Three reasons why willpower alone is not enough to cure maladaptive daydreaming disorder

If you’re struggling with maladaptive daydreaming disorder, at some point you’ve probably tried to stop daydreaming. Perhaps someone has told you “it’s only a daydream; you can just stop thinking about it”. Or perhaps you’ve said something like that to yourself. But if you’ve tried to stop daydreaming, you’ll know it isn’t that simple. And it’s not because you’re not trying hard enough, or you’re a failure, or any of the other horrible things you might have been saying to yourself. The reason you haven’t been able to stop daydreaming is because willpower alone cannot cure maladaptive daydreaming disorder. There are at least three very important reasons why.

1. You will never stop daydreaming completely

The first reason you can’t cure maladaptive daydreaming disorder by just stopping daydreaming is because that isn’t what “cured” looks like. Your brain is wired to daydream in this way. You will always be an immersive daydreamer. Your characters and plots and the emotions they evoke will always be a part of your life. “Curing” maladaptive daydreaming disorder doesn’t mean you stop daydreaming. It means you learn to control your daydreaming so that it doesn’t get in the way of you living real life, but rather becomes a tool that you can use to get the most out of real life.

2. It’s really hard to control your thoughts

Don’t try to tell yourself that your maladaptive daydreaming is just a bad habit; maladaptive daydreaming disorder is an addiction. ANY addiction is hard to give up, but an addiction to your own thoughts is harder than most, partly because giving up completely isn’t possible (see above) but also because a relapse is only ever a thought away. There’s no gap between feeling the urge and giving in to it. It’s like trying to stay sober with a glass of wine permanently within arm’s reach. Don’t underestimate how hard it is. Even normative daydreamers get trapped in negative spirals of worry or rumination. An inability to control our thoughts underlies most mental illness, and it’s not something most of us can change just because we decide to.

3. You trap yourself in real life

The most important reason why willpower alone won’t cure maladaptive daydreaming disorder is that on some level you need your daydreaming. Most maladaptive daydreamers use their daydreaming as a way of escaping something painful in real life. It starts out as a coping mechanism, and over time develops into a harmful addiction. In some cases, the addiction persists even after the thing you were originally escaping from has gone away. But even then, if you’ve been a maladaptive daydreamer for any length of time, it will have caused its own problems – social isolation, career stagnation, loss of self-esteem. Often, the desire to quit maladaptive daydreaming comes from feeling miserable in real life and wanting something to change. But quitting maladaptive daydreaming traps you in that miserable reality. You give up your escape; you give up the one thing that made all your problems go away. And when you realise that your miserable reality is all you have now, the urge to daydream comes right back. And now you have to use all your willpower to resist the urge, so there’s none left over for dealing with real life. That’s not sustainable. And even if it was, why would you want to do that to yourself?

So, please, don’t try to stop maladaptive daydreaming using willpower alone. You’ll just end up feeling bad about yourself. For some things that will help you reduce maladaptive daydreaming, at least a little bit, see my previous blog post. But be warned, none of these are long-term solutions.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Maladaptive daydreaming is a symptom of a bigger problem, which is that real life isn’t meeting your needs. In the long term, I believe the solution to maladaptive daydreaming is to work on your real life. Once real life is worth living, the daydreaming may subside on its own, and if it doesn’t, it will be easier to get it under control once you no longer need to use it as an escape.

And unfortunately, fixing what’s wrong with your real life is going to take time and effort and probably require a lot of difficult decisions. And perhaps willpower alone won’t be enough for that either, and you’ll need to seek the support of a therapist or coach, or ask friends and family to help you. But ultimately, when you’ve built a life that meets your needs, you’ll be glad you made the effort.

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