Every thought I have has to be directed at somebody in my imagination. I have a constant internal dialogue. When I’m trying to figure something out or I need to get my thoughts in order, I imagine I’m having a conversation with someone. Sometimes I invite that person to contribute to the discussion; at other times it feels more like I’m explaining something to them. But even when they don’t say a word, I imagine them listening.
The difference between daydreaming and mind-wandering
My mental conversations are much closer to mind-wandering than to daydreaming. I’m not escaping from real life. I’m not in my paracosm. And I haven’t become my daydream self. In my internal dialogue, I’m just me, in my real life, ticking off items on my to-do list, or thinking about the podcast I just listened to, or looking forward to the weekend.
And this distinction is important, because when we talk about overcoming maladaptive daydreaming, we have to be very clear about what daydreaming is and what it isn’t. I believe you can overcome maladaptive daydreaming while still keeping your characters and stories. But some people choose to stop daydreaming completely and devote all their attention to the real world. There’s nothing wrong with that – provided that you’re being realistic about what “stopping daydreaming completely” means.
It’s possible to abandon your daydream world, if that feels right for you. It’s possible to conclude your plot and declare the story to be over. You can choose not to fantasise about things that have no basis in reality. But you cannot stop yourself from thinking.
Mind-wandering can feel like a mental conversation
Non-daydreamers often use the terms “daydreaming” and “mind-wandering” interchangeably to refer to thoughts that aren’t related to what you’re doing in that moment. But for immersive and maladaptive daydreamers, there’s a massive difference between daydreaming and mind-wandering. “Daydreaming” is when you craft an elaborate fantasy story in your head. “Mind-wandering” happens when you let your thoughts randomly drift from topic to topic.
But confusion can creep in if your mind-wandering incorporates elements from your daydreaming. It’s very common for mind-wandering to involve an internal dialogue. We all use language when we think. Sometimes we use individual words, and sometimes we think in complete sentences. Sometimes we talk to ourselves, and sometimes we imagine having a conversation with someone. And for daydreamers, that someone could be a daydream character. But that doesn’t mean you’re daydreaming.
Daydreaming and mind-wandering are completely different. Daydreaming is focussed and narrative, and it draws us in. There’s an unfolding story, and we can stay in one scene for hours at a time. And not everyone can do it. Mind-wandering is brief and undirected. Our thoughts flit from from topic to topic at random. And it’s a normal and natural part of the human experience.
You can’t always be focussed on the present moment
If your daydreaming isn’t healthy for you and you want to stop doing it, that’s something you can work towards. But no-one can stop mind-wandering. No-one can completely quiet their thoughts. And no-one can focus entirely on the present moment 100% of the time. So if you want to stop daydreaming, you have to be clear about the difference between daydreaming and mind-wandering.
Framing your random thoughts as a conversation – having an internal dialogue – doesn’t mean that you’re daydreaming. Imagining someone listening to your random thoughts doesn’t mean that you’re daydreaming – even if the person listening is one of your daydream characters.
It’s normal and healthy to mind-wander
When I first learned about maladaptive daydreaming, I realised that one of the ways my daydreaming was indirectly harming me was that I almost never mind-wandered. Mind-wandering serves a purpose – it helps us make sense of the world – and it comes naturally to almost everyone. But I rarely did it. As soon as the real world didn’t need my attention, I immediately went into my daydream world.
Over the last few years, I’ve tried to give myself more opportunities to mind-wander. I think it’s helped my self-awareness, and I think it’s part of the reason I’ve been able to make some very positive changes to my life. Giving myself time to reflect on what’s going on in my life, to contemplate things I’d like to do and to just see where my thoughts take me has been really beneficial. And, yes, a lot of that mind-wandering has been expressed as a conversation with someone who doesn’t exist – because that’s just the way I think.