Why “everybody daydreams” misses the point

Regardless of whether you’re an immersive daydreamer or a maladaptive daydreamer, you’ve probably found it hard to explain your daydreaming experience to family and friends. When people don’t really understand what you’re describing, one common response is “but everybody daydreams”. And if you’re anything like me, that’s the point where a voice inside your head screams “yes, but not like this”.

Everybody mind-wanders

The problem, of course, is that what we mean by daydreaming is very different from what most people mean by daydreaming. For us, daydreaming involves intense focus and complete absorption. It’s similar to being in a flow state. When we daydream, our focus is on the events unfolding in our imagination; our awareness of the real world is pushed into the background.

But for many people, daydreaming is synonymous with mind-wandering, which is very different from flow. Mind-wandering is that random stream of unrelated thoughts that arises when whatever you’re doing doesn’t require your full attention. In mind-wandering, your thoughts flit from topic to topic. You might not be consciously aware of what you’re thinking about. Your focus is still mostly on the real world, and the mind-wandering is rambling away in the background. And everybody does it, at least sometimes.

Immersive and maladaptive daydreaming aren’t mind-wandering

If you’re an immersive or maladaptive daydreamer, you’ll know that what goes on in your imagination has absolutely nothing to do with mind-wandering. But there are a lot of people who don’t craft intricate stories in their heads the way we do. And to them, daydreaming and mind-wandering are the same thing. That’s where the problems start.

“Daydreaming” has a lot of negative connotations. The Collins dictionary defines the verb “to daydream” as “to indulge in idle fantasy”. For maladaptive daydreamers (and many immersive daydreamers), daydreaming isn’t something we “indulge” in; it’s how we think. And my stories aren’t “idle fantasy” either; they’re detailed, carefully crafted worlds that I’ve been visiting for years.

The synonyms for daydreaming are equally discouraging. Thesaurus.com lists among its synonyms for daydreaming: “pipe dream”, “woolgathering”, “fond hope”, “fool’s paradise”, “pie in the sky”. No wonder so many of us feel ashamed about admitting that we do this for several hours every day.

Is it any surprise we aren’t taken seriously?

Once you realise that most non-daydreamers see daydreaming as some random undirected activity that we “indulge” in, it’s easier to see why so many of them have a hard time understanding the damage that maladaptive daydreaming can do. You might have tried to explain that maladaptive daydreaming is different, but the reality is that most people hear the word “daydreaming” and think “mind-wandering”. When someone tells you that “everybody daydreams”, what they usually mean is “everybody mind-wanders”. And it is hard to imagine mind-wandering becoming a compelling addiction that prevents you from living in the real world.

And what about all those daydreamers who still think they’re alone?

I used to think I was the only person in the world who couldn’t stop imagining detailed and complex scenarios. For decades, I didn’t have a word for what my mind was doing. I just called them my “stories”. When I was ten years old, I would run home from school so that I could get out into the garden and “do my stories”. As a child, that was the best way I could describe it.

Until six years ago, I’d never heard of maladaptive daydreaming or immersive daydreaming. And, honestly, if I’d come across either of those terms by accident, they wouldn’t have caught my attention. Because, like everyone else, I equated daydreaming with mind-wandering. And that was most definitely not what I was doing. I never thought of my “stories” as daydreams until I went looking for the right word. One day, I randomly Googled “constantly making up stories in your head”, to see if anyone else did it. And that led me to an article about maladaptive daydreaming disorder, and my life changed.

But the name never resonated with me

It’s hard to describe the sense of relief I felt when I realised there were other people like me. And I liked having a term that I could Google to find out more about how my mind worked. But the name itself? It never felt right.

My daydreaming had oscillated between immersive and maladaptive for decades. But even when it was at its worst, I could see both the bad and the good in it. Calling it maladaptive seemed to be dismissing the very real positives.

It didn’t feel like a disorder either. To me, a disorder is something you have that you need to “fix” or “cure”. But my daydreaming is a fundamental part of who I am. Even when it’s doing more harm than good, I wouldn’t change it. Because I wouldn’t be me without it.

And the daydreaming part? I wasn’t daydreaming. What I was doing was so much deeper and more powerful than that. I wasn’t indulging in some sort of trivial entertainment. I was creating something so complex and detailed that it literally felt like my second life.

Maybe “maladaptive daydreaming disorder” isn’t a great name for what we experience. But it’s so well established now that we’re stuck with it. However, we’re also stuck with the fact that most people think daydreaming is a fleeting, harmless distraction. They think everybody gets distracted sometimes, everybody daydreams. Maybe they do, but not in the way we mean it.