In most cases, maladaptive daydreaming begins when you discover that you can use your daydreaming to escape from something overwhelming in the real world. For many of us, our daydreaming became maladaptive for the first time in childhood, when we didn’t have much control over our lives, and our options for getting out of a difficult situation were limited. We learned early on that we could use our daydreaming to mentally check out of our painful or boring reality by imagining somewhere safer and more interesting.
But for some of us, what started as a way of escaping from reality eventually became something that was destroying reality. When maladaptive daydreaming persists over many years, it makes it hard to study, it makes it hard to the get the qualifications you need to pursue a career, it makes it hard to form and maintain friendships, it makes it hard to meet a romantic partner. And when those difficulties are present year after year, real life tends to stagnate, and become boring, monotonous and empty.
And that’s the point where a lot of maladaptive daydreamers realise that their daydreaming is a serious problem and conclude that they need to stop. I’ve written before about why very few maladaptive daydreamers can just decide to stop and be successful in quitting. But there’s another problem. Even if you could just stop daydreaming, what then? You’d be stuck in that boring monotonous empty life that you’re daydreaming to avoid.
That’s why I believe that before you can successfully heal from maladaptive daydreaming disorder, you have to make real life worth coming back to. If you want to be more present in the real world, you have to make your world a place you want to be. Otherwise, the part of you that doesn’t like being in reality is going to fight the part of you that knows you need to be in reality. And when you’re fighting yourself, you’re unlikely to achieve a significant lasting change.
So, how do you make real life worth coming back to?
Figure out what you’re escaping from
Your excessive daydreaming might be causing most of the problems in your life now, but what made you begin daydreaming in the first place? What was it that you needed to run away from, that felt too overwhelming to deal with? If that thing is still causing you distress, you need to deal with it. With the resources you have now, can you resolve the situation? Is it something you need to work through in therapy? Can you find a healthier coping mechanism?
Set yourself goals
Sometimes the problem you were originally running away from is no longer an issue, but the daydreaming remains. In that case, what you’re currently escaping from could be boredom. Your daydreams are probably far more exciting than your unfulfilling real life. So you need to make real life exciting. Use your talent for visualisation to imagine, and then manifest, your perfect real life.
Your perfect real life may not be anything like your daydream life – it’s OK not to want the same things your daydream self wants. I don’t think my daydream self would ever sit still long enough to email a friend, let alone commit to a regular blogging habit. But writing this blog, and visualising pulling all my thoughts together in a book, is what makes the real me excited to get up in the morning. I’m also learning to play the cello – something else my daydream self wouldn’t be interested in. They’re not world-changing goals, but they make me happy and give me a focus in life.
Don’t try to stop daydreaming yet
Once you have your real-life goals, you need to commit to working on them. And that means you’ll need to free up some time, so you might need to cut down on your daydreaming a bit. But you don’t need to stop completely. Not yet. It’s a lot easier to resist the urge to daydream for a few hours if you know you can give in to it later. So if you need some daydreaming time as a reward for working towards those real-life goals, that’s OK. Because the thing is, once you start seeing progress in your real life – and it doesn’t take very long – you might find that you naturally want to daydream less.
When real life is either painful or boring, trying to stop daydreaming is hard work. You’re giving up something you love and replacing it with something you don’t like, and that’s never going to work. But when you make real life worth coming back to, when you make your real life as exciting and vibrant as your daydreams (albeit probably in a totally different way), then you’re adding more joy into your life. You’re giving yourself some attractive alternatives to daydreaming. And you’re eliminating that need to escape that probably drove you into maladaptive daydreaming in the first place. And when you don’t need to use your daydreaming to escape, you’re free to use it however you like – as an entertaining hobby, as a tool to help you solve your problems, or as something you push to the back of your mind while you get on with living in the real world.