When you have never experienced something, it can be almost impossible to imagine what it’s like. I don’t really know what goes on inside the mind of a normative daydreamer, because I’ve never been there. Similarly, is it really possible for normative daydreamers to understand how our minds work?
When we’re trying to distinguish between immersive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming, we tend to focus on the quantity of the daydreaming – are you losing so much time to daydreaming that it’s negatively affecting the rest of your life? But when we want to distinguish between immersive and normative daydreaming, I think it’s more about the quality rather than the quantity. I think that what we daydream about is fundamentally different from what normative daydreamers daydream about.
I like to think of it this way. Imagine a line connecting your past, present and future:
Normative daydreamers stay pretty much on the line. Their daydreams might involve reminiscing about the past or planning for the future. Either way, they are usually strongly rooted in the daydreamer’s real life – real events, real people, things that have happened or could happen.
But to describe immersive daydreaming, we need to add an extra dimension:
Our daydreams don’t sit nicely on the line between our past and our future; they aren’t necessarily (or even usually) rooted in our real life. They wander off elsewhere in the universe. We daydream about people who don’t really exist, or we give people who do exist characteristics they don’t possess in real life. We might daydream as ourselves, or we might become a different, or idealised, version of ourself, or we might not feature in our daydreams at all. Our daydream world might resemble the real world, or it might reflect how we’d like the real world to be, or it might be a mystical world filled with strange creatures and magic. We can go anywhere, and be anything, we want to be. We are explorers. We use our imagination to experience things that can’t possibly happen in real life.
Immersive daydreaming is a bit like having a movie playing in my head the whole time. My characters introduce themselves to me as and when the plot requires – some of them are fleeting, some of the them stick around. Some of them I become very fond of. And, yes, sometimes I get emotional about the things that happen to them. If you’ve ever cried at the end of sad movie, you’ll appreciate that something doesn’t have to be real for you to have an emotional connection to it.
And in just the same way that people can become absorbed in a movie, or in a good book, sometimes I can get lost in my head. Whether it’s to help me work through a problem, or escape from a difficult situation, or just purely for entertainment, sometimes I just want to be alone with my thoughts. Is there really so much difference between being lost in a daydream and binge-watching Netflix? Both can be healthy in moderation; both can be harmful if allowed to get out of control.
My former therapist once spent an entire session trying to explain to me what worry is. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my own future so it’s a difficult concept for me. Similarly, the way we daydream is a difficult concept for those whose minds don’t work that way. But hopefully the analogies above might make it a little easier to understand.