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Can Adults Have Imaginary Friends, Too?

Posted on May 9, 2021 at 3:14 am.  Written by Editorial Team

Can Adults Have Imaginary Friends, Too? | Friend Lamps

May 09, 2021 6 min read

Psychologists say that nearly two out of three kids have an imaginary friend that was very real to them when they were growing up. Did you have one in your childhood? I did. His name was Al and he was my very best friend. I was 3.

The only reason I (somewhat) remember him is that the adults around me were clearly amused by this phenomenon. For instance, I'd singalong with Al but was too self-conscious to sing alone, they said. They also told me I'd spend hours deep in conversation with Al, a conversation that nobody around could understand or follow. But it kept me engaged.

Of course, I outgrew Al by the time I started kindergarten. I had real friends now, and Al graciously bowed out of my life. But the notion of having an imaginary childhood friend still fascinates me. Then, today, I came across an article about how adults tend to have such relationships with reality TV stars. Says Jessica Grose of the New York Times:

"This weekend I had multiple text threads going about Hannah’s issues with her housemates, and whether she was in the wrong in her fights with Amanda, Luke and Kyle. These are not friends of mine; these are people who appear on the Bravo TV show “Summer House,” whose drama I am embarrassingly invested in, and whose psychological motivations I spend time dissecting with friends and co-workers. 

The kind of one-way friendship I have with these reality stars has a name in the sociology world: It’s called a “parasocial relationship,” which is an emotional relationship with a media figure."

My curiosity was certainly piqued. Apparently, this phenomenon of parasocial relationships was identified as far back as the 1950s by two sociologists who observed that "the most remote and illustrious men are met as if they were in the circle of one’s peers."

Even more interesting is the fact that the stars themselves may perpetuate this type of relationship when they engage with their audience over social media. One response to a post by someone who has a parasocial relationship with that celebrity is often enough to cement that thought and confirm the relationship - at least, in the mind of that person.

All of this reminds me (surprisingly) of Stephen King's Misery, a dark psychological thriller that was made into a movie in 1990. Starring Kathy Bates (who won an Oscar for her gripping performance), James Caan, and Lauren Bacall, the story is about a psychologically disturbed woman who is obsessed with an author she rescues from a car crash.

That's an extreme example of a parasocial relationship, of course, but the "I'm your Number One fan" notion she holds in her mind about the author is not unlike the thoughts that some of the more engrossed reality TV fans of today have about their favorite stars.

Why Does This Carry Over from Childhood?

When observed in children, this phenomenon is seen as a healthy expression of a vivid imagination. Says Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids:

"Children are naturally imaginative, and exercising their imaginations is good for their emotional and mental health. Kids who have imaginary friends enjoy them, so they always have someone to play with if they feel lonely or bored. My daughter at ages 3 and 4 used to say, 'I'm going to play with Betsy now,' and then yak away for half an hour in her bedroom."

So if it's normal in childhood, why is it considered "embarrassing" when an adult goes through the same thing?

The reason is that these two phenomena are vastly different. Children are largely aware that their "friend" is invisible, and they'll admit as much. They may not admit that the friend is not real, because they don't have the same understanding of "reality" as adults do. Nevertheless, they can make that distinction and still make it feel "real."

When adults do it, it's mixed in with their emotions; so much so, in fact, that, according to Alex Kresovich, a doctoral student at the U.N.C. Hussman School of Journalism and Media,"The feelings people have with these media persona are nearly indistinguishable from their friends in real life."

Is this Normal and/or Healthy?

Well, let's just say that it's not entirely ABnormal or UNhealthy. As a matter of fact, identifying with celebrities can often help our own state of mind and body. Jane Fonda looking right at me (the camera, obviously) telling me that a particular workout "felt good" made me really believe it. And it made me want to do it, too. I identified with her to the extent that I lost 12 pounds with that one workout tape!

So when does it become UNhealthy? When it becomes an obsession - hence, my reference to the Misery movie. When you are overly obsessed with a celebrity who doesn't even know you exist, it borders on psychosis, a very real psychological disorder. It even has a name - CWS or celebrity worship syndrome - and ranges from "entertainment-social", as in Times journalist Grose's case, to "borderline-pathological", which is a dangerous state of mind to be in.

The real problem is when the "entertainment-social" type of obsession with celebrities evolves into one of the other types, which include "intense-personal", "Love obsessional", "erotomanic", and"borderline-pathological."

On the one hand, it's perfectly normal and healthy to treat celebrities as friends because they have the same kind of influence on our behavior. The world of marketing thrives on employing such "influencers" to get their product sold. A movie star uses a particular brand of shampoo, and sales spike as soon as the ad is aired. Why? It's because the majority of us are obsessed with celebrities at some level. One study by Robert. A. Reeves, Gary. A. Baker and Chris. S. Truluck linked "high rates of celebrity worship to high rates of materialism and compulsive buying."

Most of us, thankfully, have a healthy and self-aware level of obsession that doesn't evolve into something more sinister.

It's all fine and dandy then. Or is it? Unfortunately, science tells us that "poor mental health is correlated with celebrity worship." Any type of obsession that goes beyond the "entertainment-social" threshold can manifest in the form of fantasy proneness and dissociation.

Make no mistake - having an imaginary friend can save your life in the direst of circumstances. Prisoners who have experienced long periods of solitary confinement sometimes resort to creating imaginary friends as a coping mechanism. People in isolation for extended periods might react in the same manner, as vividly portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway, where he creates a fictional character just so he has someone to talk to.

That being said, people in these situations create such imaginary characters out of the necessity to survive and not go over the edge. When the situation changes, these people are often unable to adjust to reality. According to clinical psychologist Viola Drancoli:

"Later they may experience psychotic symptoms, and it becomes harder to distinguish between reality and imagination. The individual feels more humiliated, anxious, and threatened."

Sadly, the line between reality and fantasy is often so thin that some of us will cross over without realizing it. That's what we need to be aware of. In children, these are some of the symptoms of this crossover:

  • The imaginary friend becomes a scapegoat for what the child does - breaking things, etc. - and the child honestly believes that they themselves weren’t responsible
  • When the friend starts making demands that go beyond your parenting duties - Al wants his dinner NOW, mom!
  • When the child starts preferring the company of the imaginary friend over spending time socializing with other children

In the case of adults or adolescents, the symptoms are essentially the same but are manifested in different ways - being withdrawn from society, being unable to relate to peers, sudden and inexplicable mood swings, anxiety, and so on.

The point here is that having an imaginary friend is okay whether you're a child, an adult, or an adolescent, but only if it is doesn't overflow from the realm of the imagination into the realm of reality. But when it starts affecting your normal life, it’s time to take stock and get help.

The only conclusion we can draw from all this is that celebrity worship or having an imaginary friend is only acceptable if we're within the bounds of reason and reality - or for the purpose of survival in extreme situations.

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