Fantasy as a Survival Strategy (Part 1)

Fantasy is defined as imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained (, and it can also be a liberating exploration of your wants and desires, both sexual or romantic. Is it possible that fantasy gets a bad rap? Can your imagination, even if extravagant or unrestrained be useful and safe?

The answer is yes and no. Fantasy can simply be a safe voyage into your wildest dreams or it can be a survival strategy to transcend painful and overwhelming circumstances. For example, I grew up in an emotionally unstable and sometimes turbulent home. As a kid, I was a tv-holic and many of my favorite shows such as The Wonderful World of Disney, Happy Days and Love Boat served as a mini-vacation from the reality of my family. I eagerly looked forward to Saturday nights at 9pm to discover the guest celebrities on the Love Boat as they travelled to exotic destinations. This weekly escape was the perfect remedy for a young child stuck in a family overflowing with misery.

At first, fantasy serves a purpose, but at times it becomes out of control leading to highly-obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors and negative consequences. In my case, it started very innocently. My best friend became my first romantic fantasy at age five. At the time I had no understanding of the depth of the fantasy, but he seemed to have a loving family who adopted me and became one of the many surrogate families in my childhood. As part of my survival, I always had a best friend who became the object of my affection, admiration and fantasy at times.

When I reached puberty and beyond, sexual fantasy kicked into full gear and although innocent at first, it unraveled into more obsessive and compulsive behaviors into my young adult years. I didn’t realize this at the time, but my brain was being hijacked as fantasy was no longer based on the innocence of childhood survival but instead on painful obsessive longings, both romantic and sexual. Fantasy had become agonizing.

On the other hand, I feel fortunate that my coming of age years unfolded before the invention of the internet because the epidemic of fantasy has exploded exponentially with the advent of internet porn and dating apps. We now know that incessant porn and app use leads to overdeveloped brain circuitry toward these behaviors. Neural pathways get habituated to the search for the perfect person or body part which may result in a distortion of reality as well as obsession. For some, unrestrained fantasy takes over and leads to unexpected consequences..

Recently, a young male client told me that he is only able to climax with porn images but not with actual sexual partners. He is interested in real-life sex but has been hooked on porn for the past ten years. We now call this porn-induced erectile dysfunction. The brain-body connection has acclimated to these images and doesn’t recognize the body cues to get stimulated with a real person. Not only does this cause him shame and humiliation with his girlfriend, but he now realizes he is suffering both emotional and sexual intimacy consequences from his compulsive relationship to porn. The good news is that he is seeking help, acknowledging his problem and realizing that porn has been his survival strategy from a family where he felt unseen and neglected by overburdened, distant parents.

Fantasy always serves a purpose but it can lead to unforeseen troubles if it overshadows reality. In Part Two we will explore fantasy both as a purposeful part of living as well as a preoccupation that may spin out of control.

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