An introduction and some thoughts
by Debbie Quackenbush, Ph.D.
Alcohol, sex, shopping, food: all require input from the outside. To maintain problematic usage, the human must acquire something. Not the case, when it comes to addiction to one’s internal fantasy-world. One’s fantasies are tucked away in their mind, to be accessed anytime, anywhere. Here is a fantasy definition from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (n.d.).
Definition of fantasy
(Entry 1 of 3)
1: the power or process of creating especially unrealistic or improbable mental images in response to psychological need an object of fantasy also:a mental image or a series of mental images (such as a daydream) so created sexual fantasies
A few researchers have studied daydreaming and fantasy. The consensus seems to be that nearly all humans daydream and have a mixture of both positively and negatively themed daydreams. Excessive daydreaming, however, can interfere with a person’s functioning and relationships. What has not been clearly spelled out is the clinical question of ‘how much is too much’? Excessive daydreaming does not have a formal diagnosis, but in the online forums of people who suffer from it , it has been labeled ‘Maladaptive Daydreaming’ or ‘M.D.’. Most of these individuals seem to define themselves as having the disorder based on how much time they spend daydreaming and on it negatively impacting their lives.
Normal fantasizing has numerous effects. On a positive note, it’s been shown to be good for one’s minds to wander to generate a creative solution to a problem when one is feeling stuck. However, in rarer cases, excessive (‘Maladaptive daydreaming’) fantasy becomes compulsive escapism that interferes with life functioning. Functioning problems can include problems with work, education, and/or interpersonal relationships.
I write this article because I have seen this phenomenon several number of times in my practice, and want to both destigmatize it, and educate about it. I will also suggest a pathway for treatment of it. Finally, even for people whose functioning does not suffer, I still believe it’s helpful to reflect on their use and function of fantasy in one’s life. I know that personally, my tendency toward optimism in the face of negative circumstances has blinded me to reality on occasion.
Some characteristics of problematic fantasy and the fantasizer:
Maladaptive daydreaming seems to develop in early childhood (ages 5 to 8) in children who are already prone to ‘daydreaming’. Sometimes, the child has been alone a lot (both parents work, and child is home alone for several hours each day in the afternoon) and invents an ‘imaginary friend’ to escape from painful loneliness. A couple of individuals that I have seen with these problems have either been only children, or people with much older or younger siblings that they didn’t grow up with because of significant age differences.
Another point I have noticed is that the themes of fantasy often seem to have clinical meaning—they represent something that the person is missing and/or is longing for. For example, if they feel powerless, they may imagine themselves as a character who performs heroic deeds. People for whom love was painful may develop fantasies where love is pure, simple, and ideal. I find that it’s useful to look at the content of the fantasy as a way of understanding where wounds lie.
Can fantasies compete with real life?
One problem that sometimes develops is that real life relationships may pale in comparison to fantasy relationships. Daydreamers find that their ‘real life’ friends and romantic interests, irritate and annoy them, or are not as attentive as their fantasy relations. Their fantasy relationships are 100 percent attuned to their emotional needs whereas actual relationships are messy and full of flaws. There are numerous cases (see the forum below, for example) where people state that they prefer to be with their fantasy friends over their actual ones.
The work of psychotherapy is provoking the feelings that arise when the fantasy is deliberately disallowed. When an alcoholic deliberately abstains from alcohol, powerful feelings often arise that the person believes to be intolerable. Exploring these feelings can help provide a better understanding about the triggers for the alcoholism and can also help the addict become more able to tolerate (rather than avoid) those feelings. In a similar vein, if one views fantasy as a ‘defense’ against painful feelings, one must peer under the defense to observe what lurks there. Ability to tolerate loneliness and pain, as well as to seek out adaptive measures to deal with these feelings (i.e., making real life relationships and creating an actual pleasurable life) can then be used to address deficits and wounds and eventually replace the use of fantasy.
I have noticed that some fantasizers function well at work, but are more likely to have problems in other ways– particularly in romantic relationships. Real life romance tends to fall short of their expectations and the real-life dating partners are compared unfavorably to the partners in their daydreams. The unsuspecting date is not aware that they are being measured against an impossible ideal.
Stigma and compassion
Maladaptive daydreaming, for reasons that may be obvious, is often very hidden. It can be easily missed by loved ones and therapists. The person can take it with them wherever they go and even in the middle of work meetings may summon up a fantasy to distract them from intolerable feelings of boredom or malaise. They may be filled with feelings of great shame for the complexity their inner life has taken up– names for characters and personalities are not unusual. They often tell no one.
As with all difficulties, this phenomenon should be approached with the utmost compassion and caring. Behind every defense lurks an equal dose of pain and suffering. Establishing a safe space to: 1) explore the function of the fantasy, 2) become more conscious of the fantasy, 3) begin choosing reality and 4) learn new coping skills, is critical.
As always, thanks for reading and feel free to reach out with your thoughts.
Debbie Quackenbush, Ph.D.
The Little White House
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Fantasy. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved August 3, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fantasy