Maladaptive daydreaming disorder was first described in 2002. But even 20 years later, awareness of the condition among mental health professionals and the general public remains low. One of the reasons for this is that most daydreamers are very reluctant to open up to friends and family about their daydreaming due to a deeply rooted sense of shame. As I’ve discussed before, there’s a difference between feeling guilty and feeling ashamed. We feel guilt when we’ve behaved badly: it motivates us to make amends and to behave better next time. Shame, on the other hand, occurs when we feel bad about who we are, and in my opinion, it’s rarely a helpful emotion. So why do so many immersive and maladaptive daydreamers feel ashamed of their daydreaming?
We think no-one else daydreams in this way
This was my biggest source of shame for decades. I was in my mid-forties when I came across maladaptive daydreaming disorder on the internet and realised there was a name for this thing I’ve done all my life. Until then, I thought I was the only person who daydreamed like this. When you feel you’re “different”, it’s natural to fear that others will judge or reject you if they find out about your difference. Generally, people like people who are like themselves, and if you’re not like other people, it can make it harder to fit in. So it’s natural to want to hide your “difference” to avoid rejection. But once we accept the idea that we should hide our daydreaming, it’s inevitable that we’ll start to see daydreaming as bad, and ourselves as bad for continuing to do it.
The solution to this type of shame is to accept that you’re not alone, and you’re not weird, or bad, or broken. The shame I used to feel about my daydreaming started to fall away the day I discovered that other people do it too. Suddenly it wasn’t a reflection on me, it was just a condition I had. If you’re ashamed because you feel different and alone, the answer is to connect with other daydreamers. Check my resources page for details of daydream groups on Facebook and Reddit. Sign up and start posting. You’ll be among friends. And you’ll notice the shame gradually begin to subside as you get more used to talking about your daydreaming in a safe and accepting space.
We constantly invalidate ourselves
One of the things that distinguishes maladaptive daydreaming disorder from psychosis is that we know our daydreams aren’t real. But that knowledge can sometimes lead to self-destructive thoughts. We think that all the positive experiences we have while daydreaming somehow don’t count because they only happen in our heads. We judge ourselves for getting emotionally involved in something that isn’t real, and for having feelings for people that don’t exist.
But why? Almost everyone has cried while watching a movie. No-one judges us for that. Daydreaming is a bit like having a movie playing in our heads the whole time, except that for many of us it becomes an epic creation that grows with us over months or years, or involves characters based on people we care about in real life. So of course we’re going to become emotionally involved in the story. It doesn’t matter that it’s not real. The emotions are real. And they’re valid.
If you feel shame about becoming emotionally involved in your daydreams, remember that emotions are messages from our subconscious. We feel them for a reason. Daydream emotions may represent feelings that you need but aren’t getting from real life, or they may be real-life emotions that need to be worked through in the safe space of your own mind. Either way, they’re there for a reason, and if your shame makes you stuff them down and ignore them, they’ll just keep shouting until they get your attention.
We believe everything we read on the internet
When you first realise that other people daydream the way you do, it’s natural to be curious about it. But there’s an inbuilt bias in what you’ll find online. A Google search for “maladaptive daydreaming” returns nearly 320,000 results; a search for “immersive daydreaming” returns less than 28,000 results. At the moment, maladaptive daydreaming is by far the better-known condition. And that means that most of what you’ll read about daydreaming is likely to focus on how it can damage your relationships and steal years of your life. If you’re an immersive daydreamer, but you don’t understand the difference between immersive daydreaming and maladaptive daydreaming, it can be scary see people describing daydreaming as a mental illness.
It’s important to remember that only you can judge whether your daydreaming is getting in the way of you living your best life. If it is, then you probably have maladaptive daydreaming disorder and you might want to investigate ways of managing it. But if you’re an immersive daydreamer – if your daydreaming helps you thrive or is just an entertaining pastime – then don’t let maladaptive daydreamers convince you that there’s anything wrong with you. Maladaptive daydreamers have a different relationship with their daydreaming. Their suffering is real and their challenges are significant. But it’s OK for immersive daydreamers not to share those challenges. Daydreaming isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s the relationship you have with it that determines how it affects you. And if you have a good relationship with your daydreaming, that’s OK.
When we feel shame, we tend not to like ourselves. And when we don’t like ourselves, we talk very harshly to ourselves. And in many cases, it’s that negative self-talk, not the daydreaming, that’s really keeping us stuck. To move forward, we need to overcome the shame so that we can treat ourselves with compassion and believe that we’re worthy of a wonderful life. Because once we believe that we deserve it, it will be so much easier to achieve.