Loneliness in immersive and maladaptive daydreamers

There’s a widely quoted study that suggested loneliness is as harmful as smoking. And that’s always worried me, because it’s not uncommon for me to go days at a time without speaking to anyone other than my husband and children. But I don’t feel lonely, because I talk to my daydream characters every day. And that made me wonder, in the absence of real-world connections, can daydream connections mitigate the damaging effects of loneliness?

What is loneliness?

You feel lonely when you aren’t as socially connected as you’d like to be. It’s a painful emotion and therefore a powerful daydreaming trigger. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the US, in his book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, describes three types of loneliness: intimate, relational and collective. So, let’s look at how daydreaming might help compensate for each of these.

Intimate loneliness

Intimate loneliness is when there’s no-one you trust and connect with on a very deep level. There’s no-one you can share your deepest secrets with, or who you can turn to when you’re upset or in trouble. Most of us crave that kind of intimate connection, but it can also be terrifying. To connect with someone that deeply, you have to be open, authentic and vulnerable. And in the real world, that means you risk getting your heart broken.

Developing close intimate relationships with our daydream characters is easier, and safer. Our characters are never going to judge us, reject us or let us down. We can trust them completely. Compensating for intimate loneliness is something our daydream characters do very well.

But having deep, intimate connections in your daydreams doesn’t make you less lonely in the real world. Daydreaming can disconnect you from yourself. Those close relationships you have with your characters are relationships you’ve built as your daydream self. If your daydream self isn’t you, or if you think your real-world self is somehow inferior to your daydream self, those daydream relationships aren’t going to make you feel better outside your daydream.

Relational loneliness

Relational loneliness is the lack of a broader friendship network. This is the type of loneliness I struggle with. It isn’t about having that one special person; it’s about having a group of friends to hang out with. But daydreaming can still compensate, up to a point. You can create a group of imaginary friends, and daydream about the good times you all have together.

But spending too much time with your daydream friends can isolate you from your real-life friends. The more time you spend daydreaming, the harder you’ll find it to maintain your real-world connections. It isn’t easy to juggle two completely distinct friendship groups.

Collective loneliness

Collective loneliness is when you don’t feel you belong. It’s when you don’t fit in your community or neighbourhood. It’s a lack of all those little moments of connection that you’d probably take for granted if you had them – waving to your neighbour from across the street, greeting an acquaintance in the supermarket, asking your co-worker how their holiday was. If you have collective loneliness, you might feel invisible as you go about your daily life.

You probably don’t experience collective loneliness in your daydream world. You’ve built it around you, so you’re always the centre of attention. You might not specifically daydream casual collective connections. But you’re not suffering because of their absence.

But like the other types of loneliness, avoiding collective loneliness in your daydreams doesn’t help you avoid it in the real world. In the real world, overcoming collective loneliness involves mastering some basic social skills. And that doesn’t always come easily to daydreamers.

Does daydreaming help you cope with loneliness?

I’ve been using daydreaming as a coping mechanism for loneliness for most of my life. And on one level, it works very well. I don’t feel lonely. My characters are with me every waking moment. I can talk to them whenever I want. I can be authentic and vulnerable with them in a way that rarely feels safe in real life. And that means there’s a depth to my daydream relationships that I don’t have in the real world.

But daydreaming doesn’t alleviate real-life loneliness. In fact, it makes it harder to develop and maintain real-life friendships. And no matter how socially fulfilled I feel in my daydreams, I still crave real connections. Because my daydream relationships are all about me. But in a real-life friendship, I’m giving something back. I’m making a difference to someone else’s life. And there’s value there that can’t be replicated in a daydream.

Why it’s important to overcome loneliness

Maybe you feel your daydream relationships are enough for you. But if you feel lonely in real life, it’s important to acknowledge and address that. When you’re lonely, it’s natural to wonder whether people like you. And that can lead to you questioning your self-worth. Which leads to feelings of shame. And shame urges you to hide, which is the one thing you can’t do if you want to overcome loneliness.

Daydreaming does have a role to play in managing loneliness. I am far less lonely than I would be if I didn’t have my characters. But equally, my characters are not a substitute for real-life connections. As with so many other aspects of daydreaming, the solution is to find a healthy balance.