Why daydreaming is bad for our emotional intelligence

I struggle to feel emotions physically. My mind will tell me I’m feeling joy or frustration or disappointment, but it’s difficult for me to connect that emotion to physical sensations in my body. I don’t experience anger as a rush of heat or energy, I don’t experience fear as a tightness in my stomach, I don’t experience sadness as a heaviness in my arms and legs. And I wonder if this physical numbness is connected to my daydreaming. I’ve spent my life in my head, building imaginary worlds, characters and relationships, and to do that, I had to disconnect my mind from what was going on in my body. Over time, I’ve got so used to ignoring the emotional signals in my body that now I simply don’t feel them.

But what are emotions for anyway? Why do we need them? Emotions have several functions. Firstly, emotions can change our behaviour faster than our thoughts can. For example, in a sudden emergency, fear can activate our fight-or-flight response and we find ourselves taking evasive action before we’ve even consciously analysed the threat. Secondly, emotions are messages from our subconscious. They are our gut instinct or intuition, working with the rational side of our brain to help us make the right decision. Thirdly, emotions communicate our feelings to others. If someone is acting in a way that angers us, that anger will show in our posture and facial expression, and signals the other person to change their behaviour.

But unfortunately most of us were never taught how our emotions work, how to handle them, or even how to tell one emotion from another. And we tell ourselves myths about our emotions, such as “emotions cannot be controlled”, or “another person can make you feel a certain way,” or “some emotions are stupid, bad or destructive”. As we get older, and accumulate more life experiences, most of us learn to manage our emotions to a greater or lesser extent. But in daydreamers, this process of learning to manage our emotions sometimes gets knocked off track.

We feel negative emotions such as sadness, anger, jealously and guilt for a reason. They’re supposed to feel uncomfortable, because they’re signals from our subconscious that something is wrong. The discomfort caused by these emotions is supposed to motivate us to solve the problem. But daydreamers have an alternative. We can escape to a daydream world where the problem prompting the emotion simply never existed in the first place. We train ourselves to ignore the physical sensations the emotion is provoking in our body, because we’re determined to escape the emotion altogether.

But escaping from our emotions not only prevents us from solving our problems. It also becomes a habit. I think I’ve become so used to ignoring the physical expressions of my emotions that now, even when I try, I struggle to feel them. And that makes it harder to identify which emotion is present. Because emotions don’t always come along one at a time. You can be angry with someone you love and be afraid of losing the relationship. You can feel guilty about something you did and be sad about the consequences. The first step in managing a difficult emotion is being able to describe and understand which emotion is present. And you can get important clues to which emotion is showing up by tuning into how it feels in your body. For example, anger is often energising – you might feel hot or tense or have an urge to lash out. Fear prepares us to flee, so it tends to show up as a tightness in the chest, a racing heart or butterflies in the stomach. Sadness often shows up as an absence of energy – lethargy, hopelessness or emptiness. But if you can’t connect to those feelings, you’re missing important clues about which emotion is present.

Because here’s the thing. If we don’t reinforce a negative emotion by judging it or ruminating on it, the unpleasant physical sensations last on average for 90 seconds. That’s right; 90 seconds. That emotion we’ve been so scared of feeling – the thing we will daydream rather than acknowledge, the thing we’re trying to tune out at all costs – could be gone in less than a couple of minutes. Sounds unbelievable, right?

So that’s been my mission for the last week or so. Whenever I’m feeling a strong emotion, rather than giving in to the urge to run away from it by daydreaming, I’ve been trying to sit with the emotion for just two minutes. Two minutes to really tune in to what’s going on in my body; two minutes to thank my emotion for whatever message it’s trying to send me; two minutes to accept the emotion without judging it. And when the two minutes are up, if I still want to daydream, I can (just for a short while).

It’s only been a few days, but I’m already noticing two things. First, those sensations in my body that I’ve spent a lifetime ignoring are still there. I have to really focus to find them, but they’re there. Hopefully with practice they’ll start showing up more easily. And second, I’ve been surprised how often, at the end of the two minutes, I can go about my day without needing a daydream break. Two minutes really is, often, all it takes.

As daydreamers, we’re not used to having a gap. We indulge our urge to daydream the second it arises. But when we give ourselves a gap, we give ourselves a chance to deal with the urge in a more constructive way. So if you use your daydreaming as a way to avoid uncomfortable emotions, ask yourself, could you commit to listening to your emotion for just two minutes before you run away from it? Could you give yourself the gift of a gap? I’m finding this is not only helping me manage my emotions, but it’s also benefitting my daydreaming. Because when my daydreams don’t have to be an escape, they’re free to do what they do best – inspiring and motivating me to live my best life.