yourself, if you were in a happy and fulfilling relationship with a kind, generous, funny person who you really felt connected to, would you still need your celebrity crush? Probably not. You might still enjoy daydreaming about travelling the world and being adored by the media, but you’d probably see that daydream as an entertaining distraction. The crushing sense of loss you currently feel when you return to reality would dissipate.

It’s never easy to break out of an addictive behaviour, and daydreaming is no different. But all too often we make it harder for ourselves by focussing on the daydreaming rather than on what we are trying to escape from. If coming out of a daydream brings up intense feelings of sadness, loneliness or shame, ask yourself what’s more painful – is it leaving the perfect daydream world, or returning to imperfect reality? If you don’t like coming back, the answer isn’t to stop yourself leaving. The daydreams aren’t the problem; they’re your mind’s way of trying to solve the problem. Thank them for their insights, accept where the problem really lies, and you’ll be one step closer to creating the real life you deserve.

Negative daydreams, part 2. Using DBT to create a calm alternative to distressing themes

Last week, I explored some possible reasons why we might daydream about things that upset us. Here, I’m going to look at how a technique from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) can help us break out of a cycle of distressing daydreams. This technique, called “IMPROVE the moment”, is a crisis-management technique. That means it doesn’t address the underlying problem; it’s about helping you cope in the moment. So, this technique won’t help you stop or cut down on your daydreaming, and it won’t help you with the underlying cause of your negative daydreams. It’s helpful only when you’re stuck in a daydream that’s upsetting you, and you want to quickly break out of the distress.

IMPROVE is an acronym for imagery, meaning, prayer, relaxation, one-mindfully, vacation, and encouragement. In DBT, these themes can be applied broadly and usually separately. However, I’ve combined all of them in a single daydream scene, which I think of as my calm place. I go there whenever I’m stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts, and within minutes I can lift myself into a more positive place.

Imagery

Imagery (or directed daydreaming) is the foundation of making your calm place. You need to create somewhere in your mind where you feel safe and happy. You might have such a place already, either based on a real place or existing only in your imagination. It could be a forest, a beach at sunset, your fantasy home, the top of a mountain – anywhere that evokes calming and positive emotions in you. Fill in the details for each of your senses – what does this place look like? What sounds can you hear? What can you smell? What can you touch?

Meaning

When you’re in your calm place, it’s easier to believe that everything happens for a reason. The Universe won’t send you a challenge you can’t handle. Your mind won’t take you to a dark place without good reason. When you’re stuck in a negative daydream, it’s easy to forget that your mind is acting in your own best interests. But from the peaceful perspective of your calm place, it’s sometimes easier to see why your daydreams have been challenging you to explore such difficult topics.

Prayer

If you believe in a higher power, you might be more comfortable keeping prayer separate from daydreaming; but in the context of IMPROVE, prayer means surrendering your problems to something greater than yourself. You can do that in your daydreams by bringing in a character that is a teacher or mentor figure and asking them to help you through this difficult time. While you’re in your calm place, you don’t need to solve your problems on your own.

Relaxation

If you’ve been trapped in distressing daydreams for a while, you might have forgotten how relaxing daydreaming can be when you’re able to focus on a more positive theme. Your calm space should be deeply relaxing, a place where time seems to stand still, there are no demands, no expectations, and no need to hurry.

One-mindfully

In DBT, doing something one-mindfully means focussing all your attention on what you’re doing; no multi-tasking. In the context of breaking out of negative daydreams, one-mindfully means staying focussed on your calm place. Don’t allow any elements of the negative daydream to creep into your mind. Stay in your calm place, ignoring all distractions, until you feel better.

Vacation

You need to give yourself a break from your distressing daydream or your stressful reality. So in your calm place, take yourself completely away from anything that’s even remotely connected to the distressing daydream. And if your distressing daydream is rooted in current or past real-life problems, make sure your calm place isn’t connected to your real life either. This is one time you can give yourself permission to use your daydreaming as pure escapism. Leave all your problems behind for a while and take yourself to a happier place.

Encouragement

To help you regain a sense of perspective, remind yourself of all your good qualities and all the things that are going right (either in real life or in your daydream world). If this is difficult, you might invite one or two of your characters to join you in your calm place. You could ask a character who is a teacher or mentor (see Prayer, above) or a close friend. Someone who adores you and always sees you in your best light. Tell them you are struggling (without going into too much detail) and let them remind you of all the reasons why they love you.

In my case, bringing all of this together has involved creating a calm place of a beautiful woodland in late spring. My woodland is based on a real place where I have happy memories, but in my daydream I bring in extra elements – a trickling stream, butterflies flitting through the air, etc. Simply walking in that woodland for a few minutes brings in the imagery, relaxation, one-mindful and vacation parts of IMPROVE, and can often be enough to break a negative cycle of rumination and lift my mood. If I’m still feeling distressed, then I ask my daydream mentor to join me on my walk so that I can ask his advice. That brings in the aspects of meaning, prayer and encouragement. My mentor reassures me that whatever I’m struggling with is happening for a reason, and reminds me of how far I’ve already come. I always come away from our conversations with a renewed sense of optimism.

I hope that by breaking down the different aspects of IMPROVE, you will be able to build your own calm place that incorporates things that are special to you. Don’t try to add too much – you’re looking to build a scene that will give you quick relief from negative daydreams, not something that’s going to grow into your main plot and take you away from real life. But if you keep it to just a single scene, you’ll be able to return to it again and again whenever you need a quick burst of positive energy.

Negative daydreams, part 1: why do we daydream about upsetting things?

Although many of us have difficulty limiting the amount of time we spend daydreaming, most of us have at least some control over what we daydream about. Our daydreams are so vivid that they can generate real and intense emotional responses. So why is it that we sometimes daydream upsetting scenes that cause us very real distress?

I suspect that daydreaming upsetting scenes is most likely meeting some unmet need, which we either can’t meet in the real world, or, perhaps, don’t even consciously realise we have. This is likely to be very personal and different for everyone; but the following list gives some generalised explanations of why you may be drawn into upsetting daydreams:

To process an emotion that you’re already feeling

If things in real life are making you feel angry or sad, but you don’t feel able to express that emotion outwardly, you may have no choice but to express it inwardly in your daydreams. Sometimes, as children, we get the message that certain emotions (such as anger) are bad and shouldn’t be expressed. But the reality is that our emotions are there for a reason, and it’s important to recognise and work through whatever we’re feeling. It may well be that the safest place for you to do that is in your daydreams.

A need to feel intense emotion

If your real life consists of one day of predictable routine after another, with very little in the way of excitement, you may simply want to feel an intense emotion, regardless of whether that emotion is positive or negative. From my own experience, medication is a possible culprit here – whenever I have been on SSRI anti-depressants, I have lost the ability to feel intense emotions. When I have come off the medication, the elation of being able once again to feel sadness when something bad happens, or anger when someone oversteps my boundaries, is hard to explain.

To justify a sense of not being worthy

Many of us have a deep sense of not being good enough, not deserving the good things that have happened to us, or not being worthy of the recognition and goodwill we receive from others. This sense is what lies at the root of imposter syndrome – that feeling that we’re living a life we don’t deserve and at any moment we’re going to get found out. Your daydreams may reflect your belief that you don’t really deserve the life you have and that perhaps disaster is just around the corner.

To plan for the worst-case scenario

When we’re worried about something that might be going to happen, sometimes the scariest part is not knowing how or if we’d be able to cope. Daydreaming that scenario before it happens can help us to figure out the best way to react, and to reassure us that we would, in fact, be able to survive it.

To provoke caring

When our lives are plodding along normally, we rarely take the time to notice all the things we’re grateful for, let alone express that gratitude to the people around us. It tends to be in moments of crisis that we express to friends and family how much we love them; it’s often only when we lose something, or come close to losing it, that we realise how much it really means. So your negative daydreams might not be so much about the crisis but more about the reactions it provokes. Do you need to almost die before your crush finally realises they can’t live without you? Alternatively, does someone you care about have to lose everything so that you can swoop in and rescue them?

To be seen to overcome it

Similar to the example above, the crisis may be necessary to realise some benefit. But in this case, the benefit isn’t immediate; it comes later. Do you want everyone to admire the way you recovered from a terrible injury, or beat the odds after being diagnosed with a supposedly terminal illness? Do you want to have your old life wiped away by some catastrophe so that you can start over again? Many of the heroes we admire in real life have had to overcome some kind of adversity to get to where they are today.

It’s just a good plot

Finally, it’s possible that there isn’t an underlying reason for your negative daydreams. Perhaps your distressing scenes are just part of the plot. A life (even a fantasy life) where everything is perfect quickly becomes boring. It’s only by experiencing the bad times that we’re able to appreciate the good times. It’s only by overcoming challenges that we’re able to grow and develop. That is just as true in our daydreams as it is in real life.

The above list isn’t intended to be exhaustive. There will be other reasons for daydreaming distressing scenes that may be very personal to you. But if you’ve ever been upset by the content of your daydreams and wondered why your mind went to that place, hopefully the above list will give you some ideas. In most cases, your mind knows what it’s doing, and your distressing daydreams will be serving some purpose. In next week’s post, I’m going to discuss how we can use some techniques from DBT to turn our daydreams to more positive topics.

Three ways my imaginary friends help me in real life

Since I started consciously using my daydreaming to enhance my real life, two of my characters have evolved beyond the plot and become a key part of how I succeed in life. So for the purposes of this post, I’m going to draw a distinction between characters and imaginary friends. My characters (I probably have hundreds of them) are the people I invent as and when my daydream plot requires them. Some of them don’t stick around for long; others take up residence in my head and help shape how the plot develops. But my characters don’t exist outside the daydream world. I don’t even think about them when I’m not daydreaming. They don’t interact with real-world me, only with my daydream alter ego. In short, they exist to make the plot work, and that’s all.

My imaginary friends, on the other hand, exist in my head independent of, and outside, the daydream world. Although, like my characters, they exist only in my imagination, they feel more real to me than my characters. I talk to them about what’s going on in my real life, and they know and interact with the real-world me. And while they don’t, obviously, replace my need for real-world friends, they do support me in some very specific ways that mean I wouldn’t want to be without them.

The emotions are real

Although my imaginary friends aren’t real, the warmth, love and respect I feel for them are real. And the emotions I feel from them are real too. The feelings I have when my imaginary friends are caring towards me are exactly the same feelings I have when my real-life friends and family are caring towards me. When my imaginary friends are loving towards me, I feel loved. When my imaginary friends express faith in my abilities, I feel confident. But real-life friends aren’t always available the minute you need them. My imaginary friends, on the other hand, are only ever a thought away, ready to top up my positive emotions whatever the time of day or night.

Positive self-talk

Most of us are very hard on ourselves at times, particularly if we have perfectionist tendencies. Our harsh inner critic can talk to us in ways we would never talk to anyone in real life. But my imaginary friends have been carefully crafted to love me unconditionally, and they’re always happy to shout down that inner critic when I need them to. When I’m doubting myself, or feeling that I’m not good enough, I can rely on my imaginary friends to remind me of my best qualities and restore my sense of perspective. And even though I created them and they exist only in my head, when they tell me that I’m good enough or that I deserve to be happy, I believe it in a way that I sometimes struggle to do if I just tell myself the same thing.

Connection time

Something I started doing when I was in hospital, and which I’ve continued since, is setting aside half-an-hour or so every day to specifically connect with my imaginary friends. This isn’t daydreaming time; I stay grounded in reality. I use that time to chat to my imaginary friends about how my life is going, what’s working, and what I’m still struggling with. And I listen to them. I can be completely open, honest and vulnerable in a way that I can only do with a very few people in real life. My imaginary friends help me to take a broad view of a situation and get things in perspective. They help me to figure out what I want out of life and review progress towards my goals. My imaginary friends hold me accountable in a way that real-life friends can’t. They give me a gentle nudge when I’ve gone off-track, and help me celebrate all those little wins that haven’t yet translated into outwardly visible changes.

In summary, my imaginary friends fill a gap that I never even realised existed. They boost my confidence, help me solve my problems, and radiate enough love and caring to keep me going when the real world isn’t providing any. They’ll never replace my real-world friends, but by having them in my life I’m able to be a better real-world friend, wife and mother.

Immersive daydreaming and flow – distinctions and similarities

Professor Eli Somer describes immersive and maladaptive daydreaming as states of dissociative absorption. Let’s break down what that means. Absorption is the process of becoming absorbed, focussing or concentrating intently on one thing and ignoring any distractions. Dissociation means a disconnection or separation. When we become dissociated, we become detached from reality and lose our connection to ourselves or to our surroundings. So, dissociative absorption is the process of becoming so focussed on something that we lose awareness of our surroundings, ourselves, or the passage of time. It’s as if our awareness contracts such that the only thing that exists for us in that moment is the thing that has grabbed our attention. That’s an experience that many immersive and maladaptive daydreamers can relate to.

But there are other mental processes that fit the description of dissociative absorption. One of these is the flow state. The term “flow” was first used by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and I highly recommend watching his TED talk, where he explains very clearly how he defines flow and what circumstances are necessary for us to get into a flow state.

Professor Csikszentmihalyi outlines seven characteristics of flow:

  • Being completely involved, focussed and concentrated
  • Being unaware of the passage of time
  • A feeling of ecstasy, which Csikszentmihalyi defines as feeling you have been transported outside your everyday routines.
  • Intrinsic motivation; the task itself is the only reward you need to do it
  • Inner clarity; knowing what needs to be done
  • Inner confidence; a certainty that you have the necessary skills to do what needs to be done
  • A feeling of serenity or being part of something larger than yourself

The first two characteristics indicate that flow is a form of dissociative absorption. These, along with the next two characteristics, are things that are common to both flow and immersive daydreaming. The differences between daydreaming and flow are summed up by the final three characteristics, which involve goals and achievement. When we get into a flow state, we are typically achieving or creating something. We are focussed on a task that we have decided is necessary or worthwhile. Our absorption has a purpose. And that means that after we have spent time in flow, we’re typically left with an achievement; we look back on the flow state as something positive because we have something to show for it. We feel good about ourselves. On the other hand, when we’ve been daydreaming, particularly when we daydreamed longer than we intended, we’re typically left with a sense of time wasted, of tasks left undone, and we generally feel bad about ourselves. It is this sense of regret, feeling bad in the long-term, despite the daydreaming itself being enjoyable, that helps define maladaptive daydreaming as an addictive behaviour.  

So one difference between daydreaming and flow is that flow leads to achievement. Another difference is that flow challenges us. Professor Csikszentmihalyi concludes his TED talk by explaining that the flow state occurs when we are using hard-earned skills to rise to a new challenge. I do think that daydreaming uses skills, even when it feels effortless. Over our lifetimes, we have honed our creativity through thousands of hours of daydreaming, and we’ve got very good at thinking up new characters and plot twists. On the other hand, however, daydreaming isn’t challenging. It doesn’t push us out of our comfort zone. Professor Csikszentmihalyi says that when we’re using skills but not being challenged, what we’re experiencing is relaxation, which I think is a good description of daydreaming. But most of the activities we would typically class as relaxation wouldn’t qualify as dissociative absorption; they don’t capture our attention such that hours can pass without us even being aware of it.

In summary, being in a daydream can feel very similar to being in flow. Both are states that consume our entire attention, to the extent that we lose track of time, our surroundings and even ourselves. Both feel good in the moment. But the flow state occurs when we’re challenged to achieve something, and that achievement allows us to continue feeling good even after the flow state has dissipated. On the other hand, daydreaming doesn’t involve challenge or achievement, so we tend to feel more negatively about it after we’ve daydreamed. If you’re trying to reduce the amount of time you spend daydreaming, then swapping some of your daydreaming time for time spent in flow might help you to retain the benefits of daydreaming while avoiding the negative consequences.

Healing my inner child – a daydreaming experiment

In the last few weeks, I’ve realised that many of my negative thoughts and emotions come to me in the voice of a traumatised yet defiant seven-year-old stamping her foot and shouting that life isn’t fair. I’ve been asking myself why my wounded inner child shows up as a seven-year-old, and I think it’s because a few months after my eighth birthday my life changed very significantly. A move to a new area meant leaving my friends behind and starting a new school, where I felt I didn’t fit. It wasn’t an easy time, and I think a part of me refused to accept the reality of the change. And as a result, that part of me got stuck, stubbornly staying seven years old, never feeling strong enough or supported enough to face the challenges of growing up.

But as a result of the therapy I’ve done since my breakdown, I’ve come to realise that it’s time to heal my wounded inner child. And it feels right to involve my daydream self in that. Now, I want to make it clear that I’m figuring this out as I go along, I’m trying out some strategies that feel right to me, but this is an experiment. I’m not suggesting anyone else should try this; everyone’s childhood traumas are unique, many need to be worked through with a qualified therapist, and I don’t even know if this daydreaming strategy will work for me, let alone anyone else. But it’s my mind, and I get to use it in the way that feels right for me.

So, I’ve spent the last week putting together a new daydream world. It’s along similar lines to my parallel reality, which I’ve discussed before; but in this version I’m both the parent and the child (which does create a few problems with the timeline, which I’m ignoring for now). I’m giving my inner child the childhood she wanted, which the real me never had. In my daydream, I foster, and later adopt, my inner child and become the stable loving presence she needs to finally grow up. I’ve found a house for us to live in, near the school she wants to go to. I’ve mapped out a general idea of how her life develops from the point where she comes to live with me to the point she sets off for university as a happy and confident young woman ready to take on the world.

In addition to the daydreaming, I’m also connecting with my inner child through guided meditations and through discussions with my therapist, but the daydreaming allows me to visualise my inner child in a way that makes her feel very real. I can relate to her directly, have conversations with her, ask her perspective on situations and give her experiences that I wish I’d had at her age. In a way, I’m reinventing my childhood, travelling back in time in the way I’ve always wished I could do in real life. It also gives my inner child a safe space inside my head where she can say what she needs to say and be loved the way she needs to be loved. She doesn’t need to have a temper tantrum to get my attention any more.

I’m enjoying spending my daydreaming time getting to know this delicate beautiful soul whose development I have committed myself to. All she ever wanted was to be seen for who she was and accepted unconditionally. And I can do that. I’m looking forward to building a relationship that will allow both of us to reach our full potential. We’ll see how it goes…

Guilt and shame

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. 

Guilt

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

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.  

Acknowledging the reality of your daydreams

It’s very easy to dismiss our daydreams as pure fantasy, and to draw a very firm distinction between the reality of our real life and the fiction of our daydream world. But it’s worth remembering that even though your daydream world only exists in your head, there are aspects of your daydreaming that reflect who you are and affect how you live your life in the real world.

Your relationships with your characters

Your characters are not real (even when you’ve based them on real people), but the way you feel about them is real. Whenever we feel a connection to someone, that feeling is in our head, so it makes no difference whether the person you feel connected to is real or imaginary. The feeling is just the same. So if you feel friendship, love, protection, security or any other emotion when you’re interacting with your characters, don’t dismiss that feeling as not real just because the character isn’t real. The emotions you feel for your characters still cause your body to release mood-related chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, and those chemicals have very real effects on your body. Don’t deny yourself the benefits of feeling positive emotions by trying to convince yourself that those emotions aren’t real.

Your values and aspirations

Real life is often messy and complicated. We get thrown into situations where priorities conflict, where we have to balance our needs against the needs of the people around us, and where there is no single right answer. In situations like this, it can be difficult to remain connected to what is most important to us. We can be confused about what we really want out of life, because it’s so hard to separate what we want from what we think is realistic or what we think we should want. But in our daydreams we have complete freedom. Our daydreams often reflect what we really want. The plot may be pure fantasy, but the forces that drive us to create that particular plot are the same forces that drive us in our real lives. So, for example, if you daydream about getting together with your celebrity crush and living happily ever after, you may be expressing a desire for a stable and fulfilling romantic relationship. If you daydream about saving the world, you may be expressing a desire to make a difference, or to be recognised for your achievements. Those desires are a part of who you are, and it’s important to acknowledge and express them in both your real life and your daydreams.

Your alter ego

If you become an idealised version of yourself in your daydreams, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you could never be that confident, outgoing, attractive person in real life. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself why not? All of the traits that you admire in your alter ego must exist in you in some form, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to adopt them in your daydreams. Often, the problem is that the real world has sent you messages about what is OK and who you should be. Perhaps when you were younger you were criticised or rejected for expressing some aspect of your true nature, so you learned to suppress it and be the person you thought those around you wanted you to be. You learned to put on an act in the real world in order to fit in. But you don’t need to pretend in your daydreams. There you have complete freedom to be yourself without judgement or criticism. So doesn’t it make sense that the daydream you is actually the real you?

So many people dismiss daydreams as “just fantasy”. But our daydreams are so much more than that. They are an integral part of who we are. Yes, of course, we should constantly strive to make our real lives as fulfilling and joyful as we possibly can, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that our daydreams enrich our lives in so many ways. Although the plots and characters are pure fantasy, daydreaming allows us to express ourselves with complete freedom, to explore ideas, to find out who we really are, to do the things that make us happy, to laugh, to connect, to love. Don’t diminish all of that by telling yourself it isn’t real.