Negative daydreams, part 1: why do we daydream about upsetting things?

Although many of us have difficulty limiting the amount of time we spend daydreaming, most of us have at least some control over what we daydream about. Our daydreams are so vivid that they can generate real and intense emotional responses. So why is it that we sometimes daydream upsetting scenes that cause us very real distress?

I suspect that daydreaming upsetting scenes is most likely meeting some unmet need, which we either can’t meet in the real world, or, perhaps, don’t even consciously realise we have. This is likely to be very personal and different for everyone; but the following list gives some generalised explanations of why you may be drawn into upsetting daydreams:

To process an emotion that you’re already feeling

If things in real life are making you feel angry or sad, but you don’t feel able to express that emotion outwardly, you may have no choice but to express it inwardly in your daydreams. Sometimes, as children, we get the message that certain emotions (such as anger) are bad and shouldn’t be expressed. But the reality is that our emotions are there for a reason, and it’s important to recognise and work through whatever we’re feeling. It may well be that the safest place for you to do that is in your daydreams.

A need to feel intense emotion

If your real life consists of one day of predictable routine after another, with very little in the way of excitement, you may simply want to feel an intense emotion, regardless of whether that emotion is positive or negative. From my own experience, medication is a possible culprit here – whenever I have been on SSRI anti-depressants, I have lost the ability to feel intense emotions. When I have come off the medication, the elation of being able once again to feel sadness when something bad happens, or anger when someone oversteps my boundaries, is hard to explain.

To justify a sense of not being worthy

Many of us have a deep sense of not being good enough, not deserving the good things that have happened to us, or not being worthy of the recognition and goodwill we receive from others. This sense is what lies at the root of imposter syndrome – that feeling that we’re living a life we don’t deserve and at any moment we’re going to get found out. Your daydreams may reflect your belief that you don’t really deserve the life you have and that perhaps disaster is just around the corner.

To plan for the worst-case scenario

When we’re worried about something that might be going to happen, sometimes the scariest part is not knowing how or if we’d be able to cope. Daydreaming that scenario before it happens can help us to figure out the best way to react, and to reassure us that we would, in fact, be able to survive it.

To provoke caring

When our lives are plodding along normally, we rarely take the time to notice all the things we’re grateful for, let alone express that gratitude to the people around us. It tends to be in moments of crisis that we express to friends and family how much we love them; it’s often only when we lose something, or come close to losing it, that we realise how much it really means. So your negative daydreams might not be so much about the crisis but more about the reactions it provokes. Do you need to almost die before your crush finally realises they can’t live without you? Alternatively, does someone you care about have to lose everything so that you can swoop in and rescue them?

To be seen to overcome it

Similar to the example above, the crisis may be necessary to realise some benefit. But in this case, the benefit isn’t immediate; it comes later. Do you want everyone to admire the way you recovered from a terrible injury, or beat the odds after being diagnosed with a supposedly terminal illness? Do you want to have your old life wiped away by some catastrophe so that you can start over again? Many of the heroes we admire in real life have had to overcome some kind of adversity to get to where they are today.

It’s just a good plot

Finally, it’s possible that there isn’t an underlying reason for your negative daydreams. Perhaps your distressing scenes are just part of the plot. A life (even a fantasy life) where everything is perfect quickly becomes boring. It’s only by experiencing the bad times that we’re able to appreciate the good times. It’s only by overcoming challenges that we’re able to grow and develop. That is just as true in our daydreams as it is in real life.

The above list isn’t intended to be exhaustive. There will be other reasons for daydreaming distressing scenes that may be very personal to you. But if you’ve ever been upset by the content of your daydreams and wondered why your mind went to that place, hopefully the above list will give you some ideas. In most cases, your mind knows what it’s doing, and your distressing daydreams will be serving some purpose. In next week’s post, I’m going to discuss how we can use some techniques from DBT to turn our daydreams to more positive topics.

2 thoughts on “Negative daydreams, part 1: why do we daydream about upsetting things?”

  1. Might not be exhaustive, but my reasons are there. My DD world is there to provide some feelings of happiness, which I don’t find in real life. Here in real life, my only brushes with happiness are thanks to my pets. That must be the reason why I have no pets in DD world, I don’t need them there… That, and the fact that plot whims might take to different places there, and not even in my imagination would I leave my pets behind.
    But for the most part, my daydreams are negative. “To process an emotion that you’re already feeling” seems to be a major rule for me. In doing so, I justify all my crying and my self-deprecation, and provide my impulses with a softer place to fall, because I control DD world.
    “To justify a sense of not being worthy” is the other major rule. I’ll take crying and suffering over what I have my characters doing to me than over what some real world creep who shouldn’t matter to me did. True, I get hurt, a lot. I end up feeling not worthy, how could I not? So I give that honour to my own character. It’s a small, very small win.

    1. Thanks for commenting, and I’m sorry that the real world has shown you so little love. It’s interesting what you say about not having pets in your daydreams – I can relate to that, in the sense of not needing to daydream about the things that are working well for us in reality.

      I think it’s important that we process our emotions, otherwise they hang around unresolved and cause us all sorts of problems. So your daydreams could be giving you an important outlet that you don’t have in real life. In my next post, I suggest creating a calm place as a refuge when you need to escape the negativity for a while, but it’s not intended to be a permanent fix. Our negative daydreams are there for a reason – a softer place to fall, as you say.

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