Conventional wisdom says, “Follow your dreams.” For most of my life, I’ve tried to follow mine in the conventional sense—by bringing my fantasies to life. This was not always such a wise idea.

As a child, I began to dream about performing on various stages. I’d dream of singing my heart out, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, and giving an Oscar acceptance speech. I wanted to be an actress, a politician, a talk show host, and a ballerina. These daydreams were once so powerful and mesmerizing that I’d often find myself mid-laugh, mid-Oscar-winning-smile, or mid-passionate-political-roar in public places. These moments embarrassed me, but they also motivated me. I strove to fulfill these passions, both as a child and as an adult. While some people accused me of flushing my potential down the toilet, I believe that my quest to bring these dreams to reality was harmless (and even valuable). But these were not the only dreams I had.

In grade 7, four years after immigrating to Canada, I began to have a recurring daydream. It went something like this. I pull up in front of my elementary school in a red sports car driven by some sexy man. All my grade 7 classmates happen to be standing on the front lawn. I gracefully hop out of the car to go pick something up at the principal’s office. I am now a fully-grown adult with perfect breasts and a tiny waist. My stretch marks have disappeared. My skin is tanned, pimple-free, and glowing. Miraculously, I have grown to almost six feet tall. As I walk up to the building, everyone stops, and gasps.

“Oh my God! Is that her?!”

They try to talk to me, but no. No. You didn’t want me back then, and now that I’m perfect and beautiful, I don’t want you.

The accessories in the story would change. Sometimes, the man was dark-skinned, sometimes light. Sometimes, the car was the one from Sixteen Candles; other times, The Fast and the Furious. Sometimes, I’d be wearing a slinky dress; other times, shorts. Sometimes, I’d be talking on a cell phone, laughing while my hair blew in the breeze like a shampoo commercial. Sometimes, I’d spring out of the car as it was still moving. In all these scenarios, one thing remained constant: I felt glamorous, important, and compensated—by the jealous stares of my classmates—for the years of taunting and rejection.

I had this dream countless times. It was not until years later that I realized how delusional it truly was. Even if, genetics be damned, I could have grown into a six-foot-tall model, this would have taken years. My grade 7 classmates would have become adults by that time. Even if the school had (for some reason) asked me to return years later, I would have ended up, at best, as a provocatively dressed adult woman strutting in front of a group of gaping children I’d never met before. This could be called many things, but glamorous is not one of them. To follow this dream would have been inadvisable, to say the least. Yet I tried to fulfill it in other embarrassing ways. I would dress up and strut down the street, imagining the reactions of passersby—reactions that painted my imaginary world over the landscape of reality.

Then, there were the dark daydreams—the ones that aren’t so funny to remember. In elementary school, around the same time, I started having daydreams about getting sick or hurt. I dreamed about going to the hospital, being diagnosed with cancer, breaking my arm, and even dying. I also had dreams about this happening to people I knew. While the scenarios changed like the wind, one plot element remained constant: the phone call. I’d be sitting in class or, as I grew older, at work. I’d answer the phone, listen for a moment, and go ghastly white. Everyone would look at me. Everyone would pity me. In versions of this daydream where I had died, someone who had wronged me would pick up the phone. Gasp. Blanch. Remorse. Later on, all my classmates, family members, or co-workers would sit in a circle lamenting all the ways they had mistreated me. Driven by these daydreams, I milked every pain and tragedy. I used my wounds as a way to get attention instead of addressing them. Thus, they remained unhealed. I kept myself sick. Worse yet, the more I learned to get attention this way, the less I felt bound to the truth. What began as a bit of exaggeration grew into a convoluted labyrinth of lies.

When I first acknowledged these tendencies, I felt like a disgusting monster. I vowed never to tell anyone about what happened in the dark corners of my mind. I started to think of myself as twisted and sick-minded. This self-image strengthened as I began to have violent daydreams as well. Driven by unresolved anger toward three men who had hurt me, I wove a tapestry of resentment around relationships, love, and men. In my early twenties, I began to have fantasies about going to a bar, having a man disrespect me, and beating him to a bloody pulp. Everyone would look at me. Everyone would fear and respect me. They’d whisper about my strength. These daydreams were just as powerful and consuming. I’d find myself mid-sneer or mid-aggressive-growl in the same public places. These dreams, I also tried to fulfill. With too many drinks in me—which, for a while, I often had—I would see a man doing something I deemed non-consensual, and I would play saviour. Oftentimes, I’d “save” myself. My dreams of strength suffocated my empathy. It was especially unfair to the men in my life whom I pigeonholed as manipulative, violent, and controlling. All the while, the only one who merited those labels was the person I had become.

The daydreams seeped into real life. Before parties and club nights, I would imagine making groups of people laugh. I’d imagine saying the perfect thing to drop jaws and earn respect. I’d imagine the music skipping a beat when I walked in. Just like the movies. Then, every time I stepped into a real-life social situation, I’d imagine people judging me, hating me, ridiculing me. My idealisms so easily turned to paranoia. My only self-protective mechanism was addiction. When I was sober in public, I’d think, “Oh no, everyone is looking at me.” When I was intoxicated, I’d think, “Oh yeah, everyone is looking at me!” For the most part, these things were happening only in my head. My daydream life was spiraling into a nightmare.

Like this, I tried to follow my dreams. But as I grew from a hopeful child who just wanted to be loved into an addicted, paranoid young woman who wanted to hurt and be hurt for attention, “follow your dreams” seemed like dangerous advice. The real danger, however, was my inability to interpret these fantasies. Instead of trying to make all my dreams into reality, I needed to understand them, decode them. To follow them like a private investigator follows a target.

As I began my journey of self-discovery, these daydreams began to disappear. The first to go were the violent ones. With each person I forgave, my anger subsided. My hatred of men evaporated. Then, I began to make eye contact with my reflection as well as with other people. I realized that all eyes were not on me.

follow your dreams the dark side of following your dreams

My dreams of importance held strong for longer. As I was writing The Love Mindset, I daydreamed about Oprah calling me while I was at my dreaded day job. She would tell me she loved my book and wanted to fly me to her house for a few days before putting me on the show. These dreams began to disappear when I became a coach. Each time I faced a person heart to heart, soul to soul, I felt important. I’d come off every session with a layer of sweat on my back and butterflies in my stomach. As I learned to be more honest and compassionate, these feelings became even more powerful. With time, my dreams of admiration disappeared. I had satisfied my need for significance in a most unexpected way!

Learning to support and encourage other people also eradicated my fantasies of being better than them. True power, I discovered, was to be powerful with others, not over them. I experience my power through the connection I feel to each person, each moment. I am no longer stuck in a cave, dreaming of the sky. I have my wings spread. There’s no need to create an imaginary world in my head because I have found magic in the one that exists.

I wanted to matter, and now I know I do. I don’t have a sports car. I’m not six feet tall. Oprah hasn’t called. I know I matter because I feel it when I connect to people, to nature, to life. When I see raw human passion and strength, I feel how much we all matter. And when I witness the intricate patterns of the natural world, I feel how much everything matters.

What I find most remarkable is this: moments that have most resembled the scenarios in my daydreams have not satisfied me. Such situations only caused my fantasies to persist or intensify. After I received an award onstage as I was graduating college, I fantasized about getting more awards. After I found myself on the set of a local television station talking about my book, I dreamed of doing more TV interviews. But after an intimate chat with my partner or a deep conversation with a client, I dream of nothing. I feel full. When I’m by myself writing, singing, or playing music, I feel satisfied. It seems reasonable to fantasize about food when you’re starving, but who would dream about food after having a hearty meal? An addict, that’s who. In hindsight, that’s exactly what I was.

My fantasies were self-communications coded in my own unique language. But instead of trying to translate them accurately, I made assumptions. I see now that the messages themselves were simple. I wanted to matter, so I dreamed of being on stage. I wanted strength, so I dreamed of violence. I wanted empathy, so I dreamed of being hurt. I wanted love, so I dreamed of being perfect. These desires exist in all human beings, and my mind did its best to construct scenarios where I could fulfill them. But all I had to draw from was too much television and a poverty of real-world experience. Because I misunderstood the language of my daydreams, my unfulfilled desires intensified. So did my fantasies about fulfilling them. Instead of using my daydreams to guide me toward reality, I warped my inner world to match my imaginary one. I became so addicted to my make-believe emotions that real-life experiences could never compete with them. Living without explosive rage was more peaceful, but it did not give me ecstasy. The moments I had with my clients were blissful, but they were not euphoric. The epiphanies that changed my life lit me on fire, but those flames only burned for so long. After a lifetime of extremism and self-deception, I had to get used to peace, to silence, to the real world.

Without violent anger, I no longer felt strong. Without paranoia, I no longer felt confident. Without egotistical delusions, I no longer felt important. Without attention-seeking lies, I no longer knew how to get reactions out of people. I had to learn to meet my emotional needs in other ways—healthier ways. And I had to navigate new relationships with anger, fear, attention, and imagination. It was a difficult journey. It definitely was not a wave of blissful realization peppered with moments of enlightenment and epiphany. It was messy, beautiful, uncomfortable, and meaningful all at once. It was as reality always is.

The more I understood and fulfilled my needs, the more authentically I could relate to the world around me. Men, instead of scapegoats, became human beings—full of the same fears, hopes, doubts, and beauty as everyone else. The stage, instead of a pedestal for admiration, became a place for sharing my emotions and ideas. My creative pursuits, instead of being ploys for attention, became methods of self-expression. My wounds, instead of earning me pity, became pathways to empathy. And my dreams, instead of addictive self-delusions, became guideposts to self-discovery.

I have learned to question my assumptions. I have learned to hear my inner voices and become curious about their intended communications. I have learned to be comfortable with silence. I have learned to match my translations to reality. I have made some progress, but I cannot claim that I’ve discovered my own Rosetta Stone of correct translations for all my dreams, feelings, and thoughts. Learning to interpret the voices within me has been, and will continue to be, a lifetime job. In the end, the most important thing I have learned is this: my inner experience, even when it shows up to me in the plainest English, is always open for interpretation. My mind already translates my self-communications—with or without my consent. And I can choose to be an active participant in that translation process. I can choose to understand instead of pretending to know.

If you’d like to better understand who you are and what you deeply want, consider taking our course, 30 Challenges to Enlightenment.