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TODAY contributor
updated 3/12/2008 1:36:12 PM ET 2008-03-12T17:36:12

Q. I often fantasize about saving people’s lives from disasters like fires, floods and terrorist attacks. It used to make me feel good. Now it just depresses me because I don’t live in an area where these things are likely to happen. Should I move to the East Coast, since these disasters tend to happen there? What do you suggest I do? I am 21 and don’t otherwise have a plan for my life.

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A. The rescue fantasy is one of the most common fantasies that people enjoy. They play it out in their heads, as well as in books, movies, songs and TV shows. This is partly the fantasy of being appreciated, valued and special, with the addition of being an actual hero and saving people from enormous forces of evil.

The problem is that you are plagued. The fantasy alone is no longer sufficient. You have an overwhelming urge to actually be a hero. And being a garden-variety hero won’t do. You don’t dream about saving individuals from purse-snatchings and barking dogs, but about saving humankind from overwhelming natural or man-made disasters.

Some people engage in sublimation, meaning they convert their impulse into something that can actually work in the real world. So they become firefighters, soldiers, EMTs or some kind of first-responder.

At age 21, you say you have no plan for your life. There might be something about this fantasy that has got you immobilized and holds you back from doing anything. So maybe you could formulate a plan to include a profession that has some “heroic” qualities.

You need not move to the East Coast to wait for disaster to strike. Plenty of these things happen elsewhere.

I would caution you that enacting a particular fantasy won’t necessarily solve the problem over the long haul — in other words, it won’t make you feel the way you hope it will make you feel, which is like a true superhero.

As is the case with most intense fantasies, these come out of some past formative experience or person you identify with. So I suggest you look at your early experiences. Did you have pets that died in a fire and you were unable to save them? Did you feel helpless as a child and use fantasies to make yourself feel effectual? Was there a superhero figure in your life you wanted to emulate?

If you can figure out the source of your fantasy, you can possibly identify the feelings you are after, and translate them into real life. If this becomes a desire to work helping or saving people in need, there are many wonderful options for that.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: A rescue fantasy can be sublimated into work that helps others.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.

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