Most of us, at least some of us, may have a reaction to this. Fantasies may make us uncomfortable for numerous reasons. You may already be having a reaction, just notice it, sit with that feeling, be with it. It is just a feeling you are having to a word. Suspend your judgments, interpretation and personal meening, and just be with whatever is coming up. Not put all that aside and read on.
Fantasies are an integral part of our everyday lives. We learn in our earliest years that daydreaming is a healthy and much-needed escape from our reality. People fantasize about finding true love, winning the lottery, having a perfect body, or going exotic places.
Make-believe is so pleasant because it takes away worry regarding anything that's unacceptable, appalling, or impossible. Our inner world of fantasy is a safe place where we can explore our needs and desires without the fear of being judged and ashamed.
Some fantasies are socially acceptable, and people don’t mind sharing them with others—there is nothing wrong with a girl daydreaming about marrying a prince, right? The greater part of our fantasies, however, stay locked deep within our mind. We stay quiet about them because we don’t know how other people would react to them.
Fantasies, Guilt, and Shame
The main reason for our feelings of shame and guilt around our secret fantasies is that we don’t know anything about other people’s fantasies. Most of us tend to think that our fantasies are weird and assume that such thoughts never cross other people’s minds. In truth, we know nothing about the inner life of our partners, parents, friends, or coworkers. You would probably be astounded if you were able to peek into your manager’s mind during the regular morning meeting. We tend to assume that our inner world is much darker and weirder than that of our fellow humans, when in reality—though the content is different—our fantasies are often more alike than we think.
Sexual fantasies are something that most of us are not willing to share with others—not even with our therapist during a counseling session. As a therapist, I have to walk carefully because of how central our sexuality is to our being, to our existence. It is, in a way, the very foundation of our being. Throughout our childhood, adults tell us that we should be ashamed for having such fantasies. However, research today is showing that this isn’t true. When we ignore our sexual fantasies, we are actually cutting ourselves off from a source of vitality within ourselves.
Thus, these exciting and enjoyable—but deeply tabooed—scenarios in our mind often make us feel guilty, ashamed, and uncomfortable with ourselves. Erotic fantasies can dismay and disturb us and make us wonder about our mental health.
Yet our secret fantasies are an essential feature of a good, healthy life. Coming to terms with our fantasies and realizing that they are not our reality is an important part of learning how to accept ourselves and live our lives more easily. They point us in the right direction to learn about our needs and deep longings. If we can be with them, experience them, then we not only bring a sense of vitality to our self, we undo some of the shame that we carry around in relation to one another.
Sex and Relationships
Everywhere you look today, you will notice well-groomed, fit, beautiful, sexy people. Seattle, for instance, is one of the most physically active and fit cities in the country. One could infer that its residents are therefore some of the best-looking people nationwide. They must be going around admiring one another and connecting so easily! Yet Seattle is one of the loneliest and most depressed cities in the United States.
A fading sex life is one of the main reasons that couples schedule a counseling session. Many of these couples tend to feel confused and ashamed—they do care for each other and have good relationships, but they often admit that their sexual connection has vanished.
According to renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel, good intimacy between partners doesn’t necessarily equate to a good sex life.
Perel is the author of Mating in Captivity, a controversial but popular book on intimacy and erotic relationship. Over the course of her years-long research and practice, Perel wanted to find out why so many couples with good relationships complain that their sexual life has deteriorated. She came to a striking conclusion: it is too much closeness between long-term partners that kills the sexual desire (Perel, 2007).
Stability and Eroticism
It is in our nature in life to strive for stability, predictability, and security. Eroticism, however, thrives on the unknown, the exciting, and the unpredictable.
Fantasies reveal us and express the truths about our desires and needs. However, we are not comfortable sharing our fantasies with others, including our partners. And Perel believes it should stay that way when it comes to relationships. In a way, our fantasies are sacred, and they should remain so.
We need to feel a sense of anxiety about sharing our fantasies, as keeping them hidden keeps the excitement and mystery alive. My own sense is that anxiety is the feeling that arises when we really begin living. When we lean into existence and life. Challenge ourselves or stretch ourselves in new ways. Strive for something new. By contrast, the absence of anxiety about sharing our fantasies could be a sign of an absence of our embodied selves.
In her book, Perel tackles the concept that couples should do everything together, know everything about each other, and be best friends. She believes that these characteristics are actually the beginning of neuroticism in a relationship. Moreover, they can border on codependency, or enmeshment, with diffused personal boundaries and a loss of autonomy.
For a thriving sex life, couples need to allow each other personal space and the freedom to indulge in fantasy (Perel, 2007).
Fantasies as the Way to Self-improvement
Fantasies always carry an important message—they are trying to tell us something about ourselves. For instance, our odd sexual fantasies are probably our way of acknowledging desires that we know we need to keep inside in the name of behaving in socially acceptable ways.
Stephen A. Mitchell was a leading theorist and the father of American relational psychoanalysis. He devoted his career and life to helping his patients live life more fully. In opposition to Freud, Mitchell believed that people are a product of an essential need to interact with others, rather than impersonal drives such as sex and the death wish. Hence, our sense of self is not a thing in of itself. It is entwined into a net of our close relationships with others (Mitchell, 2002).
In Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time, Mitchell offers an explanation for why love dies in the long-term relationships. He believes that love doesn’t fade on its own; we kill it with our efforts to protect ourselves from its risks.
According to Mitchell, the imagination has the power to recover—our fantasies are the way to self-improvement (Mitchell, 2002). They allow us to perceive people and things as better than others consider them to be and to get out of our comfort zone of the ordinary and familiar.
Today, the psychoanalysts see fantasies as “reality-testing,” a concept in which we discover the world in a unique and deeply personal way.
Fantasy and Psychoanalysis Today
Freud and his followers saw fantasy as a state in opposition to reality. They believed that imagination and fantasy distort our perception of reality and should therefore be identified as illusions. Early psychoanalysis made sure to clearly separate our perceptions of reality from our fantasies and imagination.
However, in recent years, thinking in the field has shifted toward a more inclusive standpoint. Modern theorists have traded in the idea of a flawless separation between our perceptions and our imagination for the concept of “reality-testing,” wherein we test reality to decide if we can locate and nurture our fantasies in it. Fantasy is now seen as a spice that improves and enhances our reality rather than as an illusion that distorts it.
Imagination offers a more complex understanding of things, of other people, and of ourselves, and it deserves to be humanized and accepted as a normal part of our inner world. Being humans crave stability and adventure in equal measure. Fantasies and our subliminal signals impact our relationships and the way we see ourselves.
Fantasy – From Immorality to a Healing Power
Considered sinful for so many centuries, sexual fantasies are still a great taboo for most people. Esther Perel explains that, even now, many people see fantasy as nothing more than a poor compensation for libidinal frustration and deprivation—that others fantasize about things they want to have happen in reality (Perel 2007).
However, fantasy is actually our acceptance of the way the things are in reality. Fantasies are not our failure to understand our reality, but the way we appreciate that reality. We fantasize instead of doing. We only briefly suspend our reality as a way to keep up our inner balance. Our fantasies enable us to let out overwhelming emotions of anger, desire, or sadness that might otherwise disturb our mental well-being.
While modern psychology has taught us to regard fantasies as a symbol of immaturity and neurosis, the outlook in the field has changed over the years. Today, fantasy is seen as a part of healthy sexuality in adults.
Moreover, fantasy, sexual or otherwise, has the power to heal and make us feel good about ourselves. The ability to leave the here and now is a clear expression of personal freedom—it adds excitement to our everyday life and relationships. Our fantasies enable us to go beyond our reality, compensate for our flaws, repair damage, and transform the past. In addition, fantasy can bring diminished libido back to life in our relationships.
A Safe Place of Fantasy
Our sexual fantasies and our response to them are a great way to understand, and more importantly, accept who we truly are. Discomfort and shame about our sexual fantasies may prevent us from loving ourselves. In addition, our fantasies and our reaction to them may affect our relationships with others.
A rich fantasy life is a safe place to explore our longings and pleasures. Sometimes, a fantasy is the best form a wish can take. Fantasies are the unique bridge between our socially acceptable identities and what we desired and seek. They represent freedom from responsibility without the fear of hurting our loved ones, being judged, or ruining our lives.
Humanizing our fantasies instead of pushing them away can help us understand, love, and accept ourselves the way we are.
What is my experience of these parts of myself? How do I hold these parts? What do I do with them?
Yet many people find their secret fantasies shocking and disturbing and often struggle to understand where they come from.
A Place Where You can Play Forever
One of the greatest examples of a thriving imagination is a child at play. Children fantasize all the time and often share their fantasies with others. Imaginary friends, castles made of duvet covers and pillows, carton box racing cars, and other children’s fantasies we consider normal, and moreover, fun.
Daydreaming and make-believe are an important part of growing up—they boost children’s imagination and creativity and enrich their emotional life. We should extend to our adult selves the same understanding that we have for children’s fantasies. We keep our minds on such a tight leash that we actually cut ourselves off from some of the most vital sources of vitality, creativity, and connection.
As we grow up, our fantasies become more and more internalized. We begin to believe that opening up to another person will make us vulnerable, judged, and laughed at. We are afraid that the disclosure of our deepest fantasies will tell others that we are different and deviant. That other people will reject us. These worries open the door to problems such as a low self-esteem, insecurity, anxiety, depression, and other emotional issues.
Our reluctance to talk about our fantasies is deeply rooted in embarrassment. As we grow up, we go through different stages of experimenting with and exploring our bodies. Many people were taught at a very young age that their curiosity was something to be ashamed of, and they learned, in turn, to keep their thoughts to themselves, embarrassed for life.
According to Perel, fantasies are a safe place where our minds can overcome all sorts of conflicts around intimacy and sexual desire. Similarly, the psychoanalyst Michael Bader believes that the safe ground of our erotic mind allows us to securely unwrap our fears and inhibitions, erasing the limits imposed on us by our culture, by our morality, and by our self-respect (Bader, 2003). In almost all of my sessions, some part of my patient has been highly influenced by his culture and social context. And, as the father of American existentialism, Rollo May, once asked “Who is it that we are treating within the patient?”
Erotic fantasies—and all other fantasies—allow us to be all that we no longer are or never were: handsome, young, rich, healthy, famous, desired, and loved. Fantasies are the secure space where our forbidden desires and scandalous preferences can be shameless and possible. A place where we securely navigate between our fears, inhibitions, anxiety, and unconscious pressures.
Similarly, what makes someone desirable is idealization—our imaginations highlight the qualities that make a particular person exceptional and wanted. Our desire goes hand in hand with imagination. Imagination transforms an object of desire, adding fantasy to our perception to make it more attractive (Mitchell, 2002).
To come to terms with our nature and to reach true happiness, we need to see our sexual and other fantasies as a normal expression of our deepest needs and desires. They help us learn about our profound longings, and this knowledge will allow us to indulge in them with no shame or guilt.
However, we should keep in mind that our fantasies are not our reality. When we do, we will be able to accept ourselves the way we are. Our fantasies can help us become more open, mindful, and self-aware. But they also enable us to undo some of the shame that we carry around in our relations with one another. Fantasies empower us to build and keep up good, fulfilling relationships with others and to live our lives as fully as possible.
Bader, M.J. (2003). Arousal: The secret logic of sexual fantasies. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Mitchell, S.A. (2002). Can love last?: The fate of romance over time. New York: W. W. Norton.
Perel, E. (2007). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.