IN ”By Force of Fantasy: How We Make Our Lives” (Basic Books)Dr. Ethel S. Person discusses how and why people fantasize, the advantages of daydreams, how one’s fantasy life affects their personal and professional goals, the ways that fantasies enrich lives and how fantasies influence relationships.
Dr. Person is a professor of clinical psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, and she has a private psychiatric practice in Manhattan. She is a graduate of the New York University College of Medicine, and from 1981 to 1991 she was the director of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.
She and her husband, Stanley Diamond, have a home in Amagansett.
Q. Is there a difference between fantasies and daydreams?
A. The terms are often used synonymously, but there are differences. Daydreams are building castles in the air, taking time out for a reverie. They are idiosyncratic and repeating, you concoct a daydream that becomes a favorite and at will you can call it up again. Most daydreams are self-soothing and for sexual arousal.
In addition to some of these aspects, fantasies have to do with future goals and dreams. They could be romantic, professional, even physical, like transforming yourself into an athlete or changing your appearance. That is why fantasy is so crucial to how we lead our lives. We are really infused by our fantasies, they can help establish goals and provide motivation to strive for them.
Q. Why do people feel guilty about daydreaming?
A. One reason is that we live in a culture that is so committed to rationality that we tend to downgrade anything that is non-scientific. That is combined with the longstanding work ethic to be productive, and time spent daydreaming is not viewed as productive, it can be considered shirking. We’re not getting something visible done when we daydream.
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Also, because we don’t tell each other our daydreams, we keep them secret, we tend to underestimate their importance. There is no external validation; they’re not worth anything to others and by not sharing them there is no opportunity for approval. And individually, we don’t look too closely at our own daydreams. We have them, usually for a short period of time, they go unexamined and then it’s on to something else.
Q. You write in your book, ”Fantasies deepen our connection with other people.” If we rarely share fantasies, isn’t that a contradiction?
A. No, because fantasies influence interpersonal relationships and how relationships are formed and with whom. When we form intimate relationships, we’re often responding to subliminal cues tied to our fantasies. For example, if a man fantasizes himself as a rescuer, he may not recognize that the woman he will seek out is one who requires, to some extent, rescuing, and a woman who fantasizes about being rescued in some fashion is more likely to respond to a man who in subtle ways indicates a willingness or ability to play that role. Many men and women have formed deep relationships because of reciprocal fantasies and may never discuss or even be aware of this subliminal connection.
Q. Do people begin to repress their fantasies during childhood, and if so, why?
A. There is a developmental sequence to fantasies. For very young children, they are an important and necessary part of the way they relate to and absorb life. Then as children develop the ability to reason, they become slightly ashamed and are less likely to share daydreams and fantasies. They will express them more through play. Fantasies become more internalized, and there is less time devoted to daydreaming. Some of this is suppression, on their part or outside influences, like parents or teachers or peers. But the nature of daydreaming is that it will change over time. It’s just part of the developmental process.
Q. Are all people born with the same capacity for fantasy?
A. All of us have the capacity to fantasize, yet there can be major differences in fantasy lives. Some people are great visualizers, their daydreams and fantasies are vivid, as if watching movies or painting pictures in their minds. Others have imaginary dialogues, whole and intricate conversations in their heads.
Some people don’t feel that they fantasize at all, that they don’t originate interesting daydreams and fantasies. If we’re not as good as others in doing that, many still tend to have a vicarious fantasy life through movies, books and TV. If you know what a person’s favorite book or movie is, that’s an indication of their fantasy life whatever the apparent extent of it is.
Q. How do male and female fantasies differ?
A. There are significant differences in sexual fantasies because men and women have different sexual feelings, needs and sometimes views. But fantasies based on gender are not just what you want to do in bed. Females are more likely to have fantasies involving body parts. Universal feelings like anger and love may be expressed using body imagery in a way a man can’t. A fantasy that your breasts are filling up with milk can be a joyful one that will never be part of a man’s experience even in fantasy.
Putting sex aside, there is more study being done of gender role-related fantasies. For example, today many more women are fantasizing about achieving professional goals, fantasies that were relatively rare 30 and 40 years ago. What men take for granted can be the basis of fantasy for some women.
Q. Are most sexual fantasies rooted in reality or are they fiction?
A. Total fiction. Some are in the realm of the fantastic, such as the creation of a sexual partner, the situation and what you do. Some fantasies are ways to act out a scenario that will never come true. Teen-agers, for example, will fantasize about a magazine centerfold or a rock star and there is no possibility of it happening to them in daily life. When one falls in love, you insert that person into your fantasy life and some blending occurs.
It is true that we may have sexual fantasies about people we know, people we encounter in routine life. A woman could fantasize about a co-worker or her brother-in-law. But in the way she has that person talk, act or anything else, that person is as fictitious as Richard Gere. There may be some catalyst in reality, but the fantasy is all illusion.
What one should look for is a major shift, which can indicate a problem. A woman loves her husband and for a long time is quite happy with her life, then she begins to fantasize about a stranger she sees on the bus on the way to work. An occasional fantasy isn’t harmful, but if there is a distinct change in one’s fantasy pattern, that’s a signal of something in your life that needs to be examined.
Q. Why do some fantasies or daydreams persist for years, even decades? What are they trying to tell us?
A. There is no one answer to that because fantasies are so individualized. Obviously, a long lasting fantasy indicates something important to us, a goal to achieve or a symbol of one’s personality. If you consistently fantasize about being a baseball pitcher, it could be because the pitcher is the central figure on the field and you see yourself that way in work, family or life in general. You would have to examine the details of a persistent fantasy and compare them to the details of your life to reasonably determine what message is attempting to be communicated. Some people who have done that have opened a door, it’s been a motivating process, while others have just learned a little bit more about themselves. And some people have simply found the connections too elusive.
Q. Can we trust our daydreams and fantasies?
A. You should be cautious. If you act out certain fantasies, you also have to insert other faculties of mind because living a fantasy without some checks and balances can affect others as well as yourself in negative ways.
Fantasies are indispensible 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. Killing your boss may be a pleasurable fantasy and can reduce tension, but murder is a terrible thing. The vast majority of us do maintain a balance but, of course, almost every day we’re presented with another example of someone who crossed the line.
Q. How does aging affect one’s fantasy life?
A. During the course of one’s life, there are changes in the quantity and quality of fantasies. An adolescent will usually have frequent and grandiose fantasies. Then there is a gradual modification to more realistic ones. You tend to bring some possibility of realization to fantasies. That is why some fantasies fade away or even abruptly end when one approaches middle age, because a part of you realizes that some daydreams just aren’t going to come true.
Older people do still fantasize, but they look to the past more than the future. They may re-live the past, and sometimes in their minds they re-do or come to terms with aspects and incidents in their lives. This can be very positive because we arrive at a point where we recognize that overall life has been good to us.
One other difference is that as we age, we begin to transfer fantasies onto those we love, children and grandchildren. This can be intrusive if we go too far by insisting others live our lives over again and do what we didn’t do. On the other hand, it can be very fulfilling if our fantasies are transferred in an inspiring and supportive way, with an acceptance that our children and grandchildren have their own lives to live and their own fantasies.
Q. Is the quality of one’s fantasy life a barometer of the quality of one’s life?
A. At extremes, it is a barometer. If you have no fantasies, you’re bored and boring to others. If you can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, you’re no good to yourself and others. I think life will be happier if you not only fantasize but linger long enough to explore what those fantasies are telling you. Like the fantasies themselves, those messages are unique to every individual, yet the times when they are shared can have impacts on our lives, culture and society.