Lack of Control and Maladaptive Daydreaming

Recently I received an e-mail from Laura who told me something I've heard many, many times before. She told me that she has always been a daydreamer and quite enjoyed it. She never really thought that deeply about it.

But then Laura went off to college, felt pressure from her parents and peers alike, and found herself retreating into her daydreams. Like many maladaptive daydreamers, she didn't know that her daydreams were becoming maladaptive. She didn't really think about the fact that her daydreams were now taking up hours of her day and blocking her from doing projects, preparing for exams, and critically thinking about what she wanted to do in the future.

Instead, Laura beautifully articulated how her maladaptive daydreams allowed her to fill the "empty space" in her days. Because Laura felt so much pressure to be doing something in college that she wasn't really interested in, maladaptive daydreaming provided her a way to:

  1. Not think too much about what was going on in her real life
  2. Live out a fantasy in which she was doing something entirely different with her life

After failing an exam Laura began to think about what went wrong. She didn't feel like she had that many outside commitments so was almost puzzled as to how she could have failed after doing so well in high school.

What Laura soon realized was that she was engaged in daydreams for four or five hours a day - often during the peak productivity hours of the day - and was pushing aside what she should really be doing to ace her exams.

Lack of Control Leads to Maladaptive Daydreaming

As I've stressed in nearly every post on this site, there is no one "thing" that leads someone toward maladaptive daydreaming. For some it's trying to escape trauma, for some it's boredom, for some it's trying to escape a feeling of lack of control. 

The beautiful (and seductive) thing about maladaptive daydreaming is that it is something that is purely a manifestation of your mind. You control how your daydreams unfold and the narratives that are pursued.

Laura's story isn't atypical. In fact, it's quite common. Often when we feel stress about the path that our lives are taking and that we don't really control the way our life is unfolding, we turn to what we can control most.

For maladaptive daydreams - almost all of whom have very creative personalities - it's quite obvious to turn to daydreams because you can make them into whatever you want.

Laura dreamed about becoming a writer as opposed to pursuing pre-medical studies like her parents and peers were trying to force her to do. She created elaborate narratives about how being a writer would make her feel and what she would do.

The Creation of Cognitive Dissonance 

Unfortunately for Laura and maladaptive daydreamers like her, when you use maladaptive daydreams in order to escape a lack of control this creates a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is meant to describe the mental strain that occurs when you hold two conflicting views. For Laura, she dreamt of being a successful writer which was greatly enjoyable while she was in the midst of her maladaptive daydreamers. However, when she returned to the real world - studying her pre-med subjects - she was met with the grim reality of a life far different than her idealized one. 

Laura described the anguish and heartache she felt when she realized that her maladaptive daydreams were not only making her feel bad afterwards (because her life was so different than what was present in her dreams), but also that her daydreams were making her real life more difficult.

Like many people who find this site, Laura took the maladaptive daydreaming test and realized that her daydreams were likely more than the run-of-the-mill daydreams that nearly everyone has.

So Laura took action and decided to utilize some of the techniques and tricks I've discussed in order to try to get rid of her maladaptive daydreams. Further, Laura decided to think deeply about how much she wanted to be a writer and tried to create a real-world action plan to dip her toes into the water.

Ultimately, Laura decided to continue on her pre-med studies and take a few English courses to see if the practice of writing really lived up to her expectations. Ironically, Laura felt like this gave her much more motivation to do her pre-med studies as well as she no longer felt the need to be engaged in maladaptive daydreams now that she was actively writing for her college classes.

As of right now, Laura has changed her views a bit. She's taken a number of classes in English and has recognized that no one becomes a brilliant, widely praised writer overnight. Instead, Laura now sees that perhaps the best pathway forward is to try to become a doctor and then write about medicine on the side (as many successful doctors do, like Atul Gawande).

Part of what makes maladaptive daydreams so pernicious - especially for those like Laura who turn to it due to a lack of control - is that it sets up an idealized world far from your own. 

In reality, life is going to have ups and downs no matter what you do. By Laura taking a small but decisive step toward trying to live out the subject of her maladaptive daydreams she was able to see that dropping out of school to go become a writer was neither realistic or worthwhile.

Instead, she was able to practically get exposure to the good and bad aspects of being a writer and focus her energies on writing as opposed to daydreaming about writing. 

I told Laura that her story was common - especially for high-achievers who feel lots of parental or peer pressure in school - and that she should expect to frequently feel to allure of maladaptive daydreams in the future. As I mentioned in the introduction, creative people just seem to engage in maladaptive daydreams more than other people. It's almost like a tax on creativity.

Like I also mentioned in the introduction to this post, people are drawn into maladaptive daydreams for many different reasons. For Laura it was a feeling that her life was being prescribed to her -- that she had no control over her future and that it was being dictated by other people.

I hope for some this story helps to shine a light on one of the many ways maladaptive daydreaming can manifest. As always, I wish you the very best of luck in your journey!

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