Hello, friends! It’s been a while since I’ve done a Q&A session so I’m excited to get back to it. In this episode, I have three really good questions that cover a variety of topics including dealing with excessive daydreaming, coping with an abusive mother in law, and managing anxiety when having to call in sick for work.
Hello Dr Duff, I’ve been a daydreamer my whole life, daily fantasizing about a parallel universe, creating a whole narrative with multiple storylines and characters. Recently I realized that this pastime has become somewhat compulsive and intrusive with regard to my daily activities. The daydreaming “session” is easily triggered by a song, a phrase or a picture – any stimulant, to be honest – and it’s getting increasingly difficult to resist. However gratifying and soothing daydreaming is to me, I feel suspicious that it’s ok. A quick google search offered no credible info on the topic. Is it a disorder and how to cope with it whether it is or not?
Good question! I’m sure there are a lot of daydreamers out there. I live with one. I catch my wife in her head all the time. It actually gets me into trouble a lot because I can easily startle her when she doesn’t realize that I had walked into the room.
Now to your question of whether this is a disorder – that is a little complicated. Right now there is no recognized mental disorder that is based around excessive daydreaming. However, there are some researchers who have coined the term “maladaptive daydreaming” and there seems to be a community of people online that identify as having the issue.
It’s only a problem if it’s a problem…
Basically, we want to think about whether the daydreaming is causing you an issue. There are some circumstances where that could definitely be the case. For instance, if you are getting lost in your thoughts while driving, that could obviously be a bit dangerous. If you are having a hard time with interpersonal relationships because it seems like you aren’t listening or you just prefer to be alone all the time, that could also be an issue. If it’s getting in the way of school or work. You get the idea. Basically it’s only a problem if it’s a problem. If that’s not the case, then it’s just a unique wrinkle of your personality. I bet there are a lot of writers, artists etc. that are similar to you. Constantly building worlds in their head and exploring unique interactions that would never happen in the “real world”. Some people are able to share snippets of this with the world, which is likely where we get a lot of the rich amazing stories that become popular books or movies. So I think there is definitely a part of this that you could embrace and that makes you unique. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having your head in the clouds.
That said, you mentioned that it does feel a little compulsive and intrusive. While there isn’t an agreed-upon disorder specific to daydreaming, there are some other issues that can definitely cause excessive daydreaming. I don’t have a ton of info about you, so I couldn’t say what might fit what you’re experiencing, but here are a few things to think about.
Things to consider
Firstly, sometimes when people have anxiety or other significant mental health challenges, they tend to disconnect from reality. This is often referred to as depersonalization or derealization. Usually, this feels a little more like being on autopilot and just watching life happen around you though. Regardless, when someone is feeling at odds with themselves or their environment, I think there is a bit of a defense mechanism to disconnect from that reality and instead experience one that is different in some way. Maybe it’s more pleasant, maybe there are more possibilities and it’s less boring and stuck. Something that is a relief compared to everyday life. However, most defense mechanisms that we have are positive to a certain extent but once they overextend that they can become problematic.
People with ADHD are also often prone to daydreaming. This is typically less of an escape or preference for another world, but trouble pointing their attention where it should go. Their attention isn’t typically wanting to point at the important thing right in front of them, so the normal daydreaming that anyone might do becomes the focal point and they hyperfocus on it. So this could be a possibility too.
For you, it sounds like there is a certain amount of sentimentality involved. By that I mean, you have these associations to songs, phrases, pictures that kick off the daydreaming. We all have certain stimuli that are paired with our memories. That’s how memory works. When I think of a chlorine smell, I have a very specific association to a summer back when I was a child. When I think of the smell of burning tires, I have a different association and flashback to when I got hit by a car. Some people seem to be stronger at making those sorts of associations. It may just be a neurological quirk, but if there are other issues that are causing you trouble like crying for no reason or blanking out, where you have gaps in your awareness, you may want to check with your doctor or a neurologist.
I’m going to step outside of research and scientifically supported ideas here and say that I do think there are a subset of people that are just wired a little bit differently and have a higher sensitivity to this kind of thing. I think that a lot of these people have specific interests that they dive deep into, maybe even part of a fandom. They are sensitive and hold a lot of memories for specific moments in time. What I find is that these people can sometimes be more sensitive to being traumatized since their brain likes to form these strong associations between memories and other stimuli like sounds, smells, or feelings. But it may be that you fall into this group and are super sensitive to these things and have these really strong neural networks which allow you to be easily cued.
All of this is to say that you are definitely not alone in having your head in the clouds and honestly preferring to be there sometimes. I think that it is only a problem if it is a problem. There’s also a chance that this is a healthy adaptation or defense on your part to keep you sane during regular everyday life. My advice is to not be so hard on yourself. If it is getting in the way of your life in the ways that I described, it could be worth starting up with a therapist and/or talking with your doctor about it. If not, I suggest you embrace it and maybe find an outlet through creating something that taps into that creative spirit you have.
So here’s the situation. I have been in a relationship with a man for a year and a half now. We have a pretty good relationship and we love each other very much. The one thing we fight about most is his mother. From the outside perspective, I see she is awful. I would even go as far as saying she emotionally abuses him. She belittles him, manipulates him, explodes in very verbally aggressive ways, gives him the silent treatment if she doesn’t get her way and orders him to do things for her. My boyfriend gives into her every time due to being afraid of conflict or ruining the family relationship. The annoying thing about this is he’s 24 years old and doesn’t rely on his mother for anything other than a roof over his head. Other than that, he pays for everything, he even pays for other family members for certain things like car repairs or car insurance. My relationship with his mother is extremely fake we both put on a smile for each other but deep down I cannot stand her. So my question is what can I do about this situation? I don’t want to leave him but his mother comes in between us so often.
Really good question and this sounds like a very frustrating spot to be in. As always with questions like this, there is the question of culture. I am not aware of the cultural factors involved here. If this is a normal and expected pattern of behavior within the culture that your boyfriend lives, that is something to consider. It doesn’t mean that you have to be okay with it or tolerate it, but it might inform how you feel about whether it is something that you can reasonably expect to change.
Questions like this are always a bit complicated because as you become more serious with this person you are dating, you become a part of the larger system of their life. There are two parts of this situation that concern me. First off the fact that you are feeling like this could possibly qualify as emotional abuse with explosive anger, demandingness, and manipulation. You don’t have to be okay with someone that you care for being mistreated. Being close to him, you probably see the impact of this as well. You didn’t really mention how he feels about this all and how it affects him. So if you are seeing him become upset by this or more subtle ways like it might be impacting his sense of self, you are even more justified in your feelings. The other part that concerns me is that you said this pattern with his mother is impacting your relationship and causing fights between the two of you.
Communication is important!
The short answer about what you should be doing here is that you need to continue communicating about it. You said that you fight about it often, but have you successfully been able to have constructive conversations about this? If the relationship is only going to get more serious moving forward, this issue isn’t going to spontaneously go away. So it’s something that needs to be addressed if you are going to move forward and continue being with one another. Therefore, you’re going to want to find a way to have these constructive conversations. Not only is this helpful for the current situation, but it’s good practice in collaboratively approaching difficult subjects. The particular answer for you will be unique, but it may be as simple as saying “Hey, let’s talk about this and both try hard to keep it chill and not yell at each other. I want to tell you how I feel and I want to hear how you feel.” Couples therapy is also always an option. You need to get a feel for whether he has any interest in changing this behavior or if it is something that you will presumably have to live with. He may not see a problem with it. If that’s the case, that would be important for you to know. And if you feel like he is being harmed, but just can’t see the damage that it’s doing, that would be important for him to know.
One important thing to note is that you can’t change his mom in this scenario. You likely have very little influence over the actual relationship and dynamics between them. If there is going to be any change to the enforcement of boundaries and the way that your boyfriend and his mother treat one another, that’s going to have to be prompted by your boyfriend. If he is unwilling to compromise or change anything, you can be pretty sure that she won’t either. If that is the case and you are not prepared to live with this dynamic for the foreseeable future, you might need to take things up a notch and consider whether this relationship is going to work.
To be clear, it is normal in this stage in the relationship after a year and a half to start realizing that you can have all the love and attraction in the world, but there are also two lives to balance and if you aren’t able to work out all of that stuff outside if the tiny little bubble of your relationship or at least by uniting with one another on how to deal with it, then there is a chance that things still might not work out between you.
As with most things, I would start from the least dramatic approach and work up from there. Start with an honest conversation. Point out what you see and how that makes you feel, as well as any worries you have about him. You could definitely frame this in terms of your continued relationship. If you are going to remain together, you want to know that he is able to have healthy boundaries and won’t be walked all over. If he isn’t willing to change or simply sees things very differently than you do, maybe you need to bring in an objective third party like a therapist to help you guys sort out a compromise. Stepping it up from there, you might need to be very clear about what your expectations and limits are. Like if you continue letting your mom straight up yell at you, I’m going to leave before the year is over because I’m not willing to be with someone that is unwilling to stand up for themselves and their relationship.
It is important to not fall into the same role that his mom fills of nagging, manipulating and being inappropriately angry at him, although that can be tempting. He may even subconsciously try to pull you into that role. So be mindful of that.
Hopefully that’s helpful to you!
Why do I always feel guilty and anxious when calling sick into work? I feel more anxiety than anything because I am fearful of losing my job, I feel like my boss thinks I’m lying, etc. How can I get out of this habit of feeling stuck? Note: I do not call into work often UNLESS I am very sick. I just have crazy anxiety about not being at work, knowing that I might get fired. Help!
Thank you for your question! One thing I want to say is you aren’t crazy. In the world we live in, having a job is something that a lot of us feel like we need to be hypervigilant about. Our world runs on money and it’s easy to tap into that primal survival instinct when you feel like your access to money may be at risk. In this case, I think you have a little overextension of the normal rational fear that you should have of losing your job. Everyone should be a bit cautious about this. That’s what is going to cause you to try hard and do a good job. But right now you are leaving that rational fear and getting a little bit into irrational land.
Sickness happens. There is literally nothing you can do about it once you get sick. You can try your best to have good nutrition and protect yourself, but it simply isn’t enough sometimes and you get sick. That’s why sick days and sick leave exist. Until we are all replaced by robots this is going to be a reality of the workplace.
The best friend trick
One helpful tool for you is going to be the best friend trick. I’ve talked about this numerous times before, but the best friend trick is when you imagine that it’s not you in the scenario, but one of your best friends. If they were forced to call out of work for the same reason that you are, would you be as hard on them and as paranoid about them losing their job? Probably not. You would know that they aren’t faking it and you would know that they probably have nothing to worry about. Similarly, you see people around you call in sick occasionally. Did they suddenly get fired when that happened? I sure hope not. If that’s the kind of workplace that you are in, you should probably run away ASAP anyway.
Dealing with guilt and irrational fear
As I continue thinking about this, it seems like there are two things happening. The irrational fear of losing your job for being sick and also the feeling of guilt that you have whenever you’re not working. The second one is a little tougher to deal with. I think it’s a pattern that a lot of us fall into. I can certainly be like this – feeling like I always have to be doing something and any time I need a break or do something leisurely, I feel weird and guilty. To work against this, I would just encourage you to remember that you DO need breaks. Sometimes you get sick from never taking a break and your body goes “alright asshole, I’m going to have to step in and MAKE you take a break”. You are going to be a much more efficient worker if you are able to rest and recover your energy.
For the irrational fear of losing your job part, a two-column chart might help. At the top, write one of the thoughts you need to challenge like “I will lose my job if I use all my sick days” or “my boss thinks I’m faking” and then below that you draw a line down the center. Evidence for that assumption goes on one side and evidence against it goes on the other. While probably not removing the deep-rooted fear completely, reviewing the evidence and challenging yourself on it can help you to be more confident when having to make the decision to take a sick day. You could also do a little behavioral experiment. How could you determine whether your fears are true or not? The most obvious way would be to directly ask your boss if you are at any risk of being terminated due to absences. If you don’t feel comfortable asking your boss, maybe there is an HR person or someone else within the company that would be able to reassure you.
Either way, it is totally understandable for you to be worried about this, but I think that you likely have nothing to fear and your work should be focused on reassuring yourself about that and letting the logic of the situation guide what you do. You’re going to feel how you feel and that’s fine, but I don’t want you to work yourself to death because of the irrational fear that you’re going to get fired. So challenge your knowledge and let that guide your decisions, and go easy on yourself because you’re not doing anything wrong.
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