In the height of the pandemic, in the isolation and boredom of online school and FaceTime calls, many turned to the internet to renew a sense of comfort and belonging they’d been missing from outside. And through this, in certain corners of the internet, people started claiming they had lived in a fictional universe for long stretches of time, and that you could too. Then those corners expanded and “reality shifting” became an everyday term online.
What is reality shifting?
If you search reality shifting on Tik Tok or Google, you’re flooded with videos of teens claiming to have shifted, sharing their methods to shift, or telling stories from fictional worlds that they were a part of. But, what is reality shifting? According to those who participate, it is the act of moving your consciousness out of your current reality and into your desired reality.
When searching for proof of shifting, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything scientific or well researched. Many “shifters” reference a “CIA document” that proves “shifting” exists. Upon further research though, the document referred to was written in and is 1983 titled “Analysis and Assessment of the Gateway Process”, and talks about hypnosis in the Cold War. The idea behind it is called hemi-syncing, in which the left and right hemispheres of your brain synchronize brain waves — but this has little to do with shifting at all. Besides that, the document itself borders on complete pseudoscience and talks of a higher realm beyond reality.
So, if the only proof to reality shifting at the start of the pandemic was a couple of thousand teenagers online and the ramblings of an unscientific CIA document, why and how did the idea spread like wildfire?
Young Minds in Isolation
When lockdowns started, more likely than not, people experienced a severe lack of stimulation they used to get from everyday situations. Without the sights and sounds of being in public, people quickly turned to the internet for everything from social interaction to entertainment. This in itself wasn’t unusual; it happens all the time even without a global pandemic. But, a pattern quickly started to emerge across spaces online. Many people began revisiting their favorite pieces of media from childhood for comfort (think the sudden twilight renaissance or a renewed love for the animal crossing game franchise). To many, this was just a way of coping with a scary and unfamiliar time with something they associate with good memories and the comfort of their childhood.
Yet, this seemingly harmless reinvigoration with childhood interests wasn’t all positive. Going through your formative years as a teenager away from your friends and extended family will mess with anyone. So, more insecure than ever before and hating their lives in the pandemic, many kids and teens turned to escapism through childhood media as their distraction.
Escapism is not harmful as a coping mechanism in many cases. Many use literature and movies as well as other pieces of media to distract and escape from their life. And if escapism was ever truly needed, it was during the height of the pandemic. One major example of this was the sudden explosion of the Harry Potter franchise on Tik Tok over the spring and summer of 2020. The Harry Potter series itself has gone through waves of relevance online, but this sudden surge of content and conversation surrounding the series was unprecedented. For many, the series served as a reminder of their childhood and it was a comfort to be brought up again. But besides imagining these characters and their lives, what else could they do for escapism? That question, though never asked verbally at the time, was quickly answered when the escapism shifted from living vicariously through these stories to just living within them. That was when shifting was brought on to the scene.
The Craze and Community
It is unclear how exactly the small communities of shifters began to completely envelop social media sites such as Tik Tok, but their hold took quickly. With every swipe, a new video talking about how they shifted, stories from their “desired reality”, and motivation for other shifters appeared. The idea was that you could “shift” to see your favorite characters or create a reality where you’re famous and have no flaws. And for every video added of people claiming to shift, there were thousands of more comments sharing the same things and more. When the validity of these claims of transporting one’s consciousness to another reality was called into question, whether that be maliciously or with pure intent, they were immediately met with attacks and harassment. Many posited the theory that these people were, in reality, experiencing lucid dreaming, or even just having normal dreams; if you think about a thing enough throughout the day, you’re likely to dream about it at some point. None of the “shifters” entertained these theories for a second.
The community itself adhered to toxicity throughout its life span. Though not exactly closed off because of its popularity, due to algorithms and such on social media, getting away from the content is hard to do once it gets on to your feed. Because of this, as well as the overwhelming toxic positivity that tells the people in the community to continue to dedicate their lives to “shifting” even if it isn’t working, creates an echo chamber of the same recycled ideas without any personal thought thrown in the mix. If anyone questions the validity of shifting, even if they are inside the community, they are immediately dogpiled and ganged up against.
Why is This Harmful?
The harm from reality shifting can be found not only in the community but in the idea of shifting itself. For the community, the obvious harm is that of the toxicity and harassment of those within and outside of it. But, when we view the phenomenon as a whole we can see how it is inherently harmful to those who participate in it.
Shifting as a concept preys on and appeals to those who are unhappy with their life as it is currently. This concept is not unheard of amongst teenagers. This demographic that is being exposed to shifting is already vulnerable and isolated. For many, if we were told that we could live in a fictional world with our favorite characters, or re-write our entire lives to be flawless, we would jump at the chance, especially in our teenage years. But, this idea that we can go to a new reality with anything we ever wanted always ultimately ends in detachment from real life.
As the trend grew, we began to see the effects of this detachment. Those who believed they had shifted posted videos crying about being back in their “current reality”, sobbing to go back, or they had the epiphany that nothing in this reality matters because they can always go to a reality where everything is better. This level of detachment from life is not healthy in any situation. The emotional toll it takes on children to spend every waking moment wishing they were in a completely different reality all while giving up on their real-life can in no way be seen as healthy. The toxic positivity of the community that urges everyone to keep trying to shift makes sure that those who have not experienced “shifting” are detached as well. Devoting one’s life to the idea that you are or could be living a separate life in the reality of your choosing is taking a toll on those who believe it, and they are unwilling to listen to those who are trying to help them.
Healthy vs Unhealthy Escapism
Through shifting, we can see all the signs of unhealthy escapism. The ultimate goal of unhealthy escapism is the destruction of the self; it has the goal of separating yourself from life. It pushes forward a numbing of a reality that we can’t escape. Once people view themselves as completely separate, they detach from reality. Detaching is an unhealthy way to cope with issues as it relies on derealization and distance that cause a lack of participation in one’s own life.
This doesn’t mean that all consumption of media or escapism is unhealthy. Healthy escapism is used to cope with emotions by allowing you to process them or direct them towards something else. Using media like books, movies, music, and television, as well as other activities like drawing and writing, people are allowed the option to disengage with overwhelming emotions and process or hone them into a form of expression.
Escapism should not rely on disengagement from reality. A healthy coping mechanism should not ultimately create more problems after participating in it.
In conclusion, media was made for projection; you are supposed to relate to the main character, be jealous of their stories, and want to join in on any perceived fun. The point of having access to media is a distraction from the qualms of everyday life. The important part is the realization that everyday life is always going to be there, and no matter how good the book may be, it is not real. The people who believe they can shift are not “crazy” or “stupid”. They were vulnerable and turned to a coping mechanism that ultimately did more harm than good.