You cannot shame yourself into change

I saw a quote on Instagram recently that resonated with me. “You cannot shame yourself into change. You can only love yourself into evolution”. I haven’t been able to find the source of the quote, but whoever said it was onto something important. The idea that you can use shame to motivate you to do anything is fundamentally flawed. Shame doesn’t motivate. Usually, it does exactly the opposite.

Almost all maladaptive daydreamers have shame

This is particularly relevant to maladaptive daydreamers, because almost all of us feel shame. You might be ashamed about the content of your daydreams. Perhaps you think your fantasies are creepy or delusional. Or you might be ashamed about not being able to control your daydreaming. You think you must be weak or broken because you can’t resist the pull of your imaginary world. Or perhaps you’ve read that all vivid narrative daydreaming is a form of mental illness, and you’re afraid of the stigma that’s still associated with that label.

But don’t try to use that shame to force yourself to change. Some people think that if you keep telling yourself you’re a pathetic failure of a human being because of your daydreaming, eventually the self-hatred will become so bad that you won’t tolerate it anymore. And at that point, you’ll shame yourself into change. Perhaps, if you hate your daydreaming enough, you’ll eventually want nothing more to do with it. And then, maybe, you’ll be able to stop.

Unfortunately, addictions don’t work that way. Most addictions begin as a way to escape from emotional pain. Maladaptive daydreaming is no exception. If you become an idealised version of yourself in your daydreams, or if you become someone else entirely, or if you aren’t in your daydreams at all, that could be because what you’re trying to escape from in your daydreams is yourself, or rather your shame. You don’t like the person you are, and your daydreams allow you to explore being someone else. Your daydreaming isn’t the source of your shame; it’s how you’re trying to avoid it.

Shame cannot help you to change

The problem with trying to shame yourself into change is that any change will last only as long as the shame lasts. I don’t believe that our minds ever permanently lose the ability to daydream. You can heal from maladaptive daydreaming, and you may even be able to live for weeks or months at a time without daydreaming, but your daydream world will only ever be a thought away. If you’ve always coped with difficult emotions by daydreaming, then you’ll feel an urge to daydream every time you feel stressed or upset. And if the only thing that stops you from giving into that urge is your shame, then you will have to hang onto that shame forever.

Is that really how you want to live?

Trying to shame yourself into change means that you have to focus on the worst parts of you. You have to push all your self-love and self-compassion out of your awareness and concentrate on what a horrible failure you are. If you’ve ever struggled with depression, you’ve done quite enough of that already. Trying to shame yourself into change goes against everything that therapists encourage someone to do when they’re trying to improve their mental health.

The thing is, shame doesn’t motivate. Shame makes you want to curl up in a corner and hope the world doesn’t notice you. When you’re feeling shame, you withdraw from everyone and everything around you. You try to hide the parts of yourself that you’re ashamed of, and in doing so, you end up hiding yourself. That’s not a mindset that’s going to encourage motivation. It’s going to encourage apathy. And apathy leads to boredom. And the combination of boredom and self-hatred will be a powerful daydreaming trigger.

Choose compassion over shame

There are many inspirational reasons for wanting to heal from maladaptive daydreaming. You might want to be a better partner, parent or friend to someone you care about. You might want to feel the sense of achievement that comes from working towards something meaningful, rather than just daydreaming about it. Or perhaps you simply want to experience the joy of living in the present moment. All of those motivations come from a place of love. And ultimately, love – whether it’s love for yourself, another person or just life itself – is a far more powerful motivational force than shame will ever be.

So if you think that focussing on everything that’s wrong with being a maladaptive daydreamer, and dialling your shame all the way up, will motivate you to stop daydreaming, think again. When you use shame as a motivational tool, it makes you miserable; and it doesn’t even work that well.

But if you can release that shame, if you can accept that your maladaptive daydreaming is just a coping mechanism gone wrong and it doesn’t make you a bad person, then you can reconnect with the self-acceptance and self-love that’s buried deep inside of you. Your shame tried to tell you that you’re not worthy of love. But you are. And once you can accept that, overcoming your maladaptive daydreaming will feel like a project rather than a battle.