“Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living,” said Dr. Seuss, whose children’s books have sold in the hundreds of millions. “It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope … and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”
Yes, fantasy is a wonderful, enjoyable spinoff of our imagination, especially when a magical, mischievous Cat in the Hat comes by to visit. But sometimes the visitor from our imagination is a real villain, a remorseless Grinch who not only steals Christmas but happiness and peace of mind all through the year.
Fantasies come in all shapes and sizes, and they can stick around for hours at a time. People frequently have fantasies (or daydreams or reverie) about being famous or rich, aggressive or passive, triumphant or shamed, sexually active or impotent, and bonded to others or abandoned by them. People often imagine having magical or healing powers or fantasize being someone else. People with mental disorders, or even some neurotic people, sometimes can’t distinguish fantasy from reality.
If we’re willing to look deeper, we can analyze and interpret our fantasies for the purpose of overcoming inner conflict and all its attendant miseries.
While some fantasies are harmless, others are dangerous. As one example, people with serious mental disorders or with identifications in victimhood or indoctrination in dogma have become murderers or mass killers after having been absorbed on a daily basis in violent fantasies.
Researchers say people typically have seven or eight fantasies a day and sometimes as many as forty a day. A fantasy might last only a few seconds or it could go on for an hour or more. Some people have what’s called a “fantasy-prone personality.” Often they set aside times of the day to immerse themselves in vivid, life-like scenarios that are much like lucid, guided dreams.
Many people have Walter-Mitty type fantasies in which a neurotic, meek, or passive person fantasizes about being an adventurer or heroic figure. These fantasies are not wrong or harmful in themselves, though it greatly helps, for the purpose of becoming stronger, to understand that the fantasies are produced to compensate for underlying passivity and identifications in victimhood.
Fantasy is often employed to cover up emotional issues that we’re reluctant to acknowledge or come to terms with. In other words, the fantasy itself, along with its accompanying emotions, becomes the defense. One client said he used to spend hours a day remembering scenes in which he had been hurt, humiliated, and beaten down. In these fantasies, he would become aggressive—vengeful, violent, and sadistic. At times, he would verbalize his fantasy, speaking aloud and in a rage, when driving or alone at home. “Thankfully, I’ve never done this in public or around people,” he said.
These fantasies were a reaction to how, deep within his psyche, he still harbored feelings of being victimized by people or circumstances. He became aggressive in his fantasies as a defense, meaning that the anger and rage he felt were intended to cover up the degree to which he was willing on a daily basis to stir up and indulge in unresolved negative emotions having to do with feeling hurt, humiliated, trapped, and controlled.
His aggressive fantasies served as psychological defenses through which he could make this (false) claim: “I’m not willing to go on feeling hurt, humiliated, and victimized over what happened in the past (or today at work). Look at how, through my aggression and rage, I protest against the circumstances I have to deal with and the hurt that is done to me.” Through therapy, he dispelled the anger and rage by exposing how these painful emotions served as self-deception so that he didn’t have to acknowledge his own collusion in feeling hurt, trapped, and controlled. Through the process of acquiring self-knowledge, he became aware of how determined he had been on an unconscious level to maintain the inner conflict that left him entangled in chronic emotional suffering.
It’s important for people to understand that fantasies of being particularly aggressive or vengeful are often covering up unresolved inner passivity. Their defense is usually simple and straightforward: “I don’t want to feel passive. Look at how much in my fantasies I enjoy the feeling of being aggressive.”
Another client had fantasies of being rich, though he imagined, at the same time, being conned and manipulated by relatives who made off with his money as he passively stood by. He also entertained another fantasy in which “some creep or alpha male” would take his girlfriend from him. “Not only am I docile but I actually pay for their dinner and drive them around while they mock and snicker at my expense.” In real life, he said, “I wouldn’t let any of this ever go down, especially now as I see more clearly where this comes from within me.”
This man’s defense involved an inner process in which he accepted punishment in the form of guilt and shame for allegedly being such a “loser” for tolerating this mistreatment. The defense reads, “I don’t want to experience myself in this humiliated, passive manner. Look at how badly I feel about myself for allowing this mistreatment to occur. I wish I wasn’t such a loser!” However, pleading guilty to being a loser was just a defensive ploy he adopted to avoid recognizing his emotional attachment to feeling passive.
Many women feel guilt and shame concerning their enjoyable fantasies of sexual surrender. They feel wrong for having these fantasies (sometimes referred to as “rape fantasies”) because of the passivity involved. Yet fantasies of sexual surrender can be appropriate in many situations. A great deal of pleasure is available in the process whereby passivity is libidinized (made sexually pleasurable), and lovers can feel great intimacy through such emotional connection. The key is whether the fantasies are enjoyed in a loving manner—as a playful exchange of the male’s aggression and the female’s passivity. When experienced appropriately, the woman feels she controls the fantasy and can shift out of the fantasy and the passive mode, if she so desires, at any point before, during, or after lovemaking.
Meanwhile, the allure of “libidinized” passivity is such that much of the male’s pleasure during such sexual encounters can derive from his identification with the female’s passivity. Of course, men can also derive much of their pleasure by being passive to a woman’s sexual aggression. Again, as long as such libidinized passivity is not the constant emotional recourse or the only means through which orgasm is achieved, the pleasure can be healthy and appropriate.
A wide variety of inner issues are involved when men have fantasies of seducing women other than their own partner. The man can feel the fantasies represent sexual aggression, though unconsciously he might be harboring passive feelings concerning his partner. He might also be attracted to other women because he’s feeling some disappointment in his partner, which could mirror issues involving disappointment in himself. He might be feeling rejected by his partner, and his fantasies serve the purpose of rejecting her in turn. He might simply be using his sexual fantasies in an attempt to fill an inner emptiness in him, though he might be unable or unwilling to discuss his feelings of self-alienation with his partner (possibly because he’s not even aware of them in himself or has deep shame associated with them).
Keep in mind, having a fantasy life is much better than having none, providing, of course, that the fantasies are not exclusively of a negative or violent nature. As one expert said, the florid mind of the fantasizer is far more interesting than that of his opposite, the person who seems not to fantasize at all. People who report no fantasies tend to be “bland, colorless, matter-of-fact people, very rigid and repressed.”