The unexpected dark side of escapism

“People talk about escapism as if it’s a bad thing… Once you’ve escaped, once you come back, the world is not the same as when you left it. You come back to it with skills, weapons, knowledge you didn’t have before. Then you are better equipped to deal with your current reality.” ― Neil Gaiman

Does your choice of escapism “better equip you to deal with reality”?

Mine doesn’t. Not unless my neighbour is a serial killer, or my city is about to be invaded by zombie aliens. I don’t know what Neil Gaiman escapes into, but it doesn’t sound like it’s Netflix…

Although escapism can be positive, it easily slips from enjoyment into reality avoidance. Relied upon excessively, escapism keeps us passive and not taking responsibility for our lives.

Chew on this ahead of your next Netflix marathon session: you could be writing a story like the one you’re watching, or an even better one. Or you could be creating a new plot line in your own story (maybe a new romantic twist?). You could be reading or otherwise consuming a piece of wisdom that will change your life forever.

You aren’t a baby anymore. You don’t need so much psychological self-soothing.

Comfortably (?) numb

Netflix wouldn’t be such big business if our collective lives weren’t quite so monotonous and/or stressful. Or we had developed the skills to orchestrate our mood and happiness in more intelligent ways.

Instead of routinely ducking and diving reality, have an honest look at what is and isn’t working in life. It takes courage to admit that things could do with improving. But it’s a necessary initial step before life can really take off and be the magical, unique adventure that awaits.

You may be thinking “I work hard. What’s the harm in a little escapism at the end of the day?” You may also believe that escapism genuinely enriches your life.

I’m not arguing with you. I’m just encouraging you to become more intentional with your use of escapism.

Pursued for relaxation or temporary relief from challenging emotions, escapism is awesome. Love it. Life wouldn’t be the same without it.

But many of us go to it to fill the time and provide meaning when we’d get more meaning from something else entirely.

I’m speaking from experience. Escapism once kept me docile and subservient in life. It kept me ticking over, so I could wake up the next day and go through the same motions.

Escapism was what allowed me stay in the reality I had created but wasn’t really choosing.

Take control of escapism

I suggest that you spend a week tracking your use of escapism.

I decided to do this on the week I wrote this article, and I was a bit surprised to learn how much I escape.

As well as watching Netflix in the evening, I listen to music and I fantasise. I’m not saying this is a negative use of escapism, as I am quite conscious about when I do it — it’s a deliberate decision. Tracking was still useful though.

Monitoring your escapism is a practice in mindfulness. Mindfulness is “paying attention non judgmentally on purpose.” Don’t hate on yourself for the amount of escaping you do, as that’ll defeat the object, which is to set yourself up to make better choices.

When doing this exercise, understand that the activity is not the defining feature — it’s intention. Socialising with your friends could be escapism, if you are using it to avoid doing something you know you should be doing. Be honest with yourself, and do it without judgment.

Observing yourself should already help you to make different choices. You might decide to escape less, or upgrade your escapism of choice so that it actually does its job of relaxing you or making you happier. Sometimes, our escapism can leave us wanting/needing to escape even more. (I am thinking particularly about social media.)

What have you “been meaning to do?”

If you remove something from life, you need something to fill it with. It’s the same psychological principle used to change your habits (you actually replace habits).

Try making a list on your phone of some things you have been meaning to do but have yet to find the time to do.

It could be learning Spanish or coding, listening to podcasts, or calling up or emailing a friend. Making the list, and glancing over it regularly, should help you to make better choices the next time the opportunity for escapism presents itself.

If you don’t know how you’d spend the time if you didn’t use escapism, something that helps is knowing your values. In my book about self-discovery, I explain how understanding your values leads you to discover more productive uses of the time. It means you are less likely to idly waste time, and more likely to take action to create a more engaging experience of reality.

Escapism can help you to understand yourself

Use your escapism habits to understand yourself better.

When specifically do you escape? What exactly are you avoiding? Is it boredom? Dissatisfaction? Loneliness? Lack of fulfilment?

Consider that even in a healthy use of escapism, we are seeking an emotional state, usually relaxation or pleasure. Can you relax yourself without diverting your attention to escapism? (Have you learned yet how to meditate?) Can you experience pleasure in counting your blessings?

Escapism is a great emotional snack, but it is only one tool in the emotional intelligence toolkit. There are others. Explore and diversify.


Use escapism more intelligently. Do this now.

The habit could be costing you the overdue changes you need to make. The intimacy-repairing conversations you could be having. The emotional intelligence and self-discipline you aren’t cultivating. The new skills you aren’t learning. The interesting person you could be becoming.

And the more compelling life you aren’t living.

Rezzan Hussey is the creator of the Art of Wellbeing, a partner site of Ideapod. She’s also the author of My Own Guru.

Rezzan Hussey

Rezzan Hussey

Rezzan is a writer, editor and Certified Health Coach.

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