The Difference Between Fantasy and Desire

June 1, 2016

Millions of thoughts pass through our minds every day, but we only select those we consider to be the most relevant.

We choose the thoughts that best represent us in a given moment. We choose thoughts that are most useful for resolving a certain problem quickly, and those that agree with our vision of the world, of other people, and of the future.

It is this very human capacity that allows us to change the world around us and modify the way in which we interpret it. However, this goes hand in hand with the very human weakness of succumbing to negative thoughts that harm us and paralyze us. 

profile of woman fantasy

Our mind is capable of imagining the best, but also in recreating our worst nightmares. Pathological anxiety, for example, is based in our interpretation of situations that we view as threatening and that often only exist in our imagination.

In other words, we are inherently influenced by our predictions and anticipations about what could happen. These thoughts can paralyze us when we are faced with threatening situations that don’t even yet exist. Our thoughts, which are formed from past experiences and physical reactions of fear, anticipate disaster.

Fantasy: the soul’s best friend and worst enemy

Fantasy allows us to construct parallel worlds, impossible creatures, and magnificent stories like the ones we see in movies. Not only does artistic creation benefit from this ability to fantasize, but also science advances thanks to the fantasy of going beyond what we see and what we know.

However, it is very important to know where the line is drawn between fantasy and reality. It is within that distinction that the great mystery of that which we truly want and that which we simply imagine is hidden.

The key to this is found in knowing that we are capable of imagining the best, but also the worst. We must also be able to recognize that not everything about which we fantasize is something we truly desire. We must be able to see them for what they really: only thoughts.

“When I examine my methods of thought, I reach the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” 

-Albert Einstein-

For example, we could be driving a car, imagining that we are turning the wheel quickly and, because of that voluntary act, we unleash a series of events that will end in disaster.

We are able to imagine the moment, the words spoken by family in the hospital, the pain that we would cause. We can imagine the wrecked car, and even take it as far as picturing our own funeral. We can imagine and picture all of these things in our mind, but that doesn’t mean we want it to happen.

We can walk down the street, see a person, and imagine the story of that person’s life. We can fantasize about what their life might be like, their past, their job, their hobbies, their weaknesses, and what it would be like to meet that person. But it does not mean that meeting them is something we necessarily desire.

When fantasy becomes desire

Desire is something more than fantasy. Fantasy remains in our mind. It swims through our imagination, and increases our creative thinking. With desire, there is a component of action, an intention of movement, while fantasy is only hypothetical.

surreal image girl room and beach fantasy

When we are driven by desire, we are moved by something deep inside us. Our desires align with our morals and our way of understanding the world.

A desire may start as fantasy. We fantasize about something and we ask ourselves if we want to carry it out and make it reality. If the answer is a definite yes, then from that moment on we can make the decision to carry out an action, or a gesture, that leads us down the path towards the objective of that desire.

In order to clearly understand the difference between fantasy and desire, we can consider the example of infidelity. We can have fantasies about being with other people who are not our significant other, but in real life we don’t actually want to do it.

In reality, fantasy only serves as a way to exercise our our imagination. We can simply take pleasure in these images, or transform them into artistic expression. This does not mean that we are unfaithful. It is only fantasy, and we should not feel bad about it.

If that fantasy becomes real desire, it may mean that it goes beyond just being a game in one’s own mind. It can move something inside us and motivate us to actually carry it out through actions and words.

This does not mean that it will inevitably become a reality, but it may mean that we really truly desire something when it becomes more than just a thought. Fantasy is not desire. We can have fantasies and never actually want to make them reality.

  • Fernández, C. R. (2017). Sobre la castración y sus destinos: la fantasía, el juego, la teoría sexual, las imágenes. Letra en Psicoanálisis3(1).
  • Hekimian, G. A. (2016). Ética del deseo (Doctoral dissertation, Universidad Complutense de Madrid).
  • Scott, J. W. (2016). El eco de fantasía: la historia y la construcción de la identidad. La manzana de la discordia4(1), 129-143.