Being an immersive daydreamer means you have a creative gift that can enhance your life in many different ways. But having maladaptive daydreaming disorder is a curse that makes living real life extremely difficult. The daydreaming is the same in each case; the difference is in how we use it and the meanings we attach to it.
For something to be considered a mental health disorder, it generally has to cause either distress or dysfunction. So let’s take a detailed look at the ways in which maladaptive daydreaming can be distressing, and how we can alleviate that distress by viewing our daydreaming from a different perspective.
Source of distress: Daydreaming upsetting scenes
Reframe: Your daydreams are a safe space to work through negative emotions
Our daydreams can evoke real emotions. So if we daydream about difficult or painful topics, we can get upset. I’ve cried many times because of something that was happening in my daydream. Occasionally we might need to daydream an upsetting scene for purely daydream-related reasons – you might need to close off a sub-plot by killing off one of your characters, or you might have chosen to end a daydream relationship. But if you’re daydreaming upsetting scenes on a regular basis, it’s worth asking yourself why. Our subconscious generally acts to protect us. So, if you’re daydreaming about negative things, there might be a good reason. Maybe the negative emotions are arising from something in real life, and your daydreams are the safe space where you can process those emotions?
Source of distress: Not being able to stop daydreaming
Reframe: Daydreaming is an addictive behaviour that’s as hard to break as any other addiction
Daydreaming that has got out of control and become maladaptive is an addictive behaviour. Just because that behaviour takes place in your head doesn’t mean you can control it. In many other addictions, you can put barriers in place; you can put the addictive substance or behaviour out of reach, and even then people struggle to stay away from it. But you can’t take away your thoughts. Daydreaming is always there, lurking in the background, ready to pop up in a moment of weakness. If your daydreaming has become an addiction, you can’t expect to stop because it’s “just” daydreaming – there’s no “just” about it. This is every bit as hard to break as any other addiction.
Source of distress: Daydreaming is a mental illness
Reframe: It’s the relationship we have with our daydreaming that determines whether it’s a mental illness
There’s a lot of rubbish written about immersive and maladaptive daydreaming online. The truth is, most people don’t daydream in the way we do. Most people don’t have complex plots and a whole cast of imaginary characters bouncing around in their heads 24/7. Your brain is wired differently from most other people’s. But being different doesn’t make you wrong or broken. It doesn’t mean you have a disease that needs to be cured. We live in a society that tends to pathologize anything out of the ordinary. We equate “different” with “wrong”. Just because normative daydreamers can’t understand what it’s like to think the way we do, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with us. Sometimes “different” just means “different”.
Source of distress: Frustration at time wasted
Reframe: Everyone has their own way of procrastinating, daydreaming just happens to be ours
When you suddenly realise you’ve zoned out for far longer than you intended, or when you find yourself daydreaming when you’d resolved not to, it’s very easy to be self-critical and to beat yourself up for lacking motivation and willpower. You can fall into the trap of thinking you’d get a lot more done if you didn’t daydream so much. But would you? Almost everyone procrastinates to a certain extent. Other people spend hours binge-watching Netflix or playing video games or mindlessly scrolling through social media. Daydreaming is no different. We all need downtime. It isn’t possible to be productive every waking minute.
Source of distress: Wishing for something that can never be
Reframe: It’s OK to enjoy a novel or movie that isn’t real; daydreams are no different
Sometimes we censor our daydreams. We tell ourselves it’s wrong to imagine something that we know isn’t actually going to happen – whether that’s living in a world populated by wizards and elves, or hoping for a relationship with your crush who’s with someone else. But in the safe space of your imagination, you can do whatever you want. So what if it isn’t going to happen in real life? We read novels and watch movies about things that aren’t real. Why is daydreaming about things that aren’t real any different?
Source of distress: Invalidating yourself
Reframe: Your daydream self is a real and valid version of you
If you become an idealised version of yourself in your daydreams, it can be upsetting to think that the idealised version of you isn’t real. You compare your real-world self to your daydream self and it’s often not a comforting comparison. But that’s because in the real world too many of us care too much about what other people think. We spend so much time trying to be what other people want us to be, that we forget to be ourselves. In our daydreams, we get people to like us by choosing their opinions instead of choosing our behaviour. And that frees us up to be ourselves. The person you become in your daydreams is the person you are in a safe non-judgemental space – isn’t that likely to be the real you?
If you find being a daydreamer distressing, the first thing to realise is that your daydreaming isn’t going anywhere. You can get control over it, you can reduce the amount of time you spend doing it, but you probably can’t eliminate it completely. Sooner or later you will have to make peace with it. Hopefully the reframes presented above can help you start to do just that.