Sometimes life gets twisted. Sometimes reality simply does not like us or does not correspond to our expectations. So we have two options: we practice radical acceptance or we become experts in escapism.
We usually bet more on the second option than on the first one. Partly because we want to continue to hold on to our hopes, and partly because it is often very difficult to accept reality. However, we must be careful because we could develop what is known in Psychology as Bovarism or the Madame Bovary Syndrome.
What is Bovarism?
Bovarism takes its name from Madame Bovary, the character of Gustave Flaubert who had the tendency to deny reality and escape from it in his daydreams, seeing herself as a heroine and turning a deaf ear to everything that happened around her, striving to achieve impossible goals.
Madame Bovary had preconceived ideas about marriage and social life that did not correspond to what happened in her real life, which she considered ordinary, monotonous and boring. For that reason, she began fantasizing about an idyllic life, moving away more and more from reality. As a result, she was accumulating more and more dissatisfaction.
This character caught the attention of the French philosopher Jules de Gaultier, who coined the term bovarism to refer to people who live in a state of chronic affective dissatisfaction because they insist on denying reality.
- Unreal expectations. Expectations are hypotheses that we make ourselves about how the world should be. However, sometimes we forget that these are mere assumptions and we assume them as facts. Therefore, we feel disappointed when reality does not meet our expectations. The problem gets even worse when we feed unrealistic expectations; that is, when the distance between what we expect to happen and reality is too great. People with the Madame Bovary Syndrome accumulate many unreal expectations that arise from their imagination, they are a projection of the world that they would like, disconnected from the real world.
- Impossible goals. Who suffers bovarism usually considers also impossible goals to fulfill. His inability to live in reality leads him to aspire to things that are not within his reach. The problem is that, by not taking note of what is going on around him, the person does not establish concrete plans to make his goals come true but he limits himself to building castles in the air without taking into account the resources available to him. In fact, this person sets impossible goals precisely for not having to pursue them, so that usually “falls in love” with those who cannot reciprocate or dream of a lifestyle far beyond his real possibilities.
- Confirmation bias. People with Madame Bovary Syndrome also tend to be victims of a confirmation bias, which means that they only take from reality the pieces that fit their expectations and distorted vision. They turn a deaf ear to the signs that indicate they are going astray and do not realize it until they hit the wall of reality. In practice, these people only see what they want to see, and interpret what happens in a way that suits their world view. This leads them to live in a fictional world, which sooner or later ends up fading away.
- Denial as a coping strategy. We all face problems and conflicts in life. At that time we can implement different coping strategies. People with the Madame Bovary Syndrome bet on denial as coping strategy. They close their eyes to reality, blame others and deny their responsibility or even the facts themselves. These people are true masters of “escapism”, they evade reality because they do not like it and prefer to continue living in their world of dreams. The problem is that, in the long run, not facing reality tends to lead to even greater problems since the person will put into practice maladaptive behaviors that do not allow him to solve conflicts.
- Unrealistic image of the “self”. Basically, the Madame Bovary Syndrome implies a lack of self-knowledge. Often these people have an image of themselves idealized or glorified, they do not recognize their weaknesses or limitations but think that they deserve everything. It is also usual that they overreact to conflicts, assuming them as tragedies and respond with behaviors that border on paranoia because they believe that the others want to harm them.
As a result of the denial of reality, impossible goals and frustrated expectations, who suffers from bovarism ends up developing a chronic affective dissatisfaction. In fact, it is not unusual for these people to think about suicide, just like the protagonist of Flaubert.
How to get out of the Bovarism network?
Anyone can be a victim of bovarism. If you go through a bad time, things go wrong and you feel overwhelmed emotionally, it is tempting to escape reality and start blaming the others, building castles in the clouds where you feel more at ease. In fact, the Madame Bovary syndrome is activated when we want to avoid a social or sentimental situation that we consider unsatisfactory. However, Bovarism is a deadly trap that you tend to yourself and only leads to one result: perpetual dissatisfaction.
The first step to get out of that vicious circle is to realize that you have a hard time dealing with reality, because you expect things to happen as you would like and, when it is not, you evade it.
The second step is to practice radical acceptance. Accepting what happens does not mean resigning, but you cannot change reality if you don’t accept it first. Planning more objective goals, that you can reach with your effort, will help you to empower yourself, grow and improve gradually. Evading reality and building castles in the clouds can have serious long-term consequences.
Eliot, T.S. (1999) T.S. Eliot Selected Essays. London: Faber & Faber. Gaultier, J. (1892) Le Bovarysme, la psychologie dans l’œuvre de Flaubert. París: Libraire Léopold Cerf.