Cathartic and Do-Over Daydreams

Feeling vengeful or aggrieved? Daydreams can provide relief and release.

Posted Jul 21, 2009

We've all had the experience when we've been in an argument with someone and then mentally rehash the conversation in a daydream, fine-tuning and improving our performance. In the fantasized version, we undoubtedly make the perfect comeback remark or score the debate-winning point. In these kinds of daydreams we're analyzing conversations, giving ourselves an ego boost in the face of a stressful event, and planning how we might better deal with a similar situation in the future.

These kinds of cathartic "do-over" daydreams help us blow off steam and deal with difficult emotions like shame, guilt, frustration, and anger. Such fantasies let us imagine a different outcome and process information that would otherwise be almost too much to take in. This past April, upon the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech Massacre--that sad, terrible day--I was struck by a Washington Post article about English professor Lucinda Roy, who had the misfortune of being the killer's tutor in the months leading up to the slaughter. Roy has since written a memoir of her experience, No Right to Remain Silent, and of her attempts to get him to counseling and failing in that effort.

Of course, she is endlessly haunted by the tragedy and tries to work it out in her daydreams: "At times, she daydreams she is on the Drillfield on April 16, runs into [the murderer] and persuades him to go with her. Perhaps he would kill just her. That would be better, she thinks. ‘Then it would be a tiny tragedy,'" reports the Post.

This is such a human experience, to play out different options in the mind's eye, even impossible options or options we would never choose in real life.

Sometimes these cathartic daydreams give us the do-over hope of performing better if granted a second chance while helping us process guilt and remorse. Other times, cathartic daydreams take a vengeful turn. And who among us can say they've never had a vengeance-is-mine inspired fantasy? The mystery writer Sue Grafton, for example, said in a Washington Post interview that she started writing murder mysteries to exorcise her hostility toward her ex-husband while in the midst of a nasty custody dispute. She got the ultimate two-for-one--venting her difficult emotions via daydreams and then using the vivid fantasies as inspiration for her fiction writing.

Of course, some people cross the line and make their hostile fantasies come true in ways we wish they wouldn't--think of the notorious Columbine killers who reportedly indulged in violent fantasies long before the act. Fortunately for most of us, these dark daydreams remain safely in our minds, allowing us to deal with and expel intense emotions. In fact, truly hostile daydreams only make up about 2% of our daydream material, according to psychologist Eric Klinger. If they tend to resonate more, it's because we're wired to remember those things that create a strong emotional reaction.

For more on daydreaming, check out my book [amazon 1933102691] or visit my website

Text © Amy Fries

Photo credit: Kline

More Posts