Maladaptive daydreaming disorder is real. If your daydreaming is so out of control that you can’t function – can’t maintain real-life relationships, can’t study or succeed in your career – then you have a very real problem and this post is in no way meant to trivialise that. But for some people, the problem isn’t how their daydreaming affects them, it’s how their attitude to their daydreaming affects them.
The difference between immersive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming disorder is that immersive daydreaming has a positive or neutral effect on your life, whereas maladaptive daydreaming disorder has a negative effect on your life. In general, for something to be considered a disorder, it has to cause distress or dysfunction. So if your daydreaming causes you distress, that would generally be a sign that it’s maladaptive daydreaming rather than immersive daydreaming.
But what happens when it isn’t the amount of time you spend daydreaming, or your addiction to it, that’s causing the distress, but rather the things you’re telling yourself about your daydreaming? Is it possible for daydreaming to become maladaptive not because of how your daydreaming affects your life but because of the judgements you make about it? Can healthy daydreaming become unhealthy just because that’s how you see it?
The internet and social media
There is far more written online about maladaptive daydreaming disorder than about immersive daydreaming. So when you first discover that this thing you’ve done all your life has a name, much of what you read is probably going to portray it as a bad thing. But if you never thought of your daydreaming as a problem until you learned about maladaptive daydreaming disorder, there’s a good chance you’re an immersive daydreamer. If you allow something you read online to convince you that having vivid fantastical daydreams is bad, or if you start to believe you have a mental disorder because someone on TikTok said that’s what this is, or if you feel you have to quit daydreaming just because it’s not “normal”, then your attitude to your daydreaming is making it maladaptive when it originally wasn’t.
It’s often said that being a daydreamer makes someone naturally creative. But that doesn’t mean you can or should craft a bestselling novel in your head. Your paracosm is your private world and you can make it whatever you like. If you want to daydream about hanging out with your real-life friends, that’s OK. If you’d rather daydream about saving the world or inventing a cure for cancer, that’s OK too. It doesn’t matter if you cringe at the thought of telling anyone what goes on in your head, because you never have to. In the private space of your imagination, nothing is off-limits. But when you feel that certain topics aren’t OK to explore in your daydreams, and when you judge yourself for what you daydream about – telling yourself it’s stupid, or childish, or unrealistic – then there’s a risk you’ll end up feeling bad about yourself and your daydreaming. But then it’s not the daydreaming that’s the problem, it’s your belief that you have to censor what goes on in your paracosm.
If you’ve ever based a daydream character on a real person, you’ve probably felt guilty about making that character do something their real-life counterpart would never do. You might also have felt embarrassed interacting with the real-life person while knowing what their character is getting up to in your mind. And it’s easy to go from there to thinking that you shouldn’t daydream about real people, and that you’re weird or crazy or delusional for doing so. But then, again, you’ve made normal immersive daydreaming into something maladaptive by adding your judgements to it. Because the truth is, you can’t put a real person in your head. The minute you put someone in your daydream, even if it’s a real person, they become a character in your daydream. They might be based on a real person, but they’re not that person. It sounds obvious, but it’s something we often forget. Your character does not have to act like the person you based them on. It’s OK if you edit them to fit whatever role they’re fulfilling in your plot. As long as you’re clear about the distinction and don’t fall into the trap of expecting the real person to act like their daydream counterpart, it’s OK. You have nothing to feel guilty about.
If your daydreaming is stopping you functioning in the real world, if it’s getting in the way of work, studying or maintaining real-life relationships, then it’s genuinely maladaptive and you might need to find a healthier balance. But if your daydreaming is causing you distress because of the judgements you’ve attached to it, then a change of perspective may be all that’s necessary. It’s your mind, and your paracosm; it’s part of who you are. Please don’t let other people’s opinions of what’s normal – or your judgements about what is or is not OK in the private space of your imagination – turn your daydreaming into something maladaptive if it doesn’t have to be.