You get into a car accident. Not a major one, mind you. Just a little one.
Enough to make you and the emergency service attendants around you want you to go to the hospital to get checked up.
You get there and they announce they need to run some tests and keep you there for a few days.
You’ll be alone in your hospital room, being tended to by nurses, supported by amazing professionals.
You won’t have any errands to do, meals to cook, and your partner and colleagues will have to fend for themselves.
You’ll have food brought to your bedside, clean sheets changed out for you, silence or TV of your choosing.
You won’t have any responsibilities or obligations other than to just be there and rest while others look after you…
Now tell me: did some part of you really secretly like that idea?
If you’re like so many overwhelmed, exhausted, burnt out adults that come to therapy, probably you did.
I call this The Hospital Fantasy and it’s a big clue that you have some personal work to do.
What the “Hospital Fantasy” teaches us:
The “Hospital Fantasy” as I call it is, quite simply, a catastrophic, conflated, or exaggerated daydream that signals that some part of you is in greatly in need.
You may not have the “Hospital Fantasy” per say, but you may have other versions of it where the content and narrative of the fantasy looks different:
Perhaps your dream looks more like running away to a cottage in the Scottish Highlands where you can be alone for three months.
Or maybe it looks like ditching your life and making your way to Montana to work at a simple hourly job as a waitress in a small town diner.
Alternatively, if you may imagine divorcing your spouse, selling all your belongings, and moving to Australia to live out of a van in a beach town.
Whatever the content of your own particular recurring fantasy, whether it’s catastrophic or not, there is likely a big clue in there waiting for you.
Where do these fantasies come from anyway and should we really pay attention to them?
Why do we have spontaneous, seemingly destructive or self-sabotaging fantasies?
I personally think it’s a cry from our soul, our psyche, our unconscious that we are ignoring some big need of ours and so some part of us acts out in imagination and reverie to get our attention.
Why do we have fantasies like this?
Well, being a working adult in this modern world alone primes most of us to be set up for overwork, overwhelm, and under-attuning to ourselves.
Add onto it parenting, breadwinning, adulting, coping with unprocessed trauma from your childhood that consumes your mental or emotional energy, a lack of modeling and support in setting healthy and appropriate boundaries, financial pressures, and more, all of this can add up to a time (or times) in your life when a part of you may long for something catastrophic or fantastical to compensate and reorient your life.
But should we really pay attention to these fantasies?
Yes and no.
I personally don’t think that these fantasies are exactly what we want and that we should immediately go out and get ourselves into those scenarios. Not at all!
But I do believe that each of these fantasies contains a big clue for us that we’re excessively beyond our capacities in some way and that we likely need to take better care of ourselves and put boundaries in place in some way.
For instance, the hospital fantasy revolves around being cared for and not having to care for others.
The Scottish Highlands scenario may be a cry for solitude and space from others.
The waitress in a Montana diner reverie may be a clue that you feel overwhelmed by the spotlight and responsibilities of your current work and personal life, that you’re craving more simplicity.
The divorcing your spouse and moving halfway around the world daydream may speak to a longing for a 180 life shift, though not necessarily with regards to your partner and place.
Each of these scenarios has a clue for us to pay attention to, a clue that asks us to effectively inventory our life and see if we can take better care of ourselves, put better boundaries in place, and give ourselves the essence of what we’re longing for.
What to do with your “Hospital Fantasy”:
- First, acknowledge it for what it is: a spontaneous, imaginative vignette that has some clues for you. Remember that it’s probably not so much that you actually want to end up in the hospital/move to Scotland/work as a waitress/ditch your spouse, but rather that it’s about the essence of what that reverie contains for you that we want to pay attention to.
- Examine the reverie for the clues it contains. Does the heart of your fantasy speak to a need for support? Space? Solitude? Freedom? Creativity? Inquire about the essence of the fantasy, get in touch with what the true longing is there. You may know you’ve hit the nail on the head when the answer brings somatic clues whether this is tears to your eyes or a deep sigh or letting down of your shoulders.
- Next, inventory your life for ways that that longing of yours could be met. Are you craving some support and someone to take care of you? Is that at the essence of your hospital fantasy? Being in a hospital means you’re taken care of, you can release burden to others in there. So how can you curate and create this experience in your life? Does it mean hiring a once a month housekeeper, signing up for Instacart grocery delivery, hiring a financial planner or a therapist? Be curious about how you can cull the overwhelm in your life and give yourself more of that essence.
- Set the boundaries you need to set to emotionally and mentally free you up more. Clear that you need a weekend away once a month from your partner? Have a dialogue with them and plan this into your calendar. Unwilling to go all-out for Christmas anymore and visit relatives you just don’t want to see and end up miserable as the new year rolls around? Create new and different holiday rituals. Do you have some emotional vampires in your life that you need to create space from? Do it. This work – boundary setting – can feel really hard and foreign for many, particularly us women who have historically been conditioned by families and societies to be self-sacrificing and non-assertive. Check out this article I wrote if boundary setting feels like a particular challenge for you. Also, recall what the brilliant Brené Brown, Ph.D. has to say about people who set boundaries: “The most compassionate people I have interviewed… were absolutely the most boundaried.”
- Explore your world beliefs and unconscious operating patterns that led you to burn out. Even if you know you need support/space/solitude/a release of perfectionism and pressure, you may still not allow yourself to have these things. This is when you need to do some deep reflection on your worldviews, your stories, the unconscious and internal rules you have for yourself about what you are and are not allowed to do and how you move through the world. You can practice all the yoga and drink all the green juice in the world, but if you’re still moving through your days with a belief that says, “I’m not safe, I can’t slow down.” you can bet this anxious energy will likely prohibit you from slowing down and deeply resting, contributing to your Hospital Fantasy. Working with a therapist can be a great support in uncovering and changing any unconscious, self-limiting beliefs and behaviors that keep you from crafting the life you truly want, even after you identify what’s at the essence of your “Hospital Fantasy.”
Wrapping this up.
I hope that in reading this you felt less alone, more seen, and more supported in recognizing what’s at the heart of your own “Hospital Fantasy.”
As a therapist and fellow adult living a big, full urban modern life, I know that life can often feel really hard and that we will find ourselves in times and places where it seems like we just can’t free up any more emotional or mental bandwidth.
And perhaps there honestly will be times where you truly can’t do more to take care of yourself!
Grinding through graduate school or training, becoming a first-time parent and dealing with sleepless newborn nights, having a sick relative move in with you – these challenges are very real and very complex.
But even in these times, especially if we’re continuing to have “Hospital Fantasies”, there may still be some reflection and exploration work we can and must do in order to support ourselves. I invite you to be curious about this.
And until next time, take very good care of yourselves.