Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Can You Be Fulfilled by Desire? Three Illuminating Examples

Sometimes, your brain can offer you what reality can't.

“The only thing worse than not getting your heart’s desire is getting it.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Consider that—quite literally—your dreams are comprised of visual and auditory hallucinations. But thoroughly “wrapped up” in them, you can’t help but experience them as real. Fantasy and reality are no longer separable: they’re fused, indistinguishable. And in your most pleasurable dreams, as Freud originally postulated, what’s being dramatized is the fulfillment of a personal wish. When you have such an ideal—or idealized—dream (and frankly, not many dreams fit Freud’s oversimplified schema), you may experience a certain euphoria. Upon awakening, too, you may feel not only refreshed in body but in mind, emotion, and spirit as well.

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In short, while immersed in a pleasing fantasy your unconscious desires can be effortlessly, wondrously realized. Yes, it may be nothing more than an illusion. Still, it’s experienced as real. After all, you both saw it and heard it. And you didn’t just witness the “drama” engineered by your unconscious, you actually participated in it.

So the question becomes: Can waking, conscious desires also contain within them their own fulfillment? Can an object of longing somehow be “captured” through the very act of creatively desiring it?—or daydreaming about it? I’d argue that it definitely can: That, to whatever degree, a desire—or more precisely, fantasies about this desire—can be inherently fulfilling.

My only caveat here would be that, though self-generated, the object of your desire must be well-imagined. For the vicarious enjoyment, or sense of fulfillment, being sought is available only when it’s creatively conceived and successfully made real inside your own head. And here, of course, we’re not talking about objective reality but a purely subjective one. Yet I’ve little doubt that readers will agree that virtually all fulfillment is best understood subjectively. It’s a deeply personal experience varying with the individual’s preferences, values, and ideals.

Desire itself can be viewed in terms of wanting, or longing for. And the essence of what I’m trying to describe lies in cultivating a dream-like ability to transform such wanting into having. For once you discover how, inwardly, to make your desire “real” for yourself—that is, by making a “play” or “production” of it—you can have the gratifying experience of actually possessing it. It’s similar to professional actors’ becoming so engulfed in their roles that they come to exemplify, or “get lost in,” them. Their deliberately masquerading as someone else enables them to experience as actual that which, realistically, is bogus. And when interviewed, many actors have explicitly alluded to this surreal phenomenon.

Here I’ll discuss three examples of this cuious, but not uncommon, anomaly. And you yourself might  consider whether you could achieve a certain fulfillment through focusing more vividly than before on some object of your desire. For what you can’t (or can’t yet) obtain objectively may well be within your grasp subjectively.

1. My first example, frankly, is so obvious as to be rather mundane. Yet because it’s so easy for most people to relate to, it may be best to start with it. Singer and songwriter Billy Joel perhaps characterized it most pointedly in the flagrantly sexual lyrics to his “Sometimes a Fantasy”:

It's just a fantasy
It's not the real thing
. . .
But sometimes a fantasy
Is all you need.

If you’re yearning to take an “erotic vacation” from your various responsibilities and you have a good visual imagination (and possibly arousing pictures or videos to boot), you can experience yourself making love (as in, having the wildest, most abandoned sex imaginable) with whomever you please. And in fantasy none of the normal hindrances of reality—which might inhibit the full expression of your eroticism—need apply.

Assuming that you’re self-stimulating during your unbridled fantasy of carnal fulfillment, you might just reach a climax of unprecedented proportions. In your imagination able to visualize yourself in such an electrified scene of sexual coupling, your auto-erotic act of self-pleasuring is capable of leading to a consummation (or, to be biochemical about it, dopamine release) beyond anything you'd  earlier experienced.

Was it, therefore, real? Of course not . . . but in a sense it was, too. For in your “mind’s eye,” it was all taking place—and, in fact, your body reacted to your expertly-imagined scenario as though it really was happening. In other words, your well-rehearsed desire might be seen as generating a miraculously turned-on experience that your physical being did actually respond to as “the real thing.” And so in terms of real-life outcomes, actual libidinal fulfillment and imagined fulfillment might be indistinguishable.

In certain instances, such fulfillment might even be experienced as superior to the real thing in that life sometimes has a peculiar way of complicating erotic situations so as to decrease or mitigate their excitement. Unquestionably, in ideal circumstances this isn’t the case. But the point I wish to make is that the human brain can create such ideal (though “two-dimensional”) scenarios at will, thus making the dramatization of desire itself the instrument of fulfillment.

2. What if (in contrast to the above example) you yearn to take an exotic vacation?—say, to Tahiti; Bora Bora; or some remote, pristine island. But you’ve neither the time nor funds to indulge in such an idyllic getaway. Have you searched YouTube or NetFlix to explore what picturesque features they might offer to facilitate your at least taking a vicarious vacation?

Again, all that might be needed to experience (or “get into”) the fantasy of being in such an Arcadian paradise is your imagination. If you did in fact rent a video of what, in reality, you’d find enchanting and then proceeded to immerse yourself in the glorious, scenic images before you (hopefully, on a giant-size TV!), you might well be able to “capture” for yourself this enticing experience. Though at a remove, the very portrayal of your desire might offer you fulfillment of what, realistically, simply isn’t tenable for you.

It’s really quite similar to the technique of visualization. So if, for instance, you close your eyes and imagine yourself lying supine on a beautiful, private beach—listening to the surf and the distant sounds of sea gulls; smelling the fresh salt air; feeling the sun and balmy breeze gently caress your body; and luxuriating in the pleasant tactile sensations of warm sand slipping through your finger tips—you may experience a relaxation and comfort closely replicating the actual experience of being on such a (well-imagined) beach. So again, creatively “simulating” your desire can enable you, vicariously, to achieve it.

3. What about a dream job that, at least presently, can only be a dream—and maybe a far-fetched one at that? Say (to borrow from a previous example) you fantasize being the main character (heartthrob?) of a major motion picture? In your head, can you “stage” such a reality? vividly depict yourself in such a romanticized role? I’d suggest that, with a little effort, most of us would have little problem embarking on such a fantasy. (For, quite naturally, we probably all did this as children.)

And if we engage in such a whimsical daydream, the result would probably be richly entertaining. In life, the roles we get to play are undoubtedly limited. The conditions of time and place, matters of personal appearance and talent, connections and resources, all combine to markedly restrict real-life possibilities. Yet our unachievable desires can be fulfilled through our imagination—which knows no limits and need not subscribe to any reality-bound obstructions.

To conclude, your not-very-realizable desires don’t have to lead to a bothersome sense of deprivation. Instead, you can compensate for what’s not viable for you by finding creative ways of “realizing” your desires in the private world of your imagination. Just remember: you can’t really desire something without identifying yourself as in possession of it. In steeping yourself in your wishful fantasies, what you covet you can already have. So rather than center on the futility of your dreams, why not envision yourself real-izing them? Why be limited by the inevitable constraints of reality when (day)dreaming about your desires can afford you the possibility of—however fictively—fulfilling them?

And if it’s sometimes true, as Oscar Wilde opined, that “the only thing worse than not getting your heart’s desire is getting it,” then purposefully desiring what in the real world is unobtainable ensures that what you yearn for will never be diminished, or compromised, by actually attaining it.

Note 1: As I discussed in an earlier, two-part post, “The Double-Edged Sword of Desire,” this fascinating emotion is “laden with the most intriguing contradictions.” If you’re interested in further exploring the subject, here are the links to Parts 1 and 2.

Note 2: Additionally, if you found this post of interest and think others might as well, please consider sending them its link. And if you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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