I know, I know. The popular saying is “Don’t quit your daydream,” and here I am saying the opposite: quit your daydream. No, I am not saying to give up on your hopes for your life. No, there is nothing wrong with wanting more and wanting to add more to the lives of others. I am talking about the activity of staying in our heads so that everyday life loses its sparkle and no longer satisfies.
There are those of us who’s thought life not only minimizes the present but keeps us in a future we decide and dictate. A future that is manipulated by a personal set of whims and whimpers. In our daydreams, we can manufacture what makes us smile, cry, and even worry. We determine what we will conquer, the outcomes, and it can all take place at a pace we govern… even if it’s only in our minds.
This type of “daydreaming” can happen day or night. Anytime there is uncertainty, anxiety, or a need to sidestep a present and real situation, we may be prone to retreat to a safer, more manageable internal space. This type of daydreaming is called Escapism.
Escapism: the tendency to distract or avoid unpleasant, boring, arduous, or scary aspects of daily life. Escapism is also used to help relieve persistent feelings of depression or general sadness.
For me, it started around the age of 13. I was already dealing with bouts of insomnia and needed help falling asleep. So, to occupy my mind I would lie there and script stories. Initially, these stories were about some boy I had a crush on. There, in the safety of my room and mind; I was sought after, pursued, and cherished.
Stories of a school-girl crush eventually morphed into “dreams” of a time when I lived on my own and was in control of what I did and liked. Because I would ultimately fall asleep, the next night I would rewrite, edit, and sometimes even repeat. I would escape into a familiar story line that featured and starred me.
What’s so bad about that you may ask? Well, if we look at the definition above, we see that it involves a distraction and relief from reality. As a teenager and the oldest of four children, I was keenly aware of the family’s relational and financial concerns. Sleep couldn’t come quick enough some nights. A need for safety and control prevailed most nights.
Sometimes the unpleasantness of our lives is due to boredom and routine. We wish we’d made different decisions about a job, a house, or the city where we live. With escapism; we can have more money, be in love with handsome or gorgeous partners, and have obedient and successful children. In our scripted worlds, we decide how far things will go, who goes, and who stays.
Again, there is nothing wrong with allowing our minds to dream up scenarios in which we are successful, competent, and on point. No, this can serve as a form of positive self-talk and can encourage us to try new things and think outside the boxes we find ourselves stuck in. In fact, taking time away from others and from our devices to dream forward, can provide a welcomed break from what attempts to zap us of our energy.
Please hear me clearly, daydreaming in and of itself is not all bad. But when used to sidestep issues that we are not actively attempting to solve… well that’s something else entirely. Escapism comes in many forms. Books, television, video games, scrolling (and trolling) social media… are designed to help us step away from what is in front of us. Who wouldn’t rather play a game on their phone than clean the bathroom?
So, what are the dangers of escapism? Before I knew of the term “maladaptive daydreaming,” I had already questioned how thinking of a future designed to my liking was impacting my current connections. Is it possible that my ability to edit and perfect the future I hoped for was interfering with the future I was being equipped for? In addition to absorbing time we could devote to other activities; without monitoring, daydreaming can become a shell in which we hide. It becomes a prison wall, encasing us from what’s real and authentic.
Like most addictive behaviors, daydreaming too has a root. For many that root is rejection. Rejection can convince us that “out there” isn’t a safe place. Our desire to belong and be accepted is downplayed; leading to social isolation. Daydreaming, as a substitute for face-to-face interactions, is where we are the writer, executive producer, and leading star of our scripted lives.
How to Combat Maladaptive Escapism:
- Identify what you’re attempting to avoid – Are you in a situation or relationship that is unhealthy or undesired? Begin to brainstorm realistic ways you can overcome that situation. But instead of just manufacturing it all in your mind, write down the different ways. Determine which can be enacted immediately… and then do them. Are there classes you can take? Is there a conversation that needs to take place? Should you enlist the help of a counselor or life coach? Is there a social group that can support the changes you need to make?
- Create “Real Life” moments – Look for social events that will get you out of the house and out of your head. Say yes to invites from friends and make sure you attend them. This could also be as simple as, stopping to look around to make mental note of what is around you. Don’t develop stories about those you pass, just observe and note: “She’s standing at the bus stop.” “He’s wearing a blue sweater and gray pants.” “They are smiling as they walk and talk.” “Today is a sunny day.”
- Identify the theme of your daydreams – Do many of your fantasies involve you being rescued? Or, are you the rescuer? Is there a consistent theme involving you being recognized or ridiculed? Does your daydreaming have to do with possessing more money, more fame, or more friends? Explore the reasons behind these. Is there a story of abuse, abandonment, or lack in your past? What were you taught about love and being loveable? Again, this may be something a counselor or life coach can assist you with.
In case I haven’t said it enough; this is not to discount the benefits of taking some time away from our day-to-day lives to dream up the lives we desire. Experts say moments like these have a way of recharging us and help us move forward with hope and expectation.
Yet, escapism has the potential of being harmful. Deadlines are missed because instead of developing the presentation, we get carried away in our thoughts about our ability to wow the audience. Or, we psyche ourselves out of accepting the invitation to present because we have imagined every possible negative outcome.
The next time your mind begins to wonder, stop and ask yourself, “Is this helpful? And, does this help me right now?” If not, blink a few times, take a few deep breaths, and look your real-life situations square on. Then attack them like the capable person you are!