When it hurts that it’s not real

One of the things that differentiates maladaptive daydreaming from psychosis is that daydreamers know that what we imagine isn’t real. We’re not hallucinating; we’re not delusional. But even though we know it’s not real, we still yearn for it. Accepting the harsh truth that it’s not real hurts so badly.

The pain of desperately wanting it to be real comes from the fact that reality isn’t meeting our needs. We escape our painful reality by daydreaming, and therefore we associate daydreaming with an absence of pain. We conclude that the secret to happiness lies in magically making our daydreams come true. And if that’s not possible, we assume we’re forever trapped in the painful reality we’re trying to escape from.

But having your daydreams come true isn’t the only thing that can make you happy. In fact, even if were possible, it might not make you happy. There are several reasons why.

What you want and what your daydream self wants are not necessarily the same thing

You are not your daydream self. Even if your daydream self is the authentic you, they’re not living in your world. If you could pluck your daydream self out of your daydreams and insert them into your real life, would they want the same things they want in the daydream? Or, to look at it another way, if you could shape your real life using all the skills, talents, drive and determination that your daydream self has, what would you do? What could you achieve? Probably something very different from what your daydream self is doing in their world. There are reasons for that:

Real life is more complicated than daydreams

Your real life is complex and multifaceted. It’s never about just one thing. You want lots of things, and they all have to fit together. And sometimes achieving one goal means letting go of another. You also have to consider the other people in your life. What you want might not be what your partner wants, or what your children want. So you have to compromise, and balance your needs against theirs. The daydream world is much simpler. Your daydreams can revolve around just one thing you want.

In your daydreams, time doesn’t have to be linear

Often we pick up the daydream where we left it, but we don’t have to. And we can live the key moments over and over again. That moment where your crush first tells you they love you, or when you walk onto the stage to the cheers of your adoring fans – how many times have you lived that moment in your daydreams? If it was real, you’d get to live it once, and then you’d have to move on to whatever comes next.

In your daydreams, you can have achievement without effort

Daydreams don’t have to be realistic. They don’t have to be internally consistent or to tell the whole story. We daydream the final success, but we don’t daydream about doing the work that makes the success possible. Much of what we daydream about is a daydream precisely because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not willing to put in the hours, days or even years of effort it would take to achieve it in real life.

You daydream the destination, but you live the journey

More importantly, the satisfaction you get from achieving something in real life is often proportional to the effort it took to get there. Our most fulfilling achievements are the ones we worked really hard for. And in real life, the hard work is the rewarding part. It’s the part that shows us what we’re capable of. It encourages us to grow into something more than we were before. It transforms us and our lives. Real life isn’t about the end result, but our daydreams tend to be.

So, it’s OK that it’s not real?

Once you realise that what makes you happy in the daydream world is very different from what makes you happy in the real world, the pain that you feel about your daydream world not being real falls away. You can see that there isn’t just one route to happiness. There are many possible ways to be happy, and many possible lives in which you can experience fulfilment, including your real one.

Our daydreams will never come true. It’s not just impossible in this universe. It’s probably unrealistic in any universe. Very few of us daydream a plot that is coherent, internally consistent, linear and complete in the way that real life has to be. We edit out the bits we don’t like, we work miracles without effort, we change the rules when we feel like it, and we go back and redo the scenes that weren’t quite right. Even if that one perfect daydream moment could really happen, you might not want all the things that would inevitably have to go before and after it.

There is only one place where your daydreams will ever come true. And that’s in the unlimited space of your imagination. But when you realise there’s more than one way to be happy, you can work on building a fulfilling real life and you can enjoy the unrealistic fantasy in your imagination. And that gives you the best of both worlds.

[Photo by Nicole Avagliano]