Escaping Fantasy to Engage Imagination: The Role of Play in Mental Health

In the context of mental health, there is a subtle but key difference between fantasy and imagination. Although these concepts are similar, they’re different in important ways:

An illustration of a woman with black hair demonstrating fantasy.

Fantasy allows us to split off from the people and the world around us. Through fantasy, we escape into a world of our own creation. There, we are safely insulated from the disruption of otherness, but also isolated from connection.

Imagination, however, stands in deep contrast to this definition of fantasy. Imagination, which takes courage and creativity, involves offering parts of the true self to the outer world with vulnerability and authenticity.

An illustration of a woman with red hair demonstrating imagination

Imagination is the key ingredient in all forms of play, all movement toward recovery, and all good therapy. It invites us to participate in shaping the world around us rather than simply adapting to the (often really distorted) reality around us.

Recently, I took to my digital sketchpad to create an illustration showing the difference between fantasy and reality. Download my doodle below.

“When we lose the capacity for imaginative life […] then we die to ourselves, we experience a living death which is often masked by a compliant outer shell.”

Stephen K Levine1

Understanding Fantasy as a Psychological Concept

Everyone needs an escape sometimes – it’s why we enjoy going to movies, playing video games, and getting sucked into a great novel – but there is a limit to just how much of this type of escapism is good for our brains.

A pile of thing people use to distract.

You might think of fantasy as mere daydreaming. But fantasy plays a much larger role in most people’s lives.

Daydreaming about time travel, gaining superhero powers, or becoming a celebrity are common fantasies. While those types of fantasies are easy to recognize, many of us spend a lot of time invested in far more complex fantasy-driven thought.

Psychiatrist Donald Winnicott, one of the key thinkers that formed British Object Relations which has a key role in shaping modern psychodynamic therapy made a clear distinction between “fantasy” and “imagination”.

“Fantasy,” Levine writes in his work, “is imagination manqué; it refers to the kind of daydreaming that walls the person up in his or her internal world and leads to no form of doing, of efficacy.”2

Examples of how fantasy interrupts thriving mental health:

  • 😔 Living with, and making life decisions based on, a posture of “if only (he/she/they) take me back, I get a better job, my partner changes, etc”
  • 🌍💻 Creating, investing in, and managing virtual worlds in which we’re given power and control that we lack in reality.
  • 😬🙏 Shaping our way of being in the world to avoid conflict, while fostering the belief that if we are agreeable enough we can avoid the conflict we fear.

In the realm of Psychology, fantasy can be difficult to tell apart from from imagination at first. However, when we get curious about our motivations, fantasy is often rooted in our deepest fears and the terror of engaging with our deepest desires.

Download A “Fantasy vs. Imagination” PDF

Understanding Imagination as a Psychological Concept

Donald Winnicott, A British pediatrician and psychoanalyst who worked in the first half of the 20th century, proposed that play and imagination are key to both good therapy and good mental health. “It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”3

Although they look similar on the surface, imagination is a fundamentally different activity than fantasy. “Imagination is the means by which we reach out and connect with otherness.”4 While fantasy draws a person inward away from the external world, imagination is a practice of expanding outwards from internal experience into the world around us.

“Sickness and suffering, then, come from a wound to our imaginative capacity. We fantasize because we cannot imagine. Through fear of rejection and abandonment, we detach ourselves from our bodies, from others, from the world as a whole.”5

Imagination and play are almost synonymous according to Winnicott, and in fact, I’ve written before about how play is key to thriving. According to his theories as a psychoanalyst and one of the very first play therapists, a child’s movement into play is our first act of moving our imagining into the world around us in a generative, creative way.

Obviously, the creation of art, music, interpretive movement, and other forms of creative media are examples of imagination. But imagination also takes other forms.

Some Less obvious examples of imagination include:

  • 🌵 Curating a small collection of rare plants, and creating a meet-up for other plant lovers to connect and swap gardening secrets.
  • 🍝 Loving how it feels to prepare food for other people, and working through commercial kitchens to eventually open a restaurant.
  • 🛋️ A client in therapy who is terrified that their therapist might think they are clingy allowing themselves to entertain the possibility, and eventually act on the possibility, that their needs might be valid and worth being fulfilled.

As you can see from this list, imagination takes countless forms in each of our lives. At its core, imagination is the capacity to take something from our internal life and move it into the external world in a generative way.

When Imagination is Broken

Winnicott believed that mental illness came from a splitting off of the self from the world. When a child’s world wasn’t safe to inhabit, Winnicott believed the child’s mind would use fantasy to cope.

Rather than engaging in the psychically harmful outer world, the child would deny it and escape into an inner, safer world. While the external world perceived an agreeable, obedient, compliant child, the “true self” remained protected in the inner world of fantasy. As these kids grew into adults, Winnicott theorized, they were faced with a decision: a lifeless existence as their false self, or a life withdrawn in fantasy.

Recovery, therefore, in this theory, required a return to engagement with the outer world: imagination, and, essentially, play.

This understanding of mental health symptoms proposes that healing comes not via the management of symptoms through better skills to cope with reality or ability to reframe our cognitive thought, but instead through an increased capacity to play.

“We do not aim at helping someone adapt to reality; rather we seek to help him or her live more creatively. Only the restoration of the imagination can achieve this goal.”6

According to Stephen K Levine, “the play of imagination always requires a medium, some form which can serve as a bridge between self and other. Here is where the particular virtue of expressive arts therapy becomes evident.”6

The following section may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, these links help make my art sustainable.

Photograph of the cover of the book Poiesis.

The book that inspired this illustration is Poiesis by Stephen K. Levine.

You can buy the book here from Amazon, or from an independent book seller by clicking here.

In Conclusion

The capacity for imagination and play is essential for our well-being and mental health. When we lose touch with our imaginative life and succumb to a compliant outer shell, we experience a living death within ourselves.

Fantasy, although providing temporary escape, can trap us in our internal world and prevent us from engaging with reality. On the other hand, imagination involves vulnerability, authenticity, and the willingness to shape the world around us. Imagination allows us to connect with otherness and explore our deepest desires.

By nurturing our imagination and embracing the power of play, we can live more creatively, authentically, and fully. It is through the restoration of our imaginative capacities that we can truly thrive and find fulfillment in our lives.

Image Description for Screen Readers:

The image is of two doodles on a light pink background. The doodle on the left is of a person, drawn from the abdomen up, with a medium skin tone with shoulder length, straight black hair. They are wearing a flat affect and are dressed in a yellow tank top, with their arms crossed across their chest. There is a purple circle around them that has arrows pointing in toward them. Under this person is text that reads, “Fantasy collapses inward.” The person on the left, who is also drawn from the abdomen up, has a light skin tone, a freckled face wearing a pleased expression, and long, thick, curly red hair. They are wearing a green sweatshirt and have a gold circle around them that is covered in ivy. It has arrows pointing outward. Text under this reads, “Imagination draws us outward.” 

  1. Levine, S. K. (1997). Poiesis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul. United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Pub. Pg 37. []
  2. Levine, S. K. (1997). Poiesis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul. United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Pub. []
  3. Winnicott, D. W. (1991). Playing and Reality. United Kingdom: Routledge. []
  4. Levine, S. K. (1997). Poiesis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul. United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Pub. Pg 33. []
  5. Levine, S. K. (1997). Poiesis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul. United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Pub. Page 41 []
  6. Levine, S. K. (1997). Poiesis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul. United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Pub. Page 42 [] []

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