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Maladaptive Daydreaming: When We Live in Our Imaginations

Retreating into one's fantasies is a maladaptive behavior.

Key points

  • Maladaptive daydreamers spend too much of their time fantasizing.
  • Reality never lives up to fantasy, so maladaptive daydreamers frequently retreat from it.
  • Only comparing your life to your ideal leaves you feeling frustrated and unhappy.
  • Because we're bad at predicting happiness, it can be worth trying something you think you won't enjoy.

Perfectionism is at once idealistic and cynical.

On the one hand, it entails a childlike imagination, with detailed visions of utopias. On the other, a total disenchantment with life. Some of us can bounce from obsessive attempts at fixing the broken world to retreating into our minds, where our frustrations are magically transformed into more desirable feelings, kind of like what so many expect from therapy. This version of fantasy is called maladaptive daydreaming, which is an excessive preoccupation with the cultivated worlds in one's mind. Maladaptive daydreaming is associated with a sense of hopelessness and an inability to tolerate even minor inconveniences. The individual, here, perpetually feels dissatisfied with life, as few of its aspects can ever live up to his hopes for it.

Imagine living a life wherein unless it reached its full potential, you would die disgusted by its existence. This describes how perfectionists experience themselves, which stems from the extremes of upbringing.

Many people use fantasy to escape the harshness of daily life, believing that, someday, their magical, future lives will offset past and chronic abuse and neglect. Others use it to escape from the suffocating pressures placed on them by doting parents, who wouldn't settle for having ordinary sons and daughters; they believe they deserve, and owe it to their families, to be and have the best. For each of these perfectionists, fantasy offers a respite from what is and could be, from the inevitable disappointments that intensify and transform into devastations. Maladaptive daydreaming is a contradiction, or paradox to be more precise. As it affords one the blueprint for better days, it stains each victory and emotional connection. As the tide of the dopamine rush recedes, and a new psychological normal is unwittingly made (the adaptations of the hedonic treadmill), the perfectionist tendency to disqualify what's in one's lot resurfaces, helping the brain to wash away past glory. Good may be the enemy of great, but greatness is the enemy of serenity.

Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams, in describing some of the proclivities of perfectionists, writes, “There is a constant “ranking” process that narcissistic people use to address any issue that faces them: Who is the “best” doctor? What is the “finest” preschool? Where is the “most rigorous” training? Realistic advantages and disadvantages may be completely overridden by concerns about comparative prestige.” Here, the implication is that the apparent best may be deceptive, as we tend to overvalue and undervalue the wrong things, our conclusions being based on a short-sighted and distorted lens. Ultimately, we are not great at predicting what will make us happy; perfectionists are exceptionally bad at it.

Narcissism, in a nutshell, is an inability to adequately care for oneself. Doing what’s best for oneself isn’t synonymous with having and or being the best.

Nothing comes close to the perfectionist's exacting standard, so everything then must be discarded. She fails to notice how she may receive love and happiness because they don't perfectly fit her dreams. She, sometimes, contorts the world to fit them, or attempts to. At others, she vehemently rejects it, giving the universe the middle finger on her way back to her own mind.

A patient of mine, who's a self-described perfectionist, gave me a fitting analogy. She said she was set on getting to work at a particular time. As she was rushing, she decided to overtake two individuals in front of her. Immediately after she did, she was stopped by a red light, which allowed them to catch up to her. She learned a life lesson, she said, realizing that regardless of how hard you try, bad luck may always thwart your efforts; you can't create the perfect life. Nor is it owed to you, at least not in any practical sense.

There are no easy solutions here. But there are some you can try if daydreaming has overtaken your life. You can consider dating and being friends with people who don't fit your ideal, resolving to consider whether those relationships are worth having, despite their flaws, while you're in them. You can continue to explore who has the life you envision and ask yourself if you're accurately assessing that individual's degree of life satisfaction; we tend to only compare our negatives to another's positives, consistently failing to do the opposite. And we can remind ourselves that our overthinking will never stop. After enough examination (based on similar experiences, judging that thinking deeper will likely yield minimal returns and that not acting will be more consequential), one of my patients with OCD, told me he just does what he needs to do. By this I mean, he makes decisions and evaluates them on the go. This was something he had to continuously try doing over the years before becoming more comfortable with it; he started with, what he judged to be, inconsequential choices.

Often, due to catastrophic thinking, perfectionists believe that one decision precludes others, which is true, but more so, that it precludes the possibility of pure joy, as though it's just waiting for them. With my dreamers, I have them compare the lives they want with those who have them. Most of the time, they realize, there are no good and bad lives (generally); there's just life, with its myriad of trade-offs, annoyances, and, yes, even joys.

The maladaptive daydreamer might try and sit with her unwanted emotions, like boredom, frustration, and sadness, and discuss them, rather than evade them. Because of the low frustration tolerance, it can be hard to not only experience them but to also share them. Often, the daydreamer believes sharing them "makes them worse," which, just as often, isn't true, at least not in any long-term and substantial way. As the dreamer increases her ability to talk about and feel her feelings (and even consider them to be warranted), they begin to appear less frightening, making it less and less likely that she'll need to desperately cling onto her daydreams.

Pixabay AI-generated-8502060
Source: Pixabay AI-generated-8502060
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