“The mind has a mind of its own.”
If your mind has ever latched onto an upsetting thought and not let go, you know the truth of this old saying. Upsetting thoughts sometimes even reach the level of obsessions, defined as “repeated, persistent and unwanted urges or images that cause distress or anxiety.”
But can losing yourself in happy fantasies ever cause distress? Can delightful scenarios that you spin in your mind become uncontrollable obsessions and cause harm?
I began thinking about this when Powerball Fever struck the American population recently. By the time this blog post is published, you may know the winner(s) of the fattest Powerball purse in history. Meanwhile, I’ve listened to many otherwise sensible people tell stories about what they would do if they won. And why not? It’s fun to play, “If I were rich.” You can speculate about what you might give to yourself, your family, your friends, and your favorite charities. You could even fill your bathtub with money and bathe in it like Scrooge McDuck! Hey, it’s your money!
Daydreams and Fantasies: The Upside and the Dark Side
“What’s the harm of daydreaming?” you may ask. Well, usually none. In fact, daydreams and fantasies not only provide fleeting pleasures; they can also teach us valuable lessons. Your reveries may provide clues to your personal and career goals, for example. You can rehearse and invent dramas that could actually help you cope with a variety of real-life situations. You could get a vision for how to re-organize your house, write a novel, invent a new tool, or make a unique contribution to humankind. The energy from a good fantasy can also provide motivation to take action.
But what if your rose-colored fantasies become obsessive, addictive, unmoored from reality, or could lead you to violate the rights of others? Here are four types of common happy fantasies experienced by almost everyone that can also have a dark side.
Winning the Powerball lottery, the jackpot at the casino, the poker game—you’re feeling lucky!
The upside: Just thinking about being wealthy can be a pleasure in itself. By deciding how you would spend your imaginary treasure, you could even learn something about yourself, your values, and your commitments.
The dark side: Dreaming about how you’ll spend your Powerball fortune could cause you to buy more tickets than you can really afford, distract you from the real demands of work and personal life, cause procrastination, and let you down hard when you don’t win. Worse, gambling can become an addiction. People have destroyed their finances, careers, family life, and personal integrity by neglecting everything else for the thrill of chasing a big payout.
You are trying to quit cigarettes/alcohol/drugs. But you have a craving. You tell yourself, “I remember how much _______ (insert favorite substance here) helped when I felt stressed out. Oh, those were the days!” Then you decide to visit your friend Bob who, coincidentally, still indulges in your favorite substance.
The upside: You start to remember how much you enjoyed the addictive drug... wait a minute. There's very little upside here because the potential dark side is enormous.
The dark side: Your cravings could bring you to the doorway of relapse, with all the risks that entails. Please read the Detox section immediately!
Success and Achievement Fantasies
The upside: Imagining that “You… Are… The American Idol!” can be harmless fun that will give you a brief experience of joy. Other fantasies can be equally enthralling—daydreaming about winning a 10K, finding a publisher for your novel, or gaining fame and admiration for your start-up business. These fantasies can become real for a happy few, a guide to authentic interests for others, or just low-cost self-created entertainment. Look for career clues hidden in those fantasies. You’ve got to have a dream!
The dark side: It’s natural to have glorious fantasies of success. The downside is usually small. But sometimes there is a cost to daydreaming too much. Are your fantasies keeping you from making realistic career choices? Are you substituting fantasy for genuine forward steps in your personal or professional life?
Crushes and Sexual Fantasies
The upside: The high of falling in love. Intoxicating sexual fantasies. A fantasy lover who is perfect in every way. Sometimes these fantasies fill you with energy, creativity, and ideas for self-improvement so that you can become more worthy of your imaginary beloved. If you and your crush are both single, these feelings could be the “start of something big,” as the old song says.
The dark side: Although “...a person has a right to any feeling, fantasy, or thought,” some sexual fantasies can get out of control, as psychologist Elizabeth Powell points out here. If your fantasies get too strong or disturb you, check in with a therapist. If you have a fierce crush on someone who is unavailable, there’s a danger that you might withdraw energy from your real relationships. A few people become unhinged because of their crushes, like the astronaut who tried to kidnap her rival. Of course, anyone with thoughts of harming themselves or others should make the call to a mental health professional or crisis hotline ASAP.
3 Ways to Detox
Here are three ways to cool down those pleasurable thoughts that have gotten out of control:
1. Mental Detox
If your “harmless” daydreams and fantasies start to take on an obsessive quality, they can become just as disturbing and harmful as anxiety-laden obsessions. To dim some of those all-too-vivid fantasies, try the mindfulness suggestions below:
- Rather than trying to control your mind, observe it in action and remind yourself that your fantasies are just thoughts. You can even murmur the phrase, “just thoughts,” to yourself to underscore the idea.
- Label your repeating fantasy. Your label can be simple like, “Romantic getaway.” Add a number for how many times you estimate that you’ve had this fantasy: “Romantic getaway fantasy, Number 102.” “Powerball fantasy, 501,” you could tell yourself. Labels reduce the intensity of your feelings and activate the rational side of your brain (as described in this research).
- Combine self-compassion with a little tough love. It's natural to want to love and be loved, feel good, and have money and success. Give yourself some kindness for these all-too-human yearnings, but don't let the dark side take over.
- Realize that the mind likes to invent stories and fantasies. Remind yourself that you don’t need to identify with your upsetting daydreams and stories. They are not you!
- For cravings, remind yourself that cravings last only 5-15 minutes. They will pass if you just wait them out. Meanwhile, use the "5 Ds" — delay, distract yourself, drink a glass of water, discuss the cravings with a friend, or deeply breathe.
2. Talking Detox
If your fantasies are causing mental suffering, and you can’t seem to control them with self-help, try some "other-help." Talk to someone, whether a friend, the people in a 12-step group, or a therapist. Learn why your fantasies are plaguing you right now. Are you having a temporary problem or is there a deeper issue?
3. Behavioral Detox
Since the mind has a mind of its own, you may not always be able to control your thoughts. But you can decide to control your behavior.
- Avoid any people, places, or things that tend to trigger the pleasurable but addictive thoughts. Don’t fall for the “cover-up thoughts” that disguise your urge to indulge in an addiction. (“I haven’t seen my old friends from the bar for a while. I’ll just drop by for a minute to see how they’re doing.”)
- Re-arrange your environment so that temptation is reduced.
- For success fantasies, ask yourself what you would need to do to make your success fantasy a reality. Sign up for a class? Take voice lessons? Talk to someone in a potential career field? Read a book? Take one small step forward.
- Instead of obsessing, pour some of the fantasies you are having about your crush into making your current relationship better or more exciting. Or, use that erotic energy to meet new people or start a creative project.
Balancing Fantasy and Reality
Fantasies and daydreams can be soothing, fun, and/or thrilling. They can often lead us to understand and act on our deepest values, desires, and goals, propelling us toward a more meaningful life. But some pleasurable fantasies can morph into obsessions or even become addictions.
Psychiatrist Ethel Person summarizes the positives and negatives of daydreams and fantasies this way: “Fantasies are indispensable to having a fulfilled life, yet there has to be a happy medium. Without fantasies your life is impoverished. If you're flooded with fantasies, there's no reality. You need fantasy, but there has to be a way to put the brakes on.”
A mind in flow, with the right balance between reality and fantasy, might be a greater treasure than a Powerball jackpot.
How have you coped with runaway fantasies? Can you think of other types of happy fantasies that might have a dark side? Please share in the comments.
© Meg Selig, 2016
If you liked this post, you might enjoy my posts on these topics:
- “3 Ways to Stop Imagining the Worst”
- “Why Saying Just One Word Can Calm Runaway Emotions”
- “13 Small Decisions That Will Ease Anxiety”
Scroll through my book Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.
"Fantasies are indispensable." E. Person, “The Good and Bad of Indulging in Fantasy and Daydreaming.”
"A person has a right to any feeling, fantasy, or thought." E. Powell (1991), Talking Back to Sexual Pressure (CompCare Publishers).