How Imagined Realities Create Dissatisfaction with Life
It Shouldn’t Be Like This
“Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”
The best word I could use to describe my mental state prior to discovering alcohol at age 15 would be ‘awkward’. I tried my best to fit in with the world around me, but the harder I tried, the more uncomfortable I felt. The cause of this uneasy relationship with reality was the persistent feeling that ‘it shouldn’t be like this’ or ‘I shouldn’t be like this’.
As a teenager, I mistakenly decided this feeling of ‘it shouldn’t be like this’ was unique to me. It turns out this sense of awkwardness is common – it may even be universal. I suspect there are varying degrees in how we experience this disconnection, and those of us who are at the more severe end of the spectrum are more likely to turn to drugs, obsessions, or develop mental health problems.
So, what is the source of this alienation? Why do some of us feel so uncomfortable in our own skins that we need to be chemically anesthetized to cope? I’m convinced this discomfort arises due to the difference between how we perceive reality and our ideas about how reality should be.
I recently came across the book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a fantastic read that is packed with insightful ideas about how humans have made it this far. The part of the book that particularly stood out for me was his claim that most of the important things in our world only exist in our imagination.
The ability to work with ‘imagined realities’ is what has allowed humans to become the dominant species on the planet. Our modern world is based on things that only exist in our imagination such as money (e.g. the value of paper money is purely subjective and gold is not that practically useful as a metal), honor, culture, and laws. It is our ability to move between subjective left-brain reality (fantasy) to objective right-brain reality (what our senses is picking up) that differentiates us from other animals.
Yuval Noah Harari’s description of ‘imagined realities’ fits in nicely with my own realizations about why I felt so disconnection with life as a teenager. The problem wasn’t that reality was wrong, or I was wrong, but that my ideas about how things were meant to be were based on fantasy. There is a downside in having this ability to function in two realities because it can become a source of conflict in our minds.
The imagined realities that governed my life meant my family appeared dysfunctional because it didn’t match some ideal family that most probably never existed, my friends seemed second-rate because people could never match my expectations of what real friends are meant to be like, and my life felt dissatisfying because it didn’t match my picture of how life ‘should be’.
So Why Are Some of Us More Affected by Imagined Realities Than Others?
I guess for many of us, the gulf between actual life and what we have been conditioned to expect from life becomes too obvious to ignore. This sense of disconnection may begin as a painful clash with reality such as childhood trauma or it may be that some of us are just less able to be comfortably conditioned into our societies. When it happens, it is unlikely we would even consider that it is our expectations of reality that is the problem, so we blame ourselves, other people, or our society and look for a way to ease our pain.