Richard G. Petty, MD

Walter Mitty Syndrome

Walter Mitty was a a fictional character in James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, published in 1941. Mitty was a meek, mild man with a vivid fantasy life: in a few dozen paragraphs he imagined himself a wartime pilot, an emergency-room surgeon, and a devil-may-care killer. He has become such a standard for the role that his name appears in several dictionaries.

Regular readers might remember that in a post in April, I examined pathological lying from physical, psychological, social, subtle and spiritual perspectives.

The Walter Mitty syndrome is clearly related: people use fantasy to escape from their normal lives. They believe that their lives are humdrum and boring, never realizing what an enormous gift it is to be alive at all.

I’ve known countless people who have claimed to have noble blood from some obscure part of the former Eastern Europe. They would normally tell everyone that they would be rich and titled once the “communists” returned his or her lands. Most had, of course, never had either title or lands. One extraordinary example: someone whom I liked very much, told of the lands, money and titles that she would soon receive from the new government in Hungary. Except that Jewish people had not been allowed to own land in that part of Hungary for many centuries.

Another man -a homeopathic physician – told everyone that he met that he was engaged in secret experiments for the CIA. Which always seemed odd for an Englishman with no research background. And it never seemed all that secret if he was busily telling everyone about this work.

Nobody has yet added the syndrome to the canon of psychological lore, yet every clinician has seen cases, and the syndrome is sometimes used as a pejorative term, particualrly in the political arena.

I’ve recently seen an extraordinary case that was suspected for decades, but was only really confirmed after the person’s death. One tale built on another until we had an extraordinary life story that would have done credit to one of those blockbusters by Jeffrey Archer. Not a single piece of it was true. People, dates and places were all made up. This wasn’t a little fib; this was fantasy on the grand scale.

In the end, the fabulous tales usually hurt no one. But nobody will ever know what bits were true, and which not.

If you ever meet one of these great fabulists, ask them to write down their stories: they are often generated by the most wonderfully creative people. And more than one has gone on to collect high honors.

Challenging people like this is rarely helpful. They are spinning these yarns to protect and bolster themselves. Destroying their defences can be disastrous. There are a few who tell these tales because of grandiosity or narcissism, but most are just unfortunate people who feel the need to project a new image of themselves.

Listen politely; don’t commit yourself, and let them carry on. Unless they are using their tales to “con” people, it is often best to leave them alone.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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