When we consider the idea of an imaginary friend, the image that immediately springs to mind is that of a child with a toy who has become animate in some way. Or maybe a child speaking to a companion, colourfully created from the depths of their fanciful minds. In 1934, Dr Margaret Svendsen of the Institute for Juvenile Research in Chicago defined an imaginary companion as “an invisible character named and referred to in conversation with other persons or played with directly for a period of time, at least several months, having an air of reality for the child, but no apparent objective basis.”
Yet, the whole concept of such companions can also be found within adults, with muses and literary characters jumping out of the mind of creative types and on to the page. Research, such as a study by Marjorie Taylor and Anne Mannering of the University of Oregon, presents the argument that the term ‘imaginary friend’ can be extended much wider than the limitations we place upon it. Edith Warton, Leo Tolstoy and Gustave Flaubert all had such acquaintances too, but as they were named, written down and feasted upon by eyes the world over, we do not call the Anna Karenina-types of this world ‘imaginary friends’, but rather, ‘characters’.
Is that not the same thing? One author - who asks to remain unnamed - explains that you can have a plan for your characters and their storylines, but sometimes you get to the event that you've been building them up to and realise it's not something they'd ever do. They've grown from being words on paper to actual people, with lives and personalities, in your mind. Therein seemingly lies a difference; I spoke with an anonymous adult when writing this piece - let’s call them James* for ease of reference - who said of his companion “what she does outside of our interaction is a mystery to me!” Such is the same for Joacquin Phoenix’s character in Spike Jones’ Her, who spirals into misery when he does find out what his unseen companion gets up to outside their inward-looking relationship.
Research the phrase ‘imaginary friends’ and you will find a multitude of information on children, but little on adults. There are examples in culture, but they often come with undertones of schizophrenia or DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), such as in notorious films Fight Club or Donnie Darko. It is perhaps for this reason why having an ‘imaginary friend’ is not always seen as a positive attribute in adulthood. As Dr Tracy Gleason of Wellesley College told me: “Most people who research the area refer to them as imaginary companions, seeing as how they are not always friends”.
When speaking with James initially about childhood imaginary companions, he notes that those who have them “are often high achievers, more than averagely socially comfortable and generally show stronger traits towards compassion and sympathy for their peers,” a fact which Dr Tracy Gleason confirmed. It was with this in mind that he felt more encouraged to talk more openly about his experience with others, having been initially wary of the negative stereotypes he assumed would be held against him.
As he explains, “The relationship [with my companion] began with the shift from having a conversation or set of thoughts to myself, to having a much more succinct conversation with her [the friend], thus pushing myself to form audible words and sentences in my mind to communicate to her. This exercise in itself helped me to typify some issues and bring them into a new light. She provides entertainment, makes me smile, reduces my stress and generally I feel more of a fulfilled person. I find often you only have to put your problems into a sentence to realise their insignificance,” he explains.
You might assume that a fully functioning 28-year-old with a companion that only they can see is a little bit unusual. It is easy to see why many quickly try to brand it under the umbrella of mental illness. Yet in doing this, we stigmatise and allow for many unfounded stereotypes and assumptions to exist. We treat those with imaginary companions as experiencing a ‘phase’ and laugh them off when instead we should be seeking to learn more.
Bravery is the word that springs to mind for me when I talk to people like James; they exhibit a double-fronted bravery in which they fully confront both themselves and the inevitable comments that society would make if they knew. In talking about their imaginary companion, they are exposing something personal and private that is tucked away deep in the mind. It is revealing, and opens oneself up to vulnerabilities and insecurities.
As James explains when talking about his decision to be open about his companion: “I realised that the comfort and simple entertainment of the exercise outweighed the social stigma… Most [people] initially react in a predictably cautious or uncomfortable manner, but I suppose due to the frank and very private subject matter, they overcome these feelings with intrigue… She [my friend] is my own invention and seems to only play a positive role in my life, therefore I don't see the problem. It makes life more interesting anyhow.”
If having such a companion is so helpful to some, why is it then that less adults would appear to have imaginary friends than children? It is my guess that social response plays a key part in answering this. As we develop and grow, we become more aware of the judgments and views placed upon everything by society. Others shape reality for us and, at least outwardly, we lose a certain sense of self that we weren’t so conscious about in the hedonism of childhood. It becomes harder to imagine the ‘unreal’ as we lose what James defines as “the ease with which children fall into a wondrous world of seemingly infinite possibilities and excitement.”
Still, we all need guidance and often go to friends or family for it, allowing more outside beliefs to influence our internal reality, despite the fact that, as James puts it, “fundamentally we as human beings can never truly understand each other or put ourselves in another’s place.” Perhaps rather than looking outwards all the time for answers, we should start looking within. As well as building a deeper sense of self, we may also find greater peace too. As Machiavelli suggested in a letter to Francesco Vettori in 1513, an imaginary companion is a form of escape: “And for the space of four hours, I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.”
Perhaps then an imaginary friend in an adult is that moral compass we all have, the voices of reason that some quell and others seek out - which, according to the National Science Foundation, tallies up to as many as 50,000 thoughts per day, of which 95 per cent are repeated daily and act as a reflection of our mindset or the beliefs we hold. As James tells me, “She is the personification of my conscience… she talks more directly from some inner sense of truth.” It is a refuge found within.
Words: Anna Haze
Photography: Part of 'Album' a series by Jon Uriarte