The consequences of spending my childhood lost in fantasy

I’ve been a daydreamer for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of creating stories in my head. But my daydreaming first became maladaptive when I was eight years old. I used excessive daydreaming to cope with the loneliness I felt after moving to a new area. Spending much of my childhood lost in fantasy had consequences, both good and bad. And most of those consequences resulted from the things I did, or didn’t, learn as a result of being a daydreamer.

Social skills

My maladaptive daydreaming prevented me from learning how real friendships operate. I had little-to-no interest in playing with other children, because my characters gave me all the connection I needed. And because I controlled how my characters reacted, my daydreams didn’t allow me to practice social skills. In a daydream, you don’t learn how to make friends. You don’t learn how to repair a friendship after a falling out. And you never have to compromise or take your friend’s opinion into account.

Working towards a goal

Most of what I daydreamed about in my teenage years was pure fantasy. I created one science-fiction universe after another – aliens, magical creatures, worlds that bore no relation to the world I was actually living in. And so I accepted early on that real life would never measure up to the life I was living in my imagination.

One of the consequences of that was I gave up on real life. I didn’t understand why it was worth putting time and effort into getting something in real life, when I could just imagine having it right now and it would feel nearly as good. It took me years to realise that you feel pride, confidence and a sense of achievement when you reach a goal precisely because of the effort you put into it.

Coping with rejection and failure

Even now, I’m very sensitive to rejection. Growing up, I didn’t learn that rejection is a natural part of life. The people I was closest to – the people whose opinion I cared about the most – existed only in my imagination. And they never rejected me.

And because I wasn’t setting goals and working towards them, I rarely, if ever, stepped out of my comfort zone. I didn’t take risks. So I didn’t fail often. Which meant I never got comfortable with failure. And the fear of failure held me back for years.

But there were also positive consequences of being a teenage daydreamer.

When the outer world is hard, the inner world can be a refuge

Maladaptive daydreaming is often an unhealthy coping mechanism. Running away from your problems instead of facing and solving them isn’t good when it’s your only strategy. But used occasionally, either in the short-term or when there are no other options, it can be a lifeline. Even now, I’ll use a brief daydream to as a way to step back from an overwhelming situation. Daydreaming provides time for intense emotions to subside, and taking a break from reality can give me valuable perspective.

If daydreaming is the only way you cope with uncomfortable emotions, it’s potentially maladaptive. But having daydreaming as one of the ways I manage distress has been very helpful.

I am so much more than the rest of the world sees

For most of my life, I felt a disconnect between how the rest of the world perceived me and how I perceived myself. I didn’t fit into the box the world had put me in. Outwardly, I tried to be quiet, studious and diligent, because that’s what I believed was expected of me. But I saw myself as a crazy wild free spirit with boundless energy that didn’t want to be contained. My daydreams gave me the opportunity to express that side of myself when I didn’t feel safe to express it in reality. In other words, my daydreams were a refuge for my authenticity.

My imagination is unlimited

Even now, I find it difficult to tolerate boredom. My mind is wired to want more. But there’s no getting away from the fact that in real life, some tasks are both tedious and necessary. I cope with that by daydreaming. In my mind, I can go anywhere, be anything, experience magic. I have an entire universe available to me whenever I choose. Yes, that means I have to be vigilant about how I use it. But as someone with an insatiable urge to explore, having all of those infinite possibilities in my head is the gift that allows me to accept reality for what it is.

So, was it worth it?

When I was a teenager, trapped in my imagination, wondering what was wrong with me and why life was passing me by, I was miserable. The negative consequences of my daydreaming were very real. The social isolation and lack of motivation were probably contributory factors in the depression I suffered from on and off for decades. When I was in my 20s, I knew I wasn’t achieving even a fraction of what I was capable of. And I hated myself for that.

But looking back on it now, I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t want to trade my big, brilliant imagination for a “normal” mind. Because I don’t do ordinary. It took me a long time to tame my daydreams and learn how to make them work for me rather than against me. And, yes, my life would have been better if I’d learned that sooner. But my daydreaming needed to show me what it was capable of before I could learn to use it responsibly. It’s taken me to places I couldn’t have gone otherwise. It’s only because my daydreaming was once maladaptive that I’m able to appreciate just what a beautiful gift it is to be an immersive daydreamer.

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