A YouGov study in 2021 found that 14% of American adults either don’t like themselves most of the time or don’t like themselves at all. This percentage rises to 24% among 18- to 34-year-olds. These figures are concerning enough, but I suspect that rates of low self-esteem are even higher among maladaptive daydreamers. So why do so many maladaptive daydreamers dislike themselves, and what can we do about it?
If you’re a daydreamer who doesn’t like yourself most of the time, the first question to ask yourself is: do I dislike myself because I can’t stop daydreaming, or do I daydream because I don’t like myself? If it’s the first option, the shame you feel about being a daydreamer could be the cause of your low self-esteem. Working on overcoming your shame and then developing a healthier relationship with your daydreaming might help you to like yourself more.
But what if you daydream because you don’t like yourself? Feeling uncomfortable about how you’re showing up in the real world can be a powerful daydreaming trigger. When you don’t like yourself, it feels horrible. It’s natural that you want to escape that feeling. But when the source of your distress is who you are, how do you escape that? For daydreamers, the answer is to become someone else. We craft a daydream version of ourselves that has all the qualities we think we lack. We avoid the discomfort of not liking ourselves by becoming someone we can like.
The problem with this, of course, is that when you come back to reality and return to being your flawed real-world self, your inner critic goes into overdrive. You remind yourself of all the reasons why you’re a worthless piece of shit, and then you add in the daydreaming for good measure – telling yourself it was pathetic and delusional to think you could ever be someone likeable.
If that sounds familiar – if you daydream, at least in part, to escape from who you are – the next question you should ask yourself is: are you supposed to like who you are? That sounds like an easy question to answer. When you’re constantly telling yourself you’re a horrible person, you’re never going to make an effort to change, because you don’t think you’re worth it. Trying to improve any aspect of your life starts with believing that you can and that you deserve it, and those attitudes come more easily if you like yourself.
But that’s where we need to stop and ask ourselves why we don’t like ourselves. Often, our self-loathing comes from comparing ourselves to others. Our society in general – and social media in particular – pushes the idea that there is one right way to be. To be likeable, we have to be the right weight, have flawless skin, wear the latest fashions, earn a lot of money, hang out with the right people, etc. And when we fall short in any of those areas, we’re not OK. And no matter how much you know, logically, that that’s bullshit, it’s hard not to feel inadequate when you compare your real life to the carefully curated image of perfection that your favourite celebrity is posting about on Instagram.
But for some of us it goes deeper than that. For some people, our dislike of ourselves doesn’t come from unrealistic comparisons to others. That nagging feeling of not being OK can be a message from our subconscious. Some people don’t like themselves because they’re not supposed to, because they’re on the wrong path, they’re living the wrong life. That was me for a long time. I’d become disconnected from who I really was, and my dislike of myself was a signal that I wasn’t being authentically me. I was too concerned about what other people thought. I was too focussed on being what other people thought I should be. By learning to reconnect with myself – with my values, talents and desires – I’ve been able to become someone I really like.
So how do you tell whether your self-hatred comes from your inner critic trying to live up to some externally imposed ideal, or whether you’re on the wrong path and need to make some changes to how you show up in the world? One thing I’ve found helpful is to ask my imaginary friends. I use the term imaginary friends to refer to characters I interact with outside my paracosm. They’re inside my head, so they know me better than anyone else. And they also love me unconditionally, because that’s what I created them to do. I think most daydreamers probably have at least one character whose sole reason for existing is to love you unconditionally. And talking to that character is a quick way to bypass your inner critic.
So find that one person in your head who knows you better than you know yourself. The person who sees you for who you really are and loves you anyway. The person who can see both the real-world you and the authentic you. Get quiet for a moment, and ask that person whether you’re showing up as your authentic self in real life, whether society is placing unrealistic expectations on you, or whether you’re pushing too hard in the wrong direction. Get quiet, ask the question, and allow yourself to be gently guided by the answer.