The ability to immersively daydream is something we were born with. It’s the way we process our thoughts. It sets us apart from normative daydreamers, but not in a good way or a bad way; it’s just a difference. Maladaptive daydreaming disorder (MaDD), on the other hand, is an addictive behaviour that has the potential to disrupt our lives, destroy our relationships and prevent us from being successful. So how do we know which one we have? When does immersive daydreaming cross the line and become maladaptive daydreaming?
The closest thing to a distinction between immersive daydreaming and MaDD is found in the Structured Clinical Interview for Maladaptive Daydreaming (SCID-MD). For someone to be diagnosed with MaDD, they have to be able to answer yes to the following question:
Does your daydreaming cause significant distress or does it impair your social, academic, occupational, or other important areas of functioning?
Looks straightforward enough, doesn’t it? But when we start to examine that sentence in detail, we can see that it’s not completely clear-cut. Some daydreamers will struggle to answer with a simple yes or no.
Does your daydreaming cause significant distress?
Let’s start with the first part of the question. Does your daydreaming cause significant distress? Very few of us are distressed while we’re actually daydreaming. Daydreaming is normally something we enjoy. The distress comes from not being able to control the amount of time we spend daydreaming, and the regret that results from daydreaming when we know we really should have been doing something else. The daydreaming itself doesn’t cause the distress. The distress comes from the missed opportunities, the wasted time and the way we judge and criticise ourselves for being a daydreamer. But it’s still distress, it’s still real, and if you wouldn’t be distressed if you didn’t daydream, then it’s still perfectly legitimate to say that your daydreaming causes you distress.
It’s also important to note that “significant distress” is subjective. It can’t be measured. And no-one else can assess it for you. It’s about how you feel. So don’t let anyone else tell you it’s not that bad, or that you could control it if you wanted to. They’re not inside your head. If you feel your distress is significant, then it’s significant. You don’t need validation from anyone else.
Does your daydreaming impair your social, academic, occupational, or other important areas of functioning?
Although the second part of the question seems to cover a wide range of different possibilities, for most of us it comes down to two things – does your daydreaming hinder your real-life relationships, and does it stop you reaching your potential professionally? If you pass up opportunities to connect with your real-life friends in favour of spending time with your imaginary friends, then your social functioning may well be impaired. But if you use your daydreaming as a safe space to work through real-life conflicts, then it could actually be beneficial. Similarly with your career. If you have a job that requires intense concentration, you’re not going to perform well if your mind is constantly elsewhere. But if parts of your job are manual or repetitive and don’t require much thought, you might find you can daydream at work while still being perfectly productive. And if you have a job that requires you to be creative, you may even find that your daydreaming is an asset.
The tricky part is that many of these conflicting possibilities can be true at the same time. There might be times when your daydreaming really gets in the way and the impairment is obvious, while there might be other times when it’s beneficial.
With so many different aspects to consider, you may find that your attitude to your daydreaming fluctuates from day to day, month to month or year to year. Sometimes you feel in control, using your daydreaming for pleasure and relaxation, in much the same way that other people enjoy watching a movie or getting lost in a good book. At other times you might find that your daydreaming is holding you back from achieving what you want to achieve. You might be an immersive daydreamer one day and a maladaptive daydreamer the next. Alternatively, you might enjoy your daydreaming and not be at all distressed by it, but still recognise that it stops you living fully in the real world. Or you might be achieving everything you want professionally and socially, and still be distressed that you can’t control this other world in your head. The point is, the line isn’t fixed and it isn’t clear cut.
Many daydreamers are clear about whether they are immersive daydreamers or maladaptive daydreamers. But many aren’t. Many of us will be immersive daydreamers in some contexts or life situations and maladaptive daydreamers at other times. The important thing to realise is that there are no clear definitions. Ultimately, it’s not about how much you daydream, or about what happens in your daydream world; it’s about how you feel about your daydreaming. And that’s something only you can decide.