Hiding from reality in books, tv shows and other alternative worlds is a common tactic people use to unwind. It’s so common, we gave it a name – escapism. We disappear from view, from ‘the real world’ for a few hours, to live through characters with more interesting lives, or worlds with more exciting adventures. We lose ourselves in the make believe. We escape.
Why do we like escapism? Wherever it is that we prefer to escape to, there’s a pull towards leaving our own world and problems to dwell in another world. We are attracted to worlds where the problems are usually easier to solve, or at least, there’s different problems to solve. There’s a clear issue or tangle to sort out. There’s a more obvious divide between right and wrong, good and bad, truth and lies.
The good guys are good and motivated by honor and charity and justice, and the bad guys are bad and motivated by greed and hate. Even when the good guys mess up, it just makes them more relate-able, more like us – and in the end, they still sort it all out anyway.
That last part is the key – the thing that draws us towards these stories is that we know there will always be a resolution. The story line finish, the plot points will resolve and there will be a clear solution to the problem. Most of us will be dealing with the same stressful things next week, or even next month, as we are today. Our problems are generally ongoing and exhausting, without a clear end or fix in sight. Not so in the fantasy lands we escape to.
Of course it’s not just fiction that we can use as an escape. Some people use work or their area of expertise or a hobby or interest area. They spend all their time reading about it, or only interacting with others who share this niche interest. Of course, when you only spend time with people who share this hobby, and never talk about things other than the hobby, there’s no risk of deep friendships developing. It’s emotionally safe – and it’s escaping true emotional connection and accountability.
So there are many forms of escapism that different people use in different ways to cope. Is that so bad? Well, like most coping mechanisms, what is helpful in small doses becomes unhelpful when we rely on it and use it constantly. Finding the balance between disappearing to other places to recharge, and living more in fake worlds than in the real world is a tricky tightrope to walk. Generally, when you’re consistently avoiding your real life problems by investing emotionally in fantasy worlds, storylines and characters, there starts to be a problem.
I have certainly spent times in my life on the wrong side of that balance – where the stories I am viewing and reading seem more real and important and interesting than the real people I see day to day. When life is hard, it feels like, well, why not? Why not escape for a while and check out emotionally until things are better? But of course, the difficult things don’t just go away. They will still be waiting when I get back. They still require my time and energy to tackle and solve.
So I’m trying to be more aware of my flights of imagination and the joy of escapism as a useful coping strategy, without relying on it to avoid the difficult things in my life all the time. I am trying to find that delicate balance between enjoying something and being consumed by it.
There are times when it’s okay to use escapism as a temporary form of coping. Sometimes, you can’t deal with the difficult thing or react to the hard conversation straight away. Sometimes you need to pull yourself together for a few more hours of class or work or social interaction. Sometimes, if ten minutes of escape into a book or to your Instagram feed is what you need, it’s okay to do that. Sometimes that is what will help you keep it together until it’s an appropriate time to process what has happened emotionally.
However, spending hours in these escapes, constantly checking out from real life and avoiding work and responsibilities in favor of an alternative reality is where you run into a problem. It’s where I can see I am struggling, if I’m spending all my time in the fantasy world of a book or tv show rather than staying on top of my uni work and talking to my family.
There’s a big difference, at least for me, between watching the new episode of a tv show I am watching and then talking to someone about it, than spending hours scrolling through the internet for more gifs and reviews of the latest thing I’ve watched. This is when I need to stop, take a break and start focusing where I am right in the moment, and what demands are making me want to run.
Everyone deals with these things differently. Maybe escapism isn’t the temptation you face or maybe you find it easier to visit these make believe worlds without neglecting real life. But i think a lot of us still have work to do in finding that balance between a healthy coping mechanism and an unhealthy avoidance strategy. I know I do. I’m going to keep working on it.