Healing Fantasies: Releasing the Longing to Be Rescued
If you have a healing fantasy of a partner, parent, therapist, teacher, or spiritual leader or set of teachings healing your pain, giving you the answers to the questions you cannot name, and finally making it all OK, you’re not alone.
But it holds you back from healing, and in this post I’ll explain why and what to do about it.
(These are also sometimes called redemption fantasies or salvation fantasies or rescue fantasies–they are all versions of the same idea.)
Wounds are formed from an experience where we needed rescue and didn’t get it–so we still want it.
By definition, wounds and trauma happen because we are overwhelmed. It is the experience of overwhelm that is actually what gets stuck in our memory and in our nervous system.
If we weren’t overwhelmed, the memory wouldn’t actually get stuck and still feel “alive” today. A wound and the subsequent fragmentation of consciousness happens because in that moment you needed help and it wasn’t available. You were alone, trying to cope with something that you couldn’t cope with.
On top of that, with CPTSD (Complex PTSD), the trauma was ongoing, so over and over we experienced ourselves without the resources to handle our life and cope with our pain.
These wounded parts of us are always going to have a belief that I can’t handle this by myself. That sets up the wounded part to be constantly looking for that rescue in external sources.
Wanting rescue can be overt or subtle.
To be clear, by rescue, I don’t just mean “help”, which we all need. I mean a form of help that quickly and permanently resolves a problem without you needing to work, change, grow, or empower yourself in the process. I mean salvation.
Healing fantasies can look like:
- fantasies of being healed through intimacy with a romantic partner who will finally really see you and love you for who you are
- expecting every new personal growth framework, system, or teacher to be “the one” that answers everything and makes everything make sense, so you dive in and make it your new identity and then eventually become disillusioned until you move onto the next one
- wanting to go on a spiritual quest to a foreign land where you’ll finally discover the meaning of life
- wanting to live in an ashram or a commune of some kind where you imagine everyone is warm and loving and you’ll finally feel like you belong
- acting out and wanting others to be able to see through your anger or upsets to the “real you” underneath–wanting the other person to “be the bigger person” or the adult when you get triggered, while you play a victim or child role
- fantasies of escaping to a different town where nobody knows you and you can be a whole new person
- fantasizing about joining the army or some other very strict or all-consuming organization, where your actions are rigidly controlled and you no longer have to be responsible for yourself
- feeling like you need some kind of external validation or stamp of legitimacy before you can begin to do the thing you want to do or be the person you want to be
- fantasies of losing weight or some other major change and then all your problems are fixed
- fantasies that involve something making you essentially into a different person, with a different personality, who is acceptable and wanted and can belong
- fantasies of winning the lottery or finding the “big idea” or “big win” that solves all your financial problems, and all your other problems, all at once
- fantasies of dying, of the pain finally being over
- wanting your partner to read your mind so you don’t have to be vulnerable and state your needs out loud
- wanting something to change but not wanting to be responsible for creating that change–continually talking about it or complaining about it or being impatient, but not putting in the work and rejecting any suggestions or help around it
- wanting the meaning of your life to come from anywhere other than you identifying what is meaningful to you and creating a life around it yourself
- longing or demanding to be loved in a very specific way and feeling like you can’t possibly feel loved (or valued, or wanted, etc) if that doesn’t happen
Note: there’s nothing wrong with wanting a relationship or wanting to move to a new town. This is about how we relate to these things, and if we are viewing them realistically or if we think they will magically save or redeem us.
These healing fantasies can become very tender, meaningful parts of our identity.
Fantasy can be a powerful form of hope, and we needed hope.
So if you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions, please don’t be hard on yourself. You would only have developed a healing fantasy because you were really hurt when you were really helpless.
You may also have a lot of resistance to giving up the fantasy, and that’s understandable too. If the only way you can imagine being healed is through this fantasy, the idea of giving it up can feel like being told that you will never be healed. So if that is where you are at with it, even reading this article may be painful or evoke a denial response of, “Yes, that sounds like me, but with me, it’s different!”.
Even if you know on some level that this healing fantasy might not completely make sense, trying to force growth on yourself is counter-productive because it is a form of self-violence. You’ve already had enough harshness in your life, and more harshness won’t help you heal.
Instead, I suggest you honor the fantasy as something that has helped you. Sometimes fantasy is the only thing that gets us through a lonely or terrifying childhood.
And it isn’t all just coping. Fantasies can also motivate us to seek healing and growth. A lot of the personal growth work in my life was at least partly motivated by trying to make myself into someone acceptable to a romantic partner, because in my healing fantasy, that was the only context where a deeper healing could occur. And this makes sense, because a lot of my deeper wounding is related to attachment, so it makes sense that my healing fantasy would revolve around a deep attachment. Your fantasies will likely revolve around your deepest wounds and neglected needs.
So if this is you, the way I would start to approach it is to recognize that this healing fantasy belongs to a child part of you, not all of you. There is a way you can hold that child and validate that of course that is what makes sense to them. Of course it does. And it’s not wrong to have a fantasy like this. It’s actually completely natural, normal, and understandable. Hold that child tight, and read this article with your adult mind, not from that child part.
Next, start looking for other sources of hope. Keep reminding yourself that healing and growth is a slow and steady progress, millions have taken this journey before you, and are taking it alongside you, even if you don’t know any of them. (And I encourage you to find some! There are a lot of forums and groups out there).
You will heal, even if you can’t imagine being fully healed yet (I couldn’t, for a long long time–it’s normal). You will figure out how to heal, even if you don’t know how right now. There is help available, even if you don’t know how to ask for it yet. You will get there.
And then, over time, you can begin to frame the fantasy as a security blanket for that child part. Your adult self can know that this is not how healing or growth happens, but it’s OK for the child part to keep its dream if it needs to.
You can even make an agreement with it: I will not rip this fantasy away from you. I will not shame you for it. I am only investigating the possibility of an alternative route to healing that involves self-growth and self-empowerment rather than waiting for rescue. If it never seems viable to you, I will respect that.
(Note: The language about “parts” is from IFS, Internal Family Systems, which I have found really helpful and will write more about soon.)
The resolution of helpless longing isn’t being rescued, it is shifting into a state of empowerment.
The fact that every wound involves a frozen memory of helplessness implies that healing that wound must involve the opposite–shifting into a state of no longer feeling helpless. It means regaining your agency, choice, sense of competency, power, and capability.
That empowerment is the opposite of being rescued. The desire for rescue is a symptom of the wound. It can’t be the actual answer to that wound, because it is a strategy that comes from a wounded, disempowered part of us.
So it is a huge step forward in healing when it dawns on us that we can actually help ourselves. We can take responsibility for ourselves. We can grow up and become a functional, healthy adult. It may take time, it may be painful, we may falter sometimes, but we can do it.
And often that realization is something that we must come back to over and over and over, especially with CPTSD. We go in and out of the state of consciousness where we know we can do this.
And that’s OK. Healing takes as long as healing takes.
I say all this from personal experience.
My mind, for whatever reason (maybe an ENFP thing), is very prone to fantasy and magical thinking as a coping mechanism.
For most of my life, my primary means of motivating myself was to project myself into a better future in my mind, and use the feelings of that dream as leverage to propel myself forward. I would throw a grappling hook into that fantasy and pull myself toward it like I was climbing a mountain. It felt, in a sense, heroic–like I was on a personal quest, scaling Mt. Everest.
But eventually, after enough of these fantasies crumbled to dust or disillusionment, I realized I was actually preventing myself from healing by living this way. Because I had focused so hard on just getting to the future, I hadn’t paid any attention to creating a better present. While I had developed resilience in the process of climbing so many mountains, I had neglected quite a lot of my own healing work (and self-care) because I thought the fantasy would take care of it for me. I always thought I was headed somewhere amazing, when I was really just stuck in a repetitive cycle.
And that’s when I finally realized that all futures are created out of the present. Anything you are doing right now is practice for how your future will look. This isn’t a metaphor–it’s literally how your brain works. Every action you take, every thought you think, you are strengthening a neural pathway and making it more likely that you will take that action or think that thought in the future. Therefore, the only time and place that change happens is right here and right now.
Without the borrowed energy of a fantasy to animate me, I had to face my utter exhaustion. I didn’t know how to make my present-day life nourishing and enjoyable. And I had a backlog of healing that I had put off until the magical future arrived. I had to rebuild my motivational fuel from scratch, and I’m still doing that work.
But in finally giving up the idea that I would be happy and healed by-and-by when such-and-such happened, I was able to make a much deeper commitment to my own healing. And because of that, I have made more progress in the last 6 months than in the last 6 years.
Our rescue fantasies are as deep as the wounds that made them.
Looking back, it would be easy to criticize myself for having so many fantasies and holding onto them so tightly for so long.
But self-criticism is self-violence. And violence is the opposite of healing.
The younger we were, the deeper the need for rescue has been seared into our consciousness. Very early childhood wounds can leave us feeling profoundly helpless. Our rescue fantasies can become elaborate, and entwined with our sense of self. It can be hard to imagine ever feeling empowered around certain topics, or ever having a different relationship to your desired outcome than desperate longing or hopelessness.
This was my relationship with books about codependency for a long time: “Don’t try to talk me out of the only thing I’m currently living for”. I would read them, I would recognize that they were describing me, I would understand cognitively that other people who felt like I felt and acted like I acted had healed and that healing actually enabled them to go on to have healthier relationships, and I would still in my heart-of-hearts feel, “This isn’t me. I’m different. My dream of perfect love is real. It has to be real or there’s no point in even existing.”
That is how little I could conceive of having a different relationship with love. That is how deeply I had organized my experience around this fantasy. Because that is how profoundly lonely and unseen I was as a child.
And in that context, a fantasy makes absolute sense. A fantasy lets us preserve hope when we are consumed with hopelessness. It lets us imagine something so perfect, so good, so pure, that it can save us even in our state of self-loathing. It lets us maintain a belief in our healing when we can’t see any realistic path to get there yet. It lets us isolate our deepest desires in a safe place that is separate from the daily hellscape of our mind’s toxic shame.
So you don’t need to heal fantasy behavior by trying to “debunk” the fantasy. Life will usually do that for you anyway, but if you want to actively heal your propensity to fantasize, work on the helplessness that fuels it. (It can actually become counter-productive to try to change it directly. Just like trying to talk someone out of a conspiracy theory, it just creates a deeper entrenchment.)
Healing fantasies can create a double-bind: we have to stay broken so they can come true.
Self-empowerment can feel like giving up your only hope. This creates a double-bind: if I heal through empowerment, I have to give up the option to heal through rescue. So we can actually keep ourselves from empowerment and real healing because we so want the original healing fantasy to come true.
This happens when the helplessness is at such a deep level that we can’t imagine feeling any differently. Empowerment is only a concept, an idea. It doesn’t feel real. This is especially an issue with attachment wounds and CPTSD because they happen at an age when we are forming our sense of self, and of reality.
The profound feeling of helplessness that fuels rescue fantasies is actually just a measurement of how under-resourced you were at that time that you were wounded. Intense longing only signifies that children are powerless to prevent wounding, especially young ones. It doesn’t actually signify anything about you as an adult. It’s a feeling that feels real, but it’s actually just a ghost of a past event.
It can be hard to actually wrap your mind around this, because beliefs about reality shape how we experience reality. And the longer you have been living in a belief, the more real it seems. It’s not easy or simple to just change what you believe about reality, even if you come to recognize that what you believe doesn’t make sense.
So if you can’t imagine a different path forward, don’t try to force yourself to believe in it.
Instead, just find small ways you can start walking that path.
Read books. Read forums. Go to groups. Watch YouTube videos. Make doing the work part of your daily life. You will trust the slow-and-steady path more, and trust yourself more, as you do it. Over time, the helplessness will recede, and your fantasies will too.
Rescue fantasies can also arise to compensate for any needs we just don’t know how to meet.
I was bullied for years at school. I also felt I didn’t fit into my family and was the “odd one out” in several major ways. This profoundly affected how I felt about friendships and connection. They didn’t feel safe and I didn’t feel competent at creating them.
So this meant I channeled even more pressure into romantic relationships to meet needs for connection and family. I could imagine randomly meeting the magical-person-of-my-dreams a lot easier than imagining developing a solid friend group.
So in this instance, instead of imagining my wounds around friendship being healed by the fantasy, the fantasy would make it unnecessary to even have friends. I would also sometimes imagine that the relationship would make me feel so secure and happy that I would make friends easily, or we would make friends together.
This is how a fantasy grows to be all-encompassing and keeps us from growing in many different ways. Every trauma that is unhealed and skill that is undeveloped gets woven into this giant basket that we desperately want to find some way to fill all at once, so the pain will stop.
Learning to meet these various needs directly can help the fantasy recede. For example, when I developed more clarity and confidence around friendships, it felt less like my life would be unbearably empty without a partner.
Here are some examples of needs that can get wrapped up into a fantasy, and why it doesn’t work:
- Self-acceptance: “If only X happens, I’ll feel like I’m the right kind of person”. This is just not how self-acceptance works. If you have to do something or change somehow to get it, it’s not acceptance.
- Self-worth: “If X happens, I’ll be a worthy person.” This is a form of self-rejection and self-judgement. You can learn to value yourself right now, just as you are.
- Meaning: “If X happened, everything in my life would make sense, all the pain would be worth it”. Healing really does make things make sense, but the fantasy isn’t healing, it’s actually preventing healing.
- Purpose: “I’m desperate for X to happen, so that must be my purpose”. Purpose comes from the things you already find meaningful, it’s already inside you. It’s not something you have to find in the world. If you are looking outside yourself for it, you are likely rejecting yourself in some way, so you are blocking your natural sense of purpose from arising.
- Rest: “If I just accomplish X, then I can relax.” Again, your future is going to be made up of whatever you are practicing in the present. That’s how our brain works, it wires in our habits. So the best way to get rest is to just practice getting rest.
Life without the fantasy can feel overwhelming.
When you’ve put so much into a fantasy, the idea of letting go of it seems like replacing something beautiful and true with a pile of broken dreams.
Healing fantasies serve so many purposes, which is why it’s hard to let go of them. One of the purposes is that they let you suppress your pain until a future where it is erased, rather than you having to feel it and process it.
So, letting go of the fantasy will bring up all the grief of the wounds that you’ve been putting off feeling, along with the pain of chronically unmet needs that the fantasy was compensating for.
It’s a lot. That’s why I’m advocating a gentle approach, where you gradually learn to meet your unmet needs and develop a sense of empowerment over time so you no longer need the fantasy.
But sometimes life doesn’t let you have that option. Sometimes when you are hanging onto something really tight, the Universe has a way of ripping it away from you. In the end, you may look back and realize that it was for the best, but you only have that perspective after you have healed. In the short term, it feels like the Universe is cruel–you’ve already been through so much, and you can’t even have this one thing you always wanted.
All I can say, if you are in this position, is there is life on the other side of this pattern. It is an adaptive response to a painful life, which means it is a learned behavior. And while the fantasy, the strategy, is flawed, the needs you have are absolutely good and you deserve to have them met. And you will learn to meet them. It will just be in a slow, step-by-step, learning-and-growing kind of way, not all at once. You are not alone–millions have walked this path before you, and they put together a life that works for them. You will too.
As painful as dealing with reality can be, it has one thing to commend it–once you deal with it, it is dealt with. Unlike fantasy, which is a coping mechanism that ensures the pain will never heal, real healing works. It can be long, hard, and painful, but it actually works. Which means you can have a future where you feel good every day and your life works. It’s just going to take some time, effort, and courage to face the pain of your past and truly let it go.