Can your daydreaming be adaptive and maladaptive at the same time?

Maladaptive daydreaming is harmful by definition. If your daydreaming doesn’t upset you or disrupt your life in some way, it cannot truly be considered maladaptive. If you enjoy your daydreaming and it helps you tap into your creativity and feel good about yourself, it’s probably immersive daydreaming. But what if it’s both? What if your daydreaming is harming you, and also helping you? Can your daydreaming be adaptive and maladaptive at the same time? There are ways that can happen.

Your daydreaming is a way to avoid your problem and it gives you the strength to face it

Maladaptive daydreaming often begins when we use our daydreaming as a coping mechanism. If there’s something in real life that’s painful or overwhelming, we escape from that pain by daydreaming. While we’re daydreaming, we feel great. But when we come back to reality, we feel bad again, because the original problem is still there. A coping mechanism that doesn’t help you solve the problem is usually unhealthy.

But sometimes daydreaming does help you, at least partially, solve the problem.

Your daydreaming might help you calm down, so that you can see your problem from a place of logic rather than heightened emotion. Or perhaps your daydream world is the only place you can generate the optimism and motivation necessary to tackle the problem. Sometimes running away from a problem temporarily can put you in a better place to solve it later. And if daydreaming is the way you do that, it’s helping you rather than harming you.

Your daydreaming socially isolates you and it’s where you find love

Real-life relationships are complicated and messy and unpredictable. And that can feel overwhelming if you’re a maladaptive daydreamer. In your daydream world, you can control everything, so relationships are simpler. It can be hard to make and maintain real-life friendships when you don’t have that control. And that’s especially true of romantic relationships. It can be hard to accept that you’ll never meet anyone as perfect as your daydream partner.

But if you’ve ever fallen in love with one of your characters, you’ll know that daydream love is pure and deep and unconditional in a way that doesn’t happen in the real world. And the love you feel for a character comes from within you. It’s a feeling that you generate with no help from anything outside of you. And therefore it connects you to the best of who you are.

Daydreaming disconnects you from yourself and it’s how you find your way back

When you spend a lot of time daydreaming, that’s time you don’t spend thinking about what you want out of real life. And when you don’t have a clear idea of what you want, you tend to go along with what other people want. You end up becoming what other people want you to be. You end up people-pleasing and being inauthentic. And in the long run, that will do more damage to your mental health than maladaptive daydreaming ever will.

But when you realise that true happiness comes from being openly and unapologetically you, where do you find your authentic self? Usually in the one place you’re completely safe from any risk of failure, judgement or rejection – your daydreams. Your daydream self is usually, at least in some respects, the real you. Even when your daydream self isn’t exactly your authentic self, they can usually give you important clues about what your authentic self is like.

Two opposite things can be true at the same time

The idea that two apparently opposite things can both be true is a central theme of DBT.

If you view your maladaptive daydreaming as unequivocally a bad thing, you’ll integrate that negativity into the core of who you are, generate a lot of unhelpful shame, and probably do significant damage to your self-esteem. If you view your immersive daydreaming as unequivocally a good thing, you could be in denial about the dangers of repeatedly choosing daydreaming over real life.

But once you accept that your daydreaming can be good and bad, you give yourself the opportunity to be curious about it. You can be grateful for the times your daydreaming helped you and you can acknowledge the times it harmed you. You can choose to develop the positives and turn your daydreaming into a powerful motivational tool. And you can choose to minimise the harm by learning healthier coping mechanisms.

Even if you consider yourself to be an immersive daydreamer, there will probably be aspects of your daydreaming that are at least a little bit maladaptive. And if you consider yourself a maladaptive daydreamer, there are probably aspects of your daydreaming that you’re thankful for. And that’s OK. The distinction between immersive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming is useful when talking about maladaptive daydreaming as a mental health problem. But if you don’t feel comfortable identifying as a maladaptive daydreamer, or if you know you are but there are aspects of your daydreaming you secretly don’t want to give up – that’s OK.

Real life is complicated. And for most of us, abstract labels such as “immersive” and “maladaptive” don’t really fit. So instead of worrying about whether your daydreaming is “good” or “bad”, think about whether you’re daydreaming in the way that works best for you.