Living An Alternative Life

Several weeks ago we discussed the differences between maladaptive daydreaming and immersive daydreaming.

Part of the issue with discussing maladaptive daydreaming is that daydreaming is a part of everyone's life. In fact, it's incredibly rare for someone not to daydream and they are generally worse off as a result. 

There are, of course, a number of different things in which one can generally daydream about.

Daydreaming about changing careers, or what it would be like to date someone with a certain personality, can be incredibly adaptive. It helps you see the pros and cons of a situation without having to actually live through it.

On the other hand, daydreams can slip into the maladaptive realm when they take up hours of your day and are in no way helpful to your real life. This is why the MD test focuses so heavily on how abstract your daydreams are. 

There is an interesting middle ground between the daydreams I've described above, however. 

Daydreaming About Alternative Lives: Maladaptive?

When we are young we have thousands of potential ways in which our lives can unfold. We all recognize the fact that if we focus heavily on one particular area, we can likely end up being successful within it. 

However, as we get older certain ways in which our lives could unfold begin to dry up. We shared the story of Nick a few months ago who had maladaptive daydreams about playing in the National Football League (NFL), which he knew was absurd because he was too old to ever play professional football. 

A not uncommon type of daydream is about alternative lives that one could have lived, if only they went down a different pathway. My interest in these types of daydreams was spurred when I read an article from the New Yorker magazine last week (What If You Could Do It All Over?).  

An example of these kind of daydreams could be if you wanted to be a doctor for a few years while in college, but ended up switching to a different program. You may now be too old, too established in your career, etc. to possibly ever become a doctor.

But this raises the question: if you daydream about becoming a doctor often, even though that road is foreclosed, is that maladaptive?

You may think the answer is obviously yes. After all, if you can not become a doctor than daydreaming about the way your life could have unfolded is clearly not helpful to the "real" you. This is especially true if you're daydreaming about this for hours on end every day.

However, at the same time, I take a realist approach to maladaptive daydreams. I think that your daydreams are always trying to tell you something - or help you work through something - and what makes a daydream maladaptive is when things go a bit off the rail and your daydreams begin to consume an inordinate amount of your time.

To continue with our example, if you're deeply unhappy with what you're doing now - either in school or in work - and are daydreaming about the way your life could have unfolded, perhaps you should think about your daydreams more generally (not literally). 

By this I mean perhaps your daydreams are telling you about the attributes you wish you had now, that you believe you would have had if you pursued a different path. 

So if you daydream about what your life would have been like if you were a doctor, maybe what your subconscious is really telling you is that you wish you had the attributes of a doctor. Becoming a doctor isn't what is important, and it's not the reason why you're in this alternative reality, it's that you feel there are certain attributes you wish you had at present. 

I've recently spoken to someone who wanted to be a lawyer at a non-profit, but went down a more lucrative path (that didn't require becoming a lawyer). She has what are likely maladaptive daydreams where she envisions herself in this alternative career for hours on end. 

I've begun to think that she doesn't really care one way or another about being a lawyer. What she cares about is justice, and helping folks achieve justice when they are in difficult circumstances, and feels her current job has nothing to do with that. 

What Your Daydreams Tell You

Whenever possible it's a good idea to try to think about your daydreams through a rationalist mindset. Often your daydreams seem utterly devoid of rationality because they can often appear to be a bit absurd.

However, often there's some kernel of truth to your daydreams. If you daydream about what it would have been like to continue with your piano lessons and then become a professional pianist, perhaps it's not that you really care about piano, you just care about gaining mastery in some domain. 

The important point about daydreaming about alternative lives you could have had is to not let them consume you and to not let yourself regret what can not be changed.

Instead, you should strive to extract what valuable pieces of information exist within your daydreams (whether you think they are maladaptive or not).

Further, when you begin to think about your daydreams with a rationalist mindset you'll often find that they have much less of a "hold" over you. They suddenly become less alluring and less enticing as you understand why you are engaged in them to begin with. 

As always, best of luck.

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