Dear Dr. Anne,
This might be a little weird, I’m 15 years old and I feel that no one around mereally talks to me; I never (and I really mean never) had a conversation withANYONE about anything personal. So lately I’ve been imagining that this celebrity whom I have a crush on is talking to me and that I am talking back to him, and we are laughing as if he is actually with me! I spend alot of time, sometimes the whole day just doing that, it’s like I have a whole other side to my life, I don’t do anything in real life except go to school; every day that passes by I become more and moreattached to this other world, and I think I really like it because this I feel that this celebrity lovesme. I have imaginary friends who talk to me andcomfort me, I’m scaredthat I might slowly start to believe and live in this imaginary life and that I will not have a real life. Eventhough I really enjoy daydreaming, I would like to know if I am sick or something. Please help…
Dear Imaginary Girl,
Thank you for your letter. You are not alone; many people develop fantasy worlds and imaginary companions for a wide variety of reasons.Some people even go as far as creating Facebook pages and entire personas for their imaginary companions!
It is normal for young children to create imaginary companions. It is a predictable stage of development for kids around 3- 6 years old. Some research suggests that having imaginary companions allows children the ability to develop empathy, and to more easily be able to realize the perspective of others. Researchers now believe that, in contrast to earlier research, children who have imaginary companions are actually more sociable and less shy, on average, than other kids.
However, what worries me, and seems to be worrying you, is that you are 15 and are continuing to develop imaginary relationships instead of real relationships. If you were developing imaginary relationships and real relationships simultaneously I would be less concerned. There are many possible reasons why you prefer to develop imaginary relationships. I’m guessing that since you’ve never had a personal or intimate conversation before that there is a part of you that is yearning for that kind of connection. Having these sort of imaginary connections with imaginary companions or celebrities could be a way for you to try out different sorts of relationships, interactions, and power dynamics. In a sense, it could be a “practice” relationship helping you prepare for real life. Another possibility is that the closeness and love you crave is absent in your real life; hence you create imaginary relationships in which these needs are met. This becomes a problem if these imaginary companions and relationships inhibit you from interacting with real people. It seems like this might be happening with you. The imaginary world you’ve created is so loving, comforting, and safe that you prefer it over real life. This preference and continued indulgence in the imaginary realm is likely to make it difficult for you to have real interactions and real connections. Despite the fact that your imaginary world seems lovely, I imagine that you would prefer to have those sorts of interactions in real life with real people?
It is worthwhile to do some self-exploration about what makes developing relationships with real people scary or unfulfilling. Are you scared they might not accept the real you? Are you scared they will judge you? Are you scared that you will not relate to anyone? What is the stumbling block? One goal I encourage you to work towards is to have more relationships in real life than in your imagination. Reach out to other kids at school, talk to family members or teachers. Take little steps to just try out the idea of having a personal conversation with someone to see how it goes. It may be less scary than you fear. You will never know unless you try.
Psychologist Marjorie Taylor (2002) found that 92% of adult fiction writers have imaginary companions that have their own separate thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Her findings show that creating these imaginary worlds is a sign of creativity. In this context having imaginary companions is linked to success as an adult fiction writer. Similarly Taylor found that these writers had above average scores on measures of dissociation and empathy.
Imaginary companions are, in some ways, better than real life friends. Imaginary companions are always available to hang out with you or listen to your problems. They have interests that compliment yours. They are good at meeting your emotional needs. They don’t gossip. They don’t tell your secrets, and you don’t have to share them with other people. Some people make up imaginary friends simply because they can. It’s a form of entertainment when you have huge amounts of extra time. It can also just be plain old creative fun. Many people have imaginary companions that are models, they look up to them. I wonder if this is the case with the celebrity you mentioned in your letter.
However, having imaginary companions instead of real friends means that you miss out on some basic human interactions and connection. Additionally it is not very socially acceptable for adolescents to have and engage with imaginary companions instead of actual people. You may be setting yourself up for ridicule and judgment by others. Ironically it is likely that in seeking escape from ridicule and judgment you invented the imaginary world… and the cycle continues.