Twenty Year Old Sorority Member With Imaginary Friends

Reader’s Question

I’m a 20-year-old college student and have been hiding the fact that I have had imaginary friends my entire life. As a kid it’s okay — people expect it even. But I find that I spend more time talking to them and leaning on them for support than I do my “real” friends; it’s every day, all day, even when I get into bed or the shower. It’s more an outlet to make me feel worthwhile and better about myself I think, but it isn’t normal, is it? And I’m not some homebody that has no friends to start with so I just make them up. I’m in a sorority on a Big Ten campus, I’m on the executive board for two clubs, I go out like a normal young adult and have a large group of close friends. But it’s obsessive and I can’t stop. It’s impossible. Is this a real disorder or am I just losing my mind?

Psychologist’s Reply

You’re not losing your mind…and it’s not a major problem. People develop a variety of methods to self-calm and self-support. For most, it’s a form of self-talk — like telling yourself “I know I can do this!” Some incorporate their religious beliefs using prayer and rituals. Some “anthropomorphize,” or ascribe human characteristics to pets, baseballs, their automobile — just about anything in their environment. Exactly as you describe, it’s an outlet that makes you feel better about yourself. You’ll also notice that as stress increases, you use your specific method more frequently to keep yourself calm and stable.

This method of self-support can become a problem if:

  1. you fail to recognize that it’s imaginary,
  2. the objects or imaginations develop a mind of their own as in a psychotic process,
  3. you become so preoccupied that it interferes with normal functioning, or
  4. you become more interested in your fantasy world than the real world.

Watch people play a video game, and you’ll see complete conversations with characters made up of computer code. It’s also very common for people to mentally rehearse conversations, comments, presentations, etc. — complete with a response from the imaginary other person.

From your description, your method has been helpful to you. However, you have retained the original childhood format as “imaginary friends” which makes you wonder about it. You might try viewing your method as self-affirmations rather than your two friends from childhood. In this way, you can slowly move this normal childhood portable security system into your adulthood as positive self-talk and self-encouragement. If your imaginary friends were a serious psychiatric symptom, you would have additional severe symptoms which are not present in your case. This is just something left over from your childhood that still serves a useful purpose for you.

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