Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, and fantasy ain’t just a genre of literature!
Like denial, fantasy is a universal human experience. When we’re children, fantasy is widely accepted and encouraged. Many of us use it daily, often as part of play: playing dress up, playing house, playing doctor/patient, etc. When we’re adults, however, fantasy is often discouraged, even criticized. We may hear that our goals are “too lofty,” our ideas are “too extra,” or our creative process is “too slow”; what we’re really being told is that our fantasies are not acceptable.
Whether society wants to recognize it or not, fantasy is actually a part of healthy human functioning throughout the entire lifespan. As with most things, though, it has its pros and cons.
The possible pros of fantasy are numerous.
For one, it allows us to move beyond what is and explore what could be. In children, this might look like imagining that a cardboard box is a house, or that we’ll be an astronaut when we grow up; in adults, it might look like imagining a new technology, or a different social system for future generations. Regardless of age, fantasy seems to be a necessary part of making progress.
Second, it provides what is, for many, a much-needed break from reality. Whether we engage in fantasy through our thoughts—like day/night dreaming or imagining our future—or actions—like watching tv/a movie or going to Disneyland—it tends to take up the majority of our attention! This means we are paying less attention to the things in our own lives that may be painful or even harmful to our wellbeing, like a boss whom we just can’t seem to satisfy or an abusive partner.
Third, it serves as an outlet for our wants and needs, both conscious and unconscious. Though the connection may not always be clear, the content of our fantasies usually coincides with a want or need that has not been fulfilled in the past or is not being fulfilled in the present. Knowing this, we can sometimes use our fantasies to check in with ourselves, identify our want(s)/need(s), and find realistic ways to fulfill them.
The possible cons of fantasy typically come about when we are not able to balance it with reality.
If we become overly reliant on, or even trapped in, our fantasies, they can become contributors to maladaptive functioning and/or mental health concerns. On the less extreme end of the spectrum of fantasy’s possible cons, it can lead to distorted beliefs about ourselves and others. These beliefs may be positive or negative (e.g. “I am the greatest therapist that has ever lived,” or, “that person didn’t hire me because they’re out to get me”), but either way, they can lead to issues with self-esteem and social relationships. If this occurs consistently, we may experience things like depression or social anxiety. If our beliefs about ourselves and others start to become automatically organized around our fantasies, i.e., we cannot balance them with observations from reality, this can lead to more severe cons like personality disturbances. And, on the most extreme end of the spectrum of cons, we may experience psychosis if we lose the ability to discern what is fantasy and what is reality.
Thankfully, many of us will never experience the most extreme end of this spectrum due to our genetic loading, life circumstances, etc. So, the question becomes, how do we capitalize on fantasy’s pros and minimize its cons?
Ideally, we would balance welcoming fantasy into our daily lives with grounding ourselves in our present reality. If this seems foreign, overwhelming, or even impossible for you, therapy can offer a safe space to explore and practice!