The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Facing Your Fear of Reality: Recovering from Extreme Psychological Escapism

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After a long day at the office, Frank likes to unwind with a couple of hours of gaming when he gets home.  Then he checks in with his friends and often hangs out with them, feeling recharged from his solo play time.  But when Mike gets home from work, he spends the rest of his evening glued to his computer screen.  The only friends Mike chats with are the crew members of his online gaming team.  He’s never met any of them, and they’ve never met him.  They’re all interacting with each other as their fictitious game personas and Mike loves it.

Then there’s Shelly. She has a variety of interests, one of which is reading.  Shelly enjoys getting caught up in the emotional rollercoaster of a good romance novel, but she’ll gladly put her book down to have real romance with her husband when he’s available.  Maria, on the other hand, doesn’t have a husband.  She doesn’t even have time for dating.  In fact, Maria has no social life at all because she doesn’t want one.  Maria lives in a fantasy world that she created for herself, and she spends countless hours sipping coffee and spinning out erotic daydreams for herself to star in.  Now that she’s finally moved to her own place, Maria’s fantasies have become a lot more fun because now she can talk out loud to her fictional friends, set out chairs and dishes for them, and even dance with them without being disturbed.  When real people call, Maria sends them to her voicemail.  She goes outside as little as possible, but when she has to, she keeps her fantasies playing inside of her head.

As these two comparisons demonstrate, there is a difference between having fun and being obsessed.  We all need to take breaks in life.  We all need ways that we can unwind and recharge.  It can be beneficial to entertain ourselves with fiction based activities unless we start trying to sever our ties with the real world.  When we do this, it’s called escapism, and taken to extremes, escapism can have a very detrimental effect on your physical, psychological, and spiritual health.  In this post, we are going to discuss some general pointers for how those of you who are hiding out in fantasy worlds can begin to reintegrate with reality.

PSYCHOLOGICAL ESCAPISM

Among humans, escapism comes in many forms and degrees.  What kinds we choose depends on three main factors: the nature of the threat we’re trying to escape from, the tools available to us, and our temperaments.  If the threat is physical in nature and originating from within our own earthsuits—such as chronic pain—then we might choose chemical forms of escape, such as large doses of alcohol or painkillers.  If the threat is physical yet originates from outside of ourselves—such as an older sibling, school bully, or father who physically assaults us—then we might choose both chemical and psychological forms of escape.  Popping pain pills can help us feel less pain in the moment of assault, but engaging in strong mental fantasies will give us added protection.  The highly dramatized condition of multiple personality disorder (aka dissociative identity disorder) is an extreme form of psychological escapism in which a person finds their circumstances so unbearable that they try to mentally cut ties with themselves by creating an alternate personality for themselves.  Often that personality is another human, but it can also be an animal or some fictitious type of being.  What makes this disorder so problematic is how difficult it can be to recover from.  As in many areas of life, the longer you practice a self-destructive behavior, the more damage is done, and the harder it is to change your habits.

In today’s world of interactive media, it’s easier than ever to create fictitious identities for ourselves.  Humans have always been capable of doing this in the privacy of their own minds without the aid of any physical props.  But now that we have developed complex gaming worlds for ourselves to engage with and social media worlds like Facebook in which fake names and photographs are treated as the norm, the temptation to try and become someone else is stronger than ever.  Now we’re not limited to daydreaming in our bedrooms.  Now we can get online and enter a gaming world in which we are some kind of militant hero or magic wielding sorcerer.  We can customize the appearance, names and personalities of our gaming characters, then we can interact with the customized characters of others.  Soon we’re all just talking to each other through our fictional alter egos and there is no way for any of us to separate lies from truth.  On Facebook and Twitter we see people being completely fooled by our false pretenses and it encourages us to keep the lies coming.  With no limit on how many false identities we can create and the stimulation of interactions with real people who are being as fake as we are, a very strange yet very addictive world of surrealism is created.

But of course using props and engaging with other people reduces how much control we have over our fantasies. Finding someone who wants to play our game exactly as we want to play it can be difficult.  So some of us prefer the ancient strategy of using our own imaginations to create fictional worlds for ourselves to live in, and in these scenarios, it is the feeling of having complete control over our fantasies which makes them so satisfying.

As we said, there are many forms of escapism. In general, most obsessions and many addictions begin with a strong need to escape from some kind of threat.  In this post, we’re going to deal specifically with psychological forms of escape, and these include forms like gaming, imaginary friends, fictional writing, dream lovers, and socializing online through false personas.

Now what makes escapism so addictive is the intense relief that it can initially bring.  Extreme psychological escapism is when you are choosing fiction over reality so often that your engagement with reality is insufficient to form meaningful relationships with other humans or God.  Zoning out with a book or a movie for a few hours or even for a whole day when you’re feeling lousy is not the kind of escapism we’re talking about.  We’re talking about wanting to hang out with your imaginary friends more than your real friends.  We’re talking about getting so obsessed with maintaining your false social profiles that you don’t have time to do any real relating.  Relating to humans and to God in any meaningful way requires time, focus, and emotional engagement. When you make yourself unavailable to relate in meaningful ways to any real being, you are in a serious crisis.  The longer you stay in this state without addressing the root issue, the more harm you will end up doing to yourself.

IDENTIFYING THE THREAT

So once you realize that you’re caught up in extreme psychological escapism, what should you do?  First, you need to recognize what a negative position you are in.  By hiding out from reality, you are stagnating in your personal development.  Sure, you can develop your fictional personas and fantasy worlds, but at the end of the day, none of these things are real.  Pretending to be a wizard in your online gaming world is never going to give you real supernatural powers.  Pretending to be some hot babe on internet social forums will never turn you into that airbrushed model with the sweet personality.  Fantasies are just that: fantasies.  Our dream lovers do not exist in real life, and real humans will never revolve around us the way our fantasy friends do.

Here’s the problem with reality: it won’t go away.  Reality is like a vast ocean which you are going to be forcibly dropped into on a specific day.  If you are going to avoid some nasty, choking trauma, you need to learn how to swim before your drop date comes.  If instead you pretend like you’re never going to have to deal with that ocean, you’re going to be totally unprepared when your test day comes.

As the Creator of all things, God is not going to let you permanently hide out from Him or from the reality that He has created for you.  You should be viewing the life you’re living now as a preparation period.  How well you do here will have a drastic impact on your quality of life in eternity.  Death is the transition from this life to the next, and death is inescapable.  It’s not a matter of “if” you are transferred to an eternal dimension, it’s a matter of “when.”  With limited time to prepare, it is vital that you reconnect with reality and start making soul choices that are pleasing to God.  But right now, you’re hiding out in your little fantasy world and you’re too afraid to come out.  So how do you diffuse the fear that’s keeping you in there?  The first step is to specifically identify what it is that you’re so afraid of.

Just as a car is fueled by gasoline, unhealthy fears are fueled by false beliefs.  Now some fears are healthy, and these fears are fueled by true facts.  For example, why are you afraid of sticking your hand into a fire?  Because you believe that you will be burned.  That belief is correct: you will be burned.  You will also be severely injured if you walk off the edge of a cliff, and the fear that keeps you from walking too close to the edge is a healthy fear.  Healthy fears protect us from being hurt, but unhealthy fears result in self-harming behaviors.

In cases of extreme psychological escapism, you are afraid of engaging with the real world.  What is the wrong belief that is fueling this fear?  The wrong belief is that you are unable to cope with certain aspects of the real world.  For example, Jessie is stuck living with an overbearing, entitled mother who is very emotionally abusive.  Because she feels incapable of defending herself from her mother’s assaults, Jessie copes by escaping into a fantasy world in which she is surrounded by supportive friends and fans.  Jessie tells herself that she’s trying to escape her mean mother, but is this really what’s going on?  Certainly Jessie’s mother is an abusive jerk, but the world is full of jerks, and that doesn’t mean we all have to live under rocks.  Jessie’s real problem is not that she has a cruel mom, but that she hasn’t learned how to use the options that she has.  Jessie believes that she is helpless, when in reality she is not helpless. There are many things Jessie can do to reduce the emotional power that her mother has over her, and as her mother loses power in Jessie’s eyes, Jessie will feel less threatened.

When we try to escape from reality, we often point to some external element as the problem.  But really the problem lies within ourselves.  While it is quite true that the world can feel like a bitterly lonely and disappointing place at times, it is equally true that we can find joy and peace in the midst of it.  We don’t need our situation to be perfect before we can feel safe.  Because the God who controls this world is so good in Character, we can learn to feel quite safe in His care regardless of what is happening around us.

Extreme forms of escapism are always self-destructive.  Self-destructive behaviors are driven by fears, and fears are fueled by false beliefs.  The first step in your recovery is to ask God to help you identify the specific false beliefs that are fueling your fear of reality.  Then write out a description of what you’re afraid of using the words “I believe that I…”  Starting with these words will help you focus on what it is about yourself that you’re really afraid of.  For example:

#1. When I play war games, I’m able to become strong, courageous characters who I respect.  I don’t want to stop because I’m afraid of facing myself.  I believe that I will find my own company unbearable to live with because I don’t respect who I really am.

#2. In the stories I write, my hero’s wife loves him. In real life, I believe that my wife hates me.  I’m afraid to stop living in my fantasy world, because I believe that I can’t handle the pain of my second marriage ending as badly as my first one did.

#3. I believe that I don’t have the strength to live alone.  So even though my boyfriend abuses me badly, I’m afraid to stop living in this fantasy world of slave and master.

#4. I believe that I am a horrible, worthless person who God would never love.  Pretending to be an animal helps me avoid facing what a failure I am as a human being.

#5. The last time I tried to have a relationship with a real woman, I was brutally hurt.  I believe that I will never heal from having my heart broken.  I believe that I will be hurt again if I reenter reality and that the next time will totally destroy me.

#6. I believe that I am never going to recover from being molested.  I believe that I will end up being abused in any relationship I attempt, so I want to stay in my fantasy world where I am safe and no one hurts me.

IDENTIFYING POSITIVE GOALS

Once you have summarized your situation, underline your “I believe that I” statement.  You might have more than one.  Now write out your “I believe that I” statement all by itself so that you can focus on it without distraction.  Realize that that statement is a false belief.  False beliefs fuel fear, and fear is what’s stopping you from engaging with reality.  That false belief you’ve identified is the thing that needs to change.  When that belief changes, you will stop finding reality so terrifying.

So now that you’ve identified the specific fears that are stopping your life, it’s time to identify the specific goal you want to aim for.  Here’s where you need to write out another statement which is a reversal of your negative fear.  This is also where we need to bring God into the picture because God is our Source of help, hope, and healing in life.  We can’t just fix ourselves.  We need Him to help us recover from past wounds and learn better coping skills.  So in this next exercise, you want to take your “I believe that I…” statement and turn it into a “God can help me” statement.  This would also be a good time to identify some positive truths that are relevant to your situation. If you can’t think of any positive truths, then skip that part and focus on your “God can help me” statement.  Let’s use our previous examples to see how this works.

#1. I believe that I will find my own company unbearable to live with because I don’t respect who I really am.

Positive truth: God loves me as I really am, flaws and all.

God can help me see myself through His loving eyes and learn to accept His positive view of me.

#2. I believe that I can’t handle the pain of my second marriage ending as badly as my first one did.

Positive truth: God can redeem my past experiences by using them to teach me positive truths and mature perspectives that will help me grow closer to Him.
Positive truth: God can use my current marital problems to help me grow closer to Him. 
Positive truth: God doesn’t harp on my past mistakes. 

God can help me learn positive lessons from my current dilemma.
God can help me identify and change destructive patterns that I’m stuck in which may be  contributing to the failure of my marriages. 
God can help me change in positive ways so that I don’t keep having to go through this miserable cycle.

#3. I believe that I don’t have the strength to live alone. 

Positive truth:  God says He is always with me.

God can help me become more aware of His Presence in my life so I stop feeling so alone.

#4. I believe that I am a horrible, worthless person who God would never love. 

Positive truth: God says that He loves me dearly because I am His creation.
Positive truth: God loves me as I am, despite all the bad things I’ve done.

God can help me see the worth He sees in me and connect with His great love for me.

#5. I believe that I will never heal from having my heart broken.  I believe that I will be hurt again if I reenter reality and that the next time will totally destroy me.

Positive truth: God can help me recover from anything. 
Positive truth: God is guiding my life and He is controlling my trials. His motivation is to help me, not harm me.  I am not at the mercy of other humans.  I am in the hands of a God who loves me.

God can help me heal from the past.
God can help me learn how to set more realistic expectations so that I am not so devastated when other humans don’t turn out to be everything I hoped.

#6. I believe that I am never going to recover from being molested.  I believe that I will end up being abused in any relationship I attempt.

Positive truth: God can help me recover from anything.
Positive truth: God can teach me how to draw boundaries in relationships so that I do not just accept the role of victim.

God can help me recover from being molested so that I am a stronger person for having been through that trauma.
God can help me learn to separate the past from the present and exercise the options and power I have as an adult which I didn’t have back when I was a kid.

INVITING GOD INTO YOUR WORLD

Once you have identified the positive goals by writing out your “God can help me” statements, ask God to help you with these things.  Then ask Him to help you transition out of your fantasy world and reengage with reality.  God is gentle and He often eases us through these things one step at a time.  In the early stages of recovery, it’s pretty unrealistic to entirely abandon the activity that makes you feel so safe, however you can choose to start involving God in what you’re doing.  Instead of playing your games by yourself, start asking God to play with you and to teach you some positive truth about Himself through your gaming experience.  If you’re a writer, ask God to guide your storyline and ask Him to help you start learning positive lessons from the characters you are creating.  If you’re a reader, ask God to help you select books that will help you learn something beneficial, then ask Him to show you what He’d want you to do if you were any of the characters in the stories you’re reading.  If you’re hiding out behind false profiles on Facebook, start a new one which is the real you and start looking for “friends” who are posting positive insights about God.  If you are embarrassed by the way you look, post some neutral picture instead, like a flower or a cross or some cool design or some pretty scenery.  Don’t post a picture of a real person in order to mislead people.  Ask God to help you design a social profile that will be uplifting to others and honoring to Him.

Instead of trying to meet God in the real world, it’s far better to invite Him to enter your fantasy world, and then let Him guide you out of your fantasy world in baby steps.  God is the safest Being we can relate to, and He is the only One who loves and accepts us as we are.  Starting with Him instead of trying to start with other humans is going to help you reenter reality with your priorities in the right order. Then, as God brings you opportunities to interact with real people, try it out, but keep looking to Him for guidance.

The very fact that you have resorted to escapism teaches you a very important lesson: you’re not strong enough to deal with life on your own.  Somewhere along the way, you ran into fears that overwhelmed you, so you created a hideout for yourself.  It’s not a failure to hide out in fantasy: it’s a defense mechanism which can seem very rational and wise in certain situations.  But living in fantasy is not where we want to stay because it’s not good for us.  At some point, we need to return to the real world and leave fiction behind us.  God knows how to guide you back into reality and He will do it if you are willing to submit to His plan for your life.

Dependency is such an important attitude for us to grasp that God will intentionally pin us into corners where we are forced to face the limits of our strength and admit how much we need Him every second.  Anytime we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed with fear, it’s a great opportunity to face how limited and fragile we humans really are.  We need God.  We simply can’t thrive without Him.  Rather than view your time in fantasy as a bunch of time that was wasted, view this as a learning opportunity and ask God to help you make the most of it.  Accept your own limitations, but don’t put limits on God.  By yourself, you can’t conquer your own fears, but with His help, there really isn’t anything that you can’t overcome.

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