“The Difference Between Medicine and Poison is in the Dose" by Circa Survive
“Did you ever wish you were somebody else?" This line from one of my all time favorite songs is one that I think most people would have to answer with a “yes".
Who hasn’t, at one point or another, wished they had the badass martial arts skills of Bruce Lee, or the incredible panty-dropping charm of Californication’s Hank Moody?
It is a wonderful thing to have role models, and to emulate others in order to achieve similar results. That’s just smart.
But it is another thing entirely to want to be somebody else. There is a fundamental distinction between wishing to have certain qualities of another person and wishing to actually be that other person.
This desire to be another person is a form of escapism, which is a very unhealthy way of coping with the challenges in your life. The caricature of an unpopular nerd, heavily addicted to role-playing games, is a perfect example of this. Picture the character Augie from David Wain’s brilliant and hilarious film “Role Models".
But you need not be that far removed to experience the negative effects of shrinking away from reality. Escapism, or withdrawing from the pressures of the real world into a safer fantasy world, is pervasive in our culture. It comes in many forms, some rather subtle, and prevents us from doing what we need to do to improve the circumstances of our real lives.
Why We Construct a Fantasy World
The ultimate “goal" of escapism is the destruction of “self". If you have an aspect of your life that you want to escape from, your fantasies act as a means of dissociating your mind from the “you" that possesses these qualities. With enough repetition, you come to view yourself as a totally separate entity from the one that has these negative traits or circumstances. Only in rare instances does it get so extreme, but partial destruction of the “self" and dissociation are quite common.
When we practice escapism, we are trying to avoid “spending time" with ourselves. Rather than engage in healthy introspection or meaningful social interaction, we occupy ourselves endlessly with Facebook, television, email, video games, gambling, drugs and alcohol, and so on. In fact, individuals have been shown to watch TV when they have a lower “need for cognition", or, in other words, to prevent them from thinking1. Escapism is the opposite of mindfulness.
Escapism allows us to numb ourselves to a reality that we do not want to accept. For example, this “actual-ideal self-discrepancy" predicts pathological gaming, where the gamer can pretend to be somebody else2. It allows us to avoid feelings of shame or emotional pain. By imagining ourselves as someone who doesn’t have the constraints that we do, or who possesses something that we lack, we can “experience" that life without having to do the work (and have the luck) necessary to achieve it.
For most people, these fantasies are localized to one or a few specific areas, as opposed to fantasies of being an entirely different person. For men, a common fantasy realm is that where their success with women is far greater than it is in real life. They imagine themselves as being able to get any woman they want (excessive porn use likely reinforces this fantasy), so the dearth of romance in their life doesn’t hurt as much.
Escapism is a way of attempting to negate our personal responsibility and to avoid the discomfort of existential angst that we all must deal with. We are ultimately responsible for all the decisions that we make and the actions that we take, but living in a fantasy world is a way of absolving ourselves of the consequences of our actions. To the escape artist, “real life" is no longer their problem.
Why You Must Return To Reality
It should be obvious by now that a tendency to retreat into fantasy is going to have negative effects on you. But what are these effects?
Mood and Depression
First and foremost, people who use escapism as a coping strategy tend to be more depressed. This is hardly surprising. There is plenty of evidence that avoidant (escapist) coping methods are associated with depression, but which causes which?
In a ten year prospective study, researchers found that baseline avoidance coping was prospectively associated with higher life stress (both acute and chronic) at year four, and that these life stressors linked baseline avoidance coping with depressive symptoms at year ten3. The way you deal with stress has an impact on how much stress you have, and this higher stress can cause depression.
A study on adolescents found that those who employed avoidant coping strategies (as opposed to “approach oriented" coping) reported the highest levels of depressive symptoms up to two years later4. Avoidant coping is also a predictor of psychological distress in elderly individuals5.
Additionally, certain escapist behaviors have been linked to depression. In particular, technology use. In a large survey of Korean internet users, overuse of the internet was associated with depression, loneliness, and compulsiveness6. And considering how an estimated 5-10% of Americans are internet addicts, this is a huge problem. Many of these addicts, when surveyed, said that they use the internet to avoid reality, and were significantly more likely to use the internet in response to feelings of sadness or depression. Interestingly, internet addicts tend to engage in interactive services online (gaming, participating in forums, etc.) in order to compensate for their lack of interpersonal interaction in reality. Contrast this with non-addicts, who were far more likely to meet up with real people in response to sadness.
But it’s not just the internet. Information and communication technology in general is associated with higher levels of stress and depression in college students7. Television exposure and total media exposure in adolescence are associated with increased odds of depressive symptoms in young adulthood, especially in young men8. And, for adolescents, use of role-playing games is predictive of internalizing problem behaviors such as anxiety or social withdrawal9.
It seems reasonable that there is some psychic cost to living outside of reality. The use of escapist/avoidant coping, including the excessive withdrawal into technology, is a recipe for negative feelings and disconnection from others.
Social Costs of Escapism
Habitual escapism will alienate you from your friends, family, and others in general. And because having meaningful relationships is probably the most important factor in your happiness and ability to handle life’s challenges, the findings from the previous section make perfect sense.
It is beyond the scope of this post to delve into the details of how a rich social life is beneficial, but surely you don’t need me to tell you that it is important. And interacting with people face-to-face is significantly better than having virtual relationships online. In fact, having more internet relationships is associated with higher levels of emotional loneliness than having face-to-face relationships10.
If you were to do your own research on this, you would find that, paradoxically, using the internet to communicate with friends and family is also associated with lower levels of depression11. I think this can be explained by how you feel the need to communicate. If the internet is used as a supplement to face-to-face relationships, it is okay. But if you are using the internet to further practice escapism and replace your in-person relationships, then it is bad. In fact, there is some evidence that when extroverts use the internet for communication, it is more beneficial than when introverts do12.
Escapism Makes You Stagnate
Quite simply, you cannot achieve your goals while living in a fantasy world. If you want to improve in this life, you will need to experience discomfort. That is the only way to expand your comfort zone. But the purpose of escapism, of the fantasy, is to avoid even thinking about your comfort zone entirely.
A common theme you have heard me mention (and that any good personal development website would mention) is that in order to progress in any area of your life, you must take action. But the more time you spend inside of the fantasy world in your mind, the less motivation you have to do anything about your “real" life.
Take the guy who fantasizes about being successful with women. He feels scarcity in his romantic life, so he retreats into the far more comfortable world in his mind where he is like a James Bond protégé. Whenever he is in that world, he feels okay, and that gnawing lack no longer has the power to motivate him. You can imagine how this fantasy becomes addictive and highly self-reinforcing; spending time in la-la-land is hardly attractive to the opposite sex. Individuals who have positive fantasies but negative expectations of success tend to fail.
Back to Reality, oh, There Goes Gravity
I would consider escapism a form of behavioral addiction. In fact, many of the escapist “methods" are indeed addictions, including gambling and overuse of the internet.
Addictions can be tough to break, particularly when there is an emotional component behind them. It’s not merely “being addicted to a fantasy", but the challenge of getting over the reasons why you’ve constructed that fantasy in the first place. Breaking the habit/addiction is only so effective when you still have something you’re running from; more likely than not, without dealing with the underlying issue, you will merely shift to another escapist behavior or fantasy.
With that out of the way, how can you best return to reality after being stuck in a fantasy world for so long?
Laying the Groundwork
First things first, you’ll need to do some self-analysis and figure out what it is you are fleeing from. In some cases this will be far easier than others. For the man who fantasizes about being a stud, the answer may be fairly obvious. But for the guy who is a gambling addict, the form of escapism is likely less related to its function.
Most people will not need any major degree of psychoanalysis for this. But it can be helpful to sit down with a pad and paper and answer a few questions. In what situations do you typically engage in your escapist behavior? Is there a specific feeling or mood that triggers it? What is it that you enjoy about your fantasy? What is it you feel as you “return" from it?
Beyond this self-understanding, there are two other, more long-term strategies to help break you out of your fantasy world. Readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear me mention self-acceptance and gratitude. But they really are that important that I need to mention them over and over.
Most of the time, living in a fantasy world is a product of believing that you have some sort of flaw. If this is the root cause, you’ll need to GET OVER IT. That’s the only long-term solution. Yes, it’s easier said than done. Yes, it’s a totally different topic, and one that you’ll need to look into on your own (but this site has some resources that can help, including the link above). But any way you spin it, you’ll need to accept yourself, despite whatever perceived flaws you may have.
Practicing gratitude is one of the best ways you can get to that level of self-acceptance. Keep a gratitude journal, or at least make a conscious effort to add some gratitude practice to your daily life. It reminds you of the good in life and crowds out thoughts about whatever may be lacking. You can even “target" your gratitude; the guy with the stud fantasy can be grateful that he lives in a world with so many beautiful women. When you cultivate an abundance mentality, the need for a fantasy world simply dissolves.
Short-Term Strategies and Tactics
That’s all well and good in the long term, but you do need some tactics to help you short-circuit you natural response to dive into your escapist fantasy world. The techniques in this section will help you do this, but without the fundamentals above, you will never fully “recover".
I firmly believe that electronic media are one of the prime escapist outlets used by the majority of people. If you can’t seem to spend time away from your phone, the internet, video games, tv, etc., it would be worth your while to try it. Even for just a day. Hell, I lived phoneless in a foreign country for five months.
It’s so easy to use electronics in order to stop yourself from thinking, or to numb yourself from whatever is going on in your life. A media fast can be a shock to your system, but, like a regular fast, has a cleansing effect. Afraid of missing out on whatever your friends are doing? Chances are, you’ll get along fine.
Even if you don’t go to the extreme of eliminating all electronic usage for a period of time, you can certainly limit it, particularly problem areas. For many people, that would be mindlessly surfing the web, playing video games, or binging on Netflix. I’m a news junkie, and taking a week off from reading the news every once in a while is incredibly helpful for me. In fact, I ought to do that this week.
Since escapism is just a specific form of “not living in the now", bringing yourself back to the present as often as possible is an important tactic. Again, easier said than done. But there are things you can do, like taking up meditation, even for only five or ten minutes a day. Or set an alarm on your phone every hour as a reminder to take ten deep breaths and focus on the present. These are rather easy things to do…you just need to do them.
The final tactic for this section can seem useless or downright silly, but practicing it consciously is surprisingly beneficial. You should regularly do something, even trivial, to manipulate your environment. This functions as a reminder that you have control. You are not, in fact, living in a dream, but rather reality. A reality that you have control over, even if it is in some trivial way. A good example of this would be to move the salt shaker just a little bit when sitting down at a table in a restaurant.
According to video game designer Jane McGonigal, there are 500 million people alive today who’ve logged at least 10,000 hours in game worlds, and that number is growing rapidly [EDIT: I’m not quite sure how she arrived at that number, and Greg pointed out in the comments how ridiculous it sounds. Take this statistic with a grain of salt.].
Society is becoming increasingly escapist, and I believe this is leading to a surge in psychological issues. Perhaps that could explain the recent incident where two 12-year old girls from Wisconsin stabbed their classmate 19 times as a tribute to the fictional horror meme Slender Man.
This isn’t to say that fantasy will turn you into a homicidal maniac, or even that all fantasy is bad. On the contrary, there is such a thing as a healthy fantasy world; it’s just harder to come by.
For it to be healthy, you must be accessing these fantasy worlds with a positive intention and from a place of emotional security, rather than as an attempt to escape reality. The intention is key. If you are merely trying to make negative feelings go away, and you do it reflexively, you are practicing escapism. If you use fantasy as an occasional means of taking a mental break from the stressors of life, that is fine. And even better, if you use it to explore your imagination, you can gain access to a wider range of ideas and possible solutions to issues you may be having than you would by strictly adhering to reality.
Ultimately, it comes down to your mindset. If you are running away from reality, you will suffer the consequences. But if you are accessing another world in order to gain some insights to bring back to reality, you will profit.