I don't know if it's the March equinox or the hint of warmth in the air, but in the past week it seems that most of my clients have been facing important and difficult life choices. College seniors, of course, were struggling with questions about what they wanted to do and could do after graduation, difficult decisions in the best of times and painful in today's unfavorable job market. Other clients began to talk about conflicts about starting a family, and still others were trying to decide whether or not to stay in a relationship, job, and/or living situation.
Sometimes the process of talking to a neutral and nonjudgmental outsider, like a therapist, is enough to jump-start any individual's internal problem-solving system. But sometimes other tools are needed. That's when I encourage clients to turn to something that is generally not considered a useful activity: daydreaming.
The mundane and often maligned daydream, whether as simple as an image of a scrumptious meal or as complicated as an imagined argument with your boss, is actually an "internal monologue," according to Yale psychologist and author Jerome Singer. While some of these internal conversations can, of course, interfere with our ability to focus on a task at hand, a study conducted at Dartmouth suggests that our brains are hardwired to produce them and that they are necessary for healthy psychological functioning.
Several colleagues on this blogsite have discussed a number of the important functions daydreams perform in our lives. Susan K. Perry has described how "daydreams-to-order can unlock your creativity" and Amy Fries has written about the many ways these fantasies can enhance productiveness at work . Joseph Cardillo explains that they can even help you focus!
They can also help you make decisions. This does not mean that they are exact maps to your future. Instead, as I explained in a book I wrote awhile back, there are two ways that daydreams offer guidance to any decision. Sometimes we work things out in our daydreams without realizing it. According to the Dartmouth study, this is one of the silent functions that these supposedly useless thoughts provide. At other times, if we listen carefully, the imagistic conversations we are having with ourselves provide crucial information for making one choice over another.
There are two basic ways to enhance the brain's automatic use of these reveries to help you make a decision. One is to push an image or a story to a place where you have not taken it yet. This is a more guided kind of daydream, but not of the type that says that if you imagine it, it will happen. The second is to pay attention random daydreams to see what you useful data you can glean from them.
Here's an example of pushing a daydream to a new ending: Mary Lee* had graduated college the year before she started therapy with me. Her dream was to be an independent film maker, but she also needed to make money so that she could afford to take the steps she needed to follow that dream. She was a smart and hard working young woman and quickly found two possible jobs. Neither appealed to her, but both would pay her bills and leave her with time to pursue her goals. But she could not decide which offer to accept.
I asked Mary Lee to tell me everything she could about both jobs. She started with a list of pros and cons, but I encouraged her to fill out the pictures as fully as she could, giving me lots of details about each. When she had told me as much as she knew, I asked her if she could imagine herself into each of these settings. She nodded and looked thoughtful but did not say anything. It appeared to me that she was watching a daydream unfold in her mind's eye.
I asked her if she could tell me what she was thinking about. She said that she could totally see herself in one place. She had liked the people and felt that she could fit in with them. But in the other, she now realized, she would always feel that she did not belong. "I would like to be one of them, but I'm really so different from them. I felt awkward in the interview and I think that's how I would feel all the time if I was there."
The next questions she had to ask herself had to do with whether she wanted to go with the comfortable job or the one where she would feel out of step but might be challenged to grow and learn new skills. The answer to this one was easy: "I want to do my growing in my film work. I want my job to be easy enough so that it doesn't drain all my energy." She had made her decision.
Obviously not every decision is so directly or easily solved, even by using your daydreams as an aid. In my next posting, I will talk about a second way to use your inner reveries: by paying attention to random daydreams as they emerge, understanding what they mean symbolically. This does not mean looking for symbols like the ones in dream interpretation books, but instead trying to understand what your symbols mean to you. I'll explain how this works in my next post!
*All names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy of individuals and families.