Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Defence of Imaginary Friends

Have you ever noticed how imaginary friends are inevitably portrayed as being either a symptom of mental illness or sinister supernatural presences. I'm not just talking about horror films here, even soap operas fall prey to these stereotypes. Take Home and Away, for instance. Earlier this year they ran a lengthy story line in which school teacher Miles struck up a friendship with a young girl that, it transpired, only he could see and hear. Now, not only was his imaginary friend characterised as being a symptom of Miles' stress-related mental breakdown but, at times, a sinister motive for her actions was implied. Although to Miles she always seemed benign, the overall impression given by the story line was that imaginary friends, particularly when seen by thirty something men, are a 'bad' thing. Now, I'd beg to differ on this issue. In my experience, imaginary friends are perfectly harmless, not to mention normal. The key thing, of course, is that we recognise that they are only imaginary, not real.

I was put in mind of this whilst talking to the older of my great nieces the other day. I was telling her how, when I was around her age, I'd hidden in a clothes basket, when it occurred to me that was a pretty foolish thing to tell a child of not quite four years old. Worried that she'd try to emulate my idiotic exploits, with disastrous consequences, I emphasised that under no circumstances should she hide in clothes, or any similar, baskets. Her response was that she wouldn't, but her imaginary friend might. But that was alright, as said friend was just imaginary and therefore couldn't really hurt themselves. It struck me that if even a child of my great niece's tender years is able to distinguish the essential differences between real and imaginary people, then there really can't be anything terribly unhealthy about imaginary friends. Now, you are probably thinking that it's all very well to not be worried about a small child having imaginary friends, but surely it isn't unreasonable for adults who have them to be portrayed as mentally ill?

Well, not necessarily. Whilst imaginary friends, in their purest sense of being non-existent entities seen as being external to ourselves, do tend to be things we grow out of as we leave childhood, in a broader sense, they're always with us. We, all of us, have an internal monologue running continuously in our heads, evaluating situations, commenting on people and events, weighing up the pros and cons of decisions. Whilst we like to refer to this as a 'monologue' and perceive it as being the purest expression of our 'self', in truth, it more frequently like a dialogue. I know I can only speak for myself here, but I'm frequently posing questions in my interior 'monologue', questions which are subsequently answered internally. But exactly who am I asking, and who is replying? Obviously, the answer to both questions is 'me'. But it is as if, temporarily, the mind is able to 'split' the self into two separate entities for the purpose of carrying on this internal 'dialogue'. Which is perfectly logical - we'd be constantly 'talking' to ourselves otherwise, wouldn't we? Now, that really would be insane!

Indeed, over the years, I've been very grateful for the presence of my internal imaginary friend - some of the most interesting conversations I've had have been with myself. It really has stopped me from going crazy. The fact is, though, that imaginary friends of all types are actually far superior to 'real' ones. For one thing, as my great niece noted, they aren't subject to normal human frailties - they don't get ill or hungover and they are never offended by anything you say. They never let you down, either - they're always there for you. They're never disloyal, they always listen to what you are saying. They never interrupt. You can always be sure that there are never ulterior motives behind their friendship. So, lay off he imaginary friends. They're OK really.



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