There is a considerable difference between escapism and taking a break. Merriam-Webster defines escapism as “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine.” Meanwhile, taking a break is a form of self-care—something you might do when you need a rest or recharge.
How can you tell the difference between escapism and taking a break, especially when the activities themselves can overlap? The answer lies in the motive behind what you are doing.
Escapism is my dear old friend
As a childhood trauma survivor, escapism through books, stories, and poems kept me alive. I would read romance novels, both Harlequins and classics like Jane Eyre, because I had few romantic prospects of my own.
These characters became like actual people to me and helped me avoid the unloved feeling that lived deep inside me. I would write stories of what I wished life could be like. I spent a great deal of time writing poems that expressed my pain.
Now, reading a book can be a form of self-care. It is an activity that brings many people joy. Writing and journaling are also healthy avenues for taking a break. My problem was I read to avoid my actual life. Instead of being with my real friends, I would become Jane.
The pages would come alive and draw me in. I hated not finishing a book in one sitting because it felt like I was experiencing the words for real, and I had to know how my story would end—thankfully, I read fast.
Whenever my grandma would call me from room to do something, and I had to put my book down, I would be distraught. I did my best to hide it but, my best was not great. I was moody, angry, and in a mental fog. I rushed to return to the paper that offered me a glimpse into these strange emotions.
The pages in my books were tear-stained, yet not a drop of moisture fell from my lashes when my mother missed another visit. I documented my unrequited teenage love with flowery prose but barely dated anyone. I knew passion, thanks to Danielle Steel.
Looking back, I’m not surprised; I remember only a few moments from middle school and high school, as I was actively trying to live in the world of words stored in my head.
Reading is not the only way to escape, though. Someone might play video games after work to prevent the monotonous, lonely feeling of an empty house. They might like to lie on the couch and binge-watch mindless TV shows to escape their real-life pressures.
Whatever the method or the reason or the amount of time you spend doing the activity, true escapism will eventually lead to self-judgment. You will no longer find joy in your chosen method; instead, frustrations and resentment will rise.
How taking a break is different
Taking a break will have the opposite long-term effects of escapism. You might choose to read a book, play a game, or watch a show if it leaves you feeling less burnt out than before. Burnout looks a little different for everyone, but there are a few telltale signs.
The first is having trouble getting out of bed, which might have something to do with not getting a good night’s sleep. If you are feeling indifferent about your life, it is time for a break. Trouble focusing or finding motivation is another indicator that a break would do you some good.
The difference between a break and escapism is that you are taking care of yourself. Self-care is a fundamental need. Buddha once said, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
Alexis Meads, a dating coach, listed 50 Ways to Practice Self-Love. I loved all of them, and some made me giggle, like “wear red lipstick and heels because it’s Tuesday.” My body would think I was trying to murder it if I wore heels around the house on Tuesday. But to each their own! These five felt like the ones that would have the most long-term effects:
- Clean your home or apartment
- Start the day off with two minutes of meditation
- Make it a priority to get eight hours of sleep
- Get your sweat on
- Cut down on your caffeine intake (and up the water intake!)
Reading a good book made her list too!
How do you stop running away from your life?
One innovative way to combat escapist behavior is to make a separate list of things you have meant to do, but don’t have time. It might look something like this:
- Organize the pots and pans in the cabinet
- Check out the Pier One closing sale before the store is gone
- Watch a movie with the kids
- Clean out my closet of clothes I don’t wear
Yes, this is my actual list! Now that you have yours, here is what to do. I typically lie on my couch from about nine until midnight watching Lucifer (don’t judge me until you have SEEN Lucifer).
Tonight, instead of watching three episodes of Lucifer, maybe I clean out the closet and then watch one episode before going to bed. I can still get my Lucifer fix, but I won’t be avoiding the things I need to do in my real life. You can update your list as you cross things off!
Another way to fight against the siren’s call of escapism is to observe your thoughts. According to PyscholoGenie.com, you should follow your thoughts as you have one and “Experience it.
Remember, no judging or fighting it.” Then you can ask yourself how it made you feel, and question why you think the way you do about certain situations. This can help you recognize if certain conditions trigger your desire to escape.
Finally, work on loving and accepting yourself. Oli Anderson, author of Shadow Life: Freedom from Bullshit in an Unreal World, reminds us that, “If you don’t accept yourself, you can’t transcend yourself and the world: first, you need to increase your awareness, then you need to accept what you learn, then you need to take action.” We have everything inside of us that we need to reach our full potential; sometimes, the circumstances that happen to us in life help us to forget that.
We all need a break; it is necessary for our sanity and our health. The problem lies in when we take breaks to avoid our goals. We only have one life to live, and practicing avoidance techniques is not living to the fullest.
Like many other things, it is all about balance. Read the book, but don’t become the characters and watch your life go by. Watch the TV show, but don’t neglect your closet.