When coming back to reality is painful

There are several reasons we might feel bad about daydreaming, but a common one is that when we come back to reality we confront the heartbreaking fact that all the wonderful things that just happened in the daydream world aren’t real. That realisation – that real life is less fulfilling than fantasy – is painful. And we try to escape that pain by retreating back into the daydream. But, of course, that puts us into a negative spiral. The more we daydream, the less we do in real life, and the less we do, the more miserable we become, and the more miserable we become, the more we daydream etc.

The issue here is a problem with acceptance. We don’t want to accept the pain of being in real life. We don’t want to accept that reality isn’t the way we’d like it to be. Some part of us stamps their foot like a petulant child and cries that it shouldn’t be this way. We deserve better. We deserve more. And so we run away to the one place where we know we can get more – our daydreams.

The problem is that running away from a problem doesn’t solve the problem. If we don’t accept that reality is the way it is, we can’t work on making it better. In that sense, our daydreams serve an important purpose. They alert us to the fact that something is wrong. If coming back to real life is painful, it’s because real life isn’t giving you what you need. And you have to acknowledge that before you can begin the hard work of changing it.

But in the daydream world, we can have whatever we want immediately without having to work for it, even if the thing we want is unrealistic or impossible in real life. And it’s the immediacy of getting the reward that causes much of the real-life suffering. We lose the distinction between the present and the future. We think that because the present isn’t as we want it, the future never will be, and the only place we can be happy is in the daydream world. We lose sight of the fact that we can change the future.

Some people think that accepting a situation for what it is means giving up the desire to change it. But, in fact, the reverse is true. Accepting the present is the only way you can improve the future. You can accept that your real life is causing you pain and you can work through that pain in the belief that a happier future is possible.

The path out of hell is through misery.

Marsha Linehan

When we try to run away from the misery that is our current reality, by escaping into the fantasy of the daydream world, we deny ourselves the opportunity to work through that misery and we keep ourselves in hell. It’s only by being honest with ourselves about what is going wrong in our real lives that we can start to change things.

But when we start to look at what’s wrong with our real lives, we can fall into the trap of taking our daydream world too literally. It’s easy to say that what’s wrong with reality is that magic isn’t real, or that we aren’t really dating our celebrity crush. But look below the surface. Probably what’s really going on is that your daydreams reflect an unmet need. If you feel as though you need magic to be real, you might be looking for more excitement in your life. If you need to be in a relationship with a celebrity who doesn’t even know you exist, you might be looking for more connection. Ask yourself, if you were in a happy and fulfilling relationship with a kind, generous, funny person who you really felt connected to, would you still need your celebrity crush? Probably not. You might still enjoy daydreaming about travelling the world and being adored by the media, but you’d probably see that daydream as an entertaining distraction. The heartbreaking sense of loss you currently feel when you return to reality would dissipate.

It’s never easy to break out of an addictive behaviour, and daydreaming is no different. But all too often we make it harder for ourselves by focussing on the daydreaming rather than on what we are trying to escape from. If coming out of a daydream brings up intense feelings of sadness, loneliness or shame, ask yourself what’s more painful – is it leaving the perfect daydream world, or returning to imperfect reality? If you don’t like coming back, the answer isn’t to stop yourself leaving. The daydreams aren’t the problem; they’re your mind’s way of trying to solve the problem. Thank them for their insights, accept where the problem really lies, and you’ll be one step closer to creating the real life you deserve.