Coping through Imaginary Friends

(warning, this post contains Inside Out spoilers)Bing Bong

I cried while watching the new Pixar film, Inside Out. It’s a tearjerker, full of childhood nostalgia and coming-of-age emotions. But there’s one part that I didn’t cry at and I’ve discovered from reading others’ reactions is that I must have a cold, hard heart.

I didn’t cry about Bing Bong. Bing Bong’s demise didn’t tug at my heartstrings. I mean, I know what it’s like to have imaginary friends. But the thing is, they haven’t disappeared into a “Memory Dump.” I still interact with them, probably every 1-2 days.

Now, they aren’t what you’d think of as a stereotypical “imaginary friend.” In fact, I didn’t really think of them as “imaginary friends” until after I was trying to figure out why I didn’t like Bing Bong in the movie. He’s not representative of the sample of the characters I talk to in my head. He’s a caricature of what adults thinks children’s imaginary friends look like, not what they really are.

So how does an adult end up with “imaginary friends?” Mine started in books I read in my early teen years. As a form of escapism, I would try to imagine myself in the books I read, interacting with the characters, having conversations. The ones I enjoyed most turned got turned into various story lines and I’d “act” them out or speak the conversations in my head while walking home from school or driving to work. My favorites suck with me and now I have a few regular characters in a story that I play in my head when I want to: while commuting to/from work, while doing dishes, while falling asleep at night.

I kind of imagine this is how people write fanfic, though these little story lines in my head aren’t anything that would be publishable. Mostly they are self-indulgent and escapist. As a teen, whenever something big happened that I couldn’t handle such as 9-11 or major family emergencies, the story lines and characters would change. They change less often now, but if there is something coming up in my life that I anticipate be stressful, I’ll imagine the characters showing up dramatically in the middle of that future event and asking me to run off with them and saving the world. There are other stories, but that’s the main one.

So it’s absolutely a coping mechanism. Maybe it’s not healthy, but I figure it’s more healthy than other coping mechanisms. And I know they aren’t “real” and they are just characters in my mind. But I like having them around. I can’t imagine not having them around.

It was only recently that I told my husband about my “imaginary friends.” It’s not something you really talk about! When I was in my late teens, I tried asking my mom if she ever “imagined things” and she said no. I felt like an anomaly because even at that age, I couldn’t imagine “growing out” of imagining these characters. And so far, I haven’t.

In an effort to make myself feel more normal, I found this Ted Talk titled “Adults Need More Imaginary Friends.”

And in an effort to make the rest of you adult-imaginary-friend-havers feel more comfortable, I wrote this post.


Do you have “imaginary friends?” Do you use escapism to cope with the unmanageable parts of life?


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

You may also like...

4 Responses

  1. Patty says:

    No imaginary friends exactly. But I discovered as a child that books were a great escape when life got me down. I don’t try to pull the characters out of the book, but it’s a big thrill when a favorite author has written a new book. Two current favorites: Jimmy Perez (Shetland series, Ann Cleeves) and Guido Brunnetti (set in Venice, Donna Leon-I love his wife and teenage kids too!). Locations are really important in both of these series and I think that’s another factor in why I think they are such great escapes.

  2. Amy says:

    Until today, I didn’t think anyone else did this! Like you, my stories began in my early teen years, and the cast of characters has developed and expanded over the years. Many have dropped off to be replaced by new characters and stories that, for whatever reason, better resonate with whatever stage I am in. For me it may be partly a coping mechanism, but has also been an empathy mechanism. Living with these imaginary friends forces me to really think about not just what choices they would make, but why – especially when they lead lives very different from my own.

    I’ve found that since I got married and had children in my early 30s, I don’t spend as much time with my characters. I don’t know why I don’t need them as much anymore, but they are still there. Until I read your post, this was a completely secret little world that I had never told anyone, but that was nevertheless a very important part of my life. Now I’ve been thinking all day about what purpose these stories serve for me.

    • TopHat says:

      You aren’t alone! The amount of time I’ve spent with my “imaginary friends” changes depending on circumstances, too. It was low until I’ve been doing a lot of commuting lately, so my mind is more free to do things like run through these stories. It’ll probably ebb and flow again.

  3. Emily U says:

    My family saw this film tonight! We all cried. I cried for Bing Bong, but not because he really resembled a childhood imaginary friend that I feel lonely for. To me he represented stories and/or coping mechanisms of the past that I once relied on but have moved past/outgrown. Possibly also past versions of my faith, though I wasn’t really thinking that at the time.

    I imagine things all the time, but not narratives with recurring characters, like the imagined friends you describe. I think that’s why I love reading fiction so much, to me the characters are always real (unless it’s bad fiction, but that’s another conversation), as real as the actual people I know. Sometimes more real, in fact, because I get inside the head of fictional characters in ways that I usually don’t with real people. I think imagining things is a perfectly healthy coping mechanism.

Leave a Reply