my experience with maladaptive daydreaming

Success and MD

I’ve always had this image of a successful person on my mind, largely informed by other people’s ideas of success. A successful person is healthy. A successful person has a lot of friends, and is worldly, and well-read, and smart, and attractive, and unique. A successful person is competent and wealthy. The exact traits can vary, but this general image is always on my mind, and infiltrates every facet of my life.

The way I judge success for myself is usually not based on how much I adhere to this image, for it is not really possible to do this since the image is vague to begin with and since the scale has no upper limit with no real epitome (i.e., you can always be more successful). But, rather, it is based on how much more I adhere to this image than other people, or how much more they adhere to it than me.

When I maladaptively daydream, I am actually always thinking of this idea of success. Sometimes, I am just maladaptively daydreaming out of loneliness, but even these instances are actually about success in my opinion. Or, at least, all my maladaptive daydreams have evolved into being about success at this point in my life. My earliest instances of MD were mainly about having friends because I didn’t have any in real life, particularly not at school. For example, in fifth grade, I would MD that the characters from Harry Potter were real people and my friends since I was obsessed with Harry Potter at the time. In seventh grade, I would MD that various characters from various shows and internet content I watched were real people and my friends. I think initially this was purely out of loneliness and my lack of close friendships. However, when I indulged in this same maladaptive daydream later in life (including now), it is more about “comparing how many friends I have and the quality of my friendships” with other people. Stated another way, maladaptive daydreaming to me is a coping mechanism in response to the attendant anxiety that results from my obsession with comparing myself to other people.

This is in stark contrast to many other accounts of maladaptive daydreaming I’ve read. Others who maladaptively daydream really are just lonely, or have overactive imaginations with a propensity for fantasy, characer, and world building. I share some of these traits, but over the years I really do feel like obsession with comparing myself to others is the predominant theme behind my MD. At the same time, the type of MDing I do here is extremely popular if you peruse any first-hand discussion on maladaptive daydreaming.

Since a young age, I remember being very jealous when finding out that someone, who I initially pegged to be a loner like me, actually had close friends or a lot of friends. And, a lot of this jealousy arises from conceptions about how cool or successful their friends are, which in my mind dictated the quality of said person’s friendships. For example, the feelings would intensify if I learned that this person was friends with attractive or smart people. I also remember being very jealous and confused (maybe even angry) when finding out that someone who was “good at school” or one of the smart kids had a lot of friends. This confused me because I believed I was good at school, and one of the smart kids. Yet, I didn’t have any friends. So, I thought that one cannot be attained without sacrificing the other, which was the only hypothesis which proved I am still “as successful” as other people while minimizing who is successful: i.e., this was a very roundabout and self-serving coping mechanism.

However, as I saw more people who are in fact smart and in fact have many friends, these two qualities became inextricably linked. So much so that “having friends” became an idea of success to me, and I would resent it in other people. This was because of a larger phenomenon where I resented success when it was not in me.

So, I daydreamed about success in both of these regards. I daydreamed that I was smart and attractive, because I lacked these things in my actual life. And I daydreamed that I had a lot of successful friends, and was renowned, because this was sorely lacking in my life.

And, it always felt to me like the daydreaming was “in response” to this imaginary version of the people I am jealous of judging me. I would see these people who I envied, who were smart and attractive and had a lot of friends. And, in my mind, they would be judging me and condescending to me, just like how I condescended on others who lacked the qualities that I possessed. I really hated the feeling of being judged like this, or the feeling that these other people knew how much of a loser I am. I even grew to hate being perceived by other people at all (or at least feeling that I am).

I think children and teenagers often get this kind of sentiment. They refuse to believe their doddering and bumbling parents understand anything about them. They have to be contrarians and listen to the loudest, most obnoxious and profane music. They refuse to believe that their mates at school can, with harsh and laser-like precision, quantify their exact place on the social pecking order. The pathological liar is often born in response, concocting the fake girlfriend who goes to a different school, writing the Mary Sue fan fiction where everyone claps to their prowess, going off about “sigma males” and obscure internet rabbit holes of which only they can cultivate expertise, while others remain plebeians.

My daydreams are a similar kind of “response” to judgment that a pariah does at this age. And, it’s an intensely bitter and pathetically self-comforting kind of response. It is like I am very desperately sending a plea to the outside world (maybe to myself): “Oh please, look at me! I am actually cool. I actually have friends! See? I am not such a loser!”.

Let me illustrate with some personal examples. However, before doing so, let me first clarify that although the tone of this post is getting very acerbic and everything is written in the first-person tense, everything I wrote above should actually be in the past-tense as MD doesn’t really afflict my life anymore thanks to steps I’ve taken which I’ll discuss later. If the tone here strikes you as overly cynical or negative, just understand I am indeed deliberately trying to convey that emotion because that’s the kind of emotional atmosphere that these obsessions propelled me towards.

  1. In high school, the other smart and successful kids who I perceived as my competition were all friends with each other, and less with me. I mean, they were more than genial to me, but we were always kind of detached and maybe I was just awkward or shy or just said too much weird out-there shit. But, this made me intensely bitter, and the green monster of jealousy lurking in my soul could only be abated by MD’ing myself into a fantasy world where I had more friends than them, and those friends were more attractive and smarter and successful in every regard, as was I (often and conveniently the most so in every regard).
  2. In high school, I had a crush on someone who had a crush on someone else, who I regarded as more successful than me. This made me intensely bitter, and I daydreamed that everything was reversed in the way one would hope.
  3. In college, I became jealous upon finding out that someone else my age knew more about math, or went to a better college, or was taking harder courses, or lifted weights, or literally any frivolously nonsensical point of comparison. I daydreamed that everything was reversed in the way one would hope.
  4. In grad school, the other grad students (who I perceived as my competition) were all more friendly to each other than to me. Yet again, they were more than genial to me, and clearly curious about who I am as well, but I could not help but be intensely jealous and MD myself into a world very similar to point (1) above. Sometimes, I would even just daydream that I was closer friends with them, and that I was the most popular and attractive and successful person in the group (and the world lol).

Do you see the pattern? The daydream always arises in response to some insecurity in real life. And it is always the same insecurity, one about how I am lacking in comparison to other people and how those other people might be perceiving me. Note that every single maladaptive daydream is not actually caused by anything in the real world, or the environment which surrounds me. There is not even a shred of empathy or curiosity exhibited for the other real people involved. Instead, it is an exercise of narcissism, and the most obnoxious and boring kind of narcissism, centered on how I am more successful than others.

Other Discussions on MD

I dislike the mainstream portrayals and impressions of maladaptive daydreaming, such as the movie “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” or this episode of the Invisibilia podcast. Yes, these portrayals do involve a similar kind of narcissism and self-centeredness as the kind I’m talking about here. And, they both acknowledge the pitfalls of spending too much time in the dream realm. But, I disagree with the messaging and implications therein which shows daydreams are for the most part just quixotic, but innocent and harmless, fleeting phenomena of the mind.

Instead, I contend that the type of MD I practice is actually seriously harmful to your mental well-being and detrimental to your ability to compassionately socialize with other people. For me, it’s not about going on adventures to other planets with quirky fictional characters. It’s not about creativity, or writing fiction in my mind. It’s unbridled narcissism, plain and simple.

What about as stories in and of themselves? In my opinion, just about every maladaptive daydream I’ve ever read or heard recorded (including mine own and others) possesses close to zero literary value and in fact would have a negative effect to anyone who naively consumed them, as they risk the reader associating with the obnoxious self-centeredness depicted in the story. Most are written like really bad fan-fiction, filled to the brim with wishful thinking and wish fulfillment.

For me, daydreaming is pure and wasteful self-absorption. There is not a single activity in my life that is anywhere close to being more narcissistic than daydreaming. The contents of the daydreams are always derivative, uninteresting, and completely predictable. Over time, it has made me extremely self-conscious, to the point where I will schizophrenically read even the most innocuous occurences as slights against my ego. It has made me preoccupied with success, in all the most vapid ways I define it, and with myself.

In fact, I’ll state this another way which may be more convincing to many. In recent years, I have become very enamored by the idea of mindfulness, with regards to personal development and self-therapy. Over the course of my life, I have thought about other forms of self-therapy, such as Christian prayer or self-denial or hyper-rationalism or frequent journaling, and none of those things came close to the idea of mindfulness in really properly and thoroughly addressing the key internal conflicts of my life. Mindfulness is, I have found, the only “way of viewing reality” or type of “levelheadedness” that goes well with my intuition on how to calmly behave in life. I learned what it was, in a formal “read about it in an article”-sense a very long time ago but only got around to actually start seriously practicing it recently. I’m still a beginner, but already I can see the value of it, as can many others since you can find it in many places where personal development and wellness are concerned. A full discussion of what mindfulness has done for me is for another post.

But, the point about MD is as follows. I cannot think of a single activity in my day to day life that is the furthest away from mindfulness as maladaptive daydreaming. For me, the two are polar opposites. Maladaptive daydreaming involves entering a trance where you are engaged with, and manifesting in your mind, whatever emotion you’re currently feeling as strongly as possible. I actually can’t think of another moment in life where you’re more absorbed by, and fully “living out”, your emotion than MD. Even when I’m occasionally very angry (see my post on anger), at least I’m still angry about something happening in reality and I’m tethered to the sensations of reality. To contrast, MD is a full untethering of any grounding to sensation or your present moment. It is a transportation of your self to an imaginal realm where your current emotion (usually anxiety) is maximally expressed and visualized. As a metaphor, MD is like “full-screening” your current emotion/anxiety and wrapping it all the way around your head so that it takes up every inch of your field of view, and there is no perception of anything else.

One can perhaps argue that it’s possible to MD “mindfully” as it’s possible to do anything mindfully. I concede this is true, but I think it’s unusually difficult to do this, more difficult than being mindful in other activities. The sheer emotional inertia of MD really just disallows contemplation in a way unlike other things.

The purported benefits of MD

People do argue that MD has some benefits, and I’ll address such claims as fairly as I can. I’ve already addressed the argument that it can lead to bursts of creativity and inspiration (read: narcissism should be avoided in creativity). And again all my discussion really pertains to the type of MD I introduced which comes about from anxiety and anti-social obsessions. If you really daydream purely about imaginary characters and stories, then maybe it can serve some benefit in your life.

The other argument I hear is that, because it is a proper coping mechanism for some kind of trauma or anxiety, it does serve a good in your life. It can soothe your worries about the future, or give you an optimism or self-confidence to deal with the problems in your life. I have definitely felt this in my life. When I’m doubtful about how I measure up compared to others, an MD session really instills in me a strong self-assuredness and a resounding belief that things will work in my favor.

But, in my opinion, these positive feelings that result from MD are unearned and escapist. They don’t come about from actually confronting the original trauma or anxiety, and instead bypass such tasks. So, it’s more akin to hedonistically taking a drug to get a momentary hit of bliss. In my opinion, self-confidence and optimism are not things that should come for free. They should only accompany making measurable progress in the things which bother you, or adequately addressing the very reasons for why you lacked self-confidence or optimism in the first place. Even something as vain as “gaining confidence in oneself because one exercises and loses weights and likes their appearance more” (which is not without its problems) is infinitely better than the unearned feelings resulting from MD. The former results in some understanding, however dim it may be, that your self-confidence is tied to your feelings about your appearance. On the other hand, MD just gives you self-confidence without just cause, which will lead to much more foolishness and self-centeredness.

At the same time, it’s shown in the few studies on MD that MD really is a confluence of various maladies and can be present in varying circumstances. Throughout this post, I’m speaking more to the type of people who have pure-O (“obsessive”) OCD, rather than people who exhibit MD from perpetual restlessness or the need for stimulation (e.g., people with ADHD). In any circumstance, I’m never saying MD is unambiguously the greatest harm in your life. No, it’s really just the manifestation of more serious problems in your life and so those should be addressed first. As such, I don’t “fault” anyone for repeatedly engaging in MD. It’s just an understandable symptom of more serious problems.