In this paper, we discuss emotions and fantasies that inform and influence the project of theory building. Our argument is that theory building can be improved by engaging directly with emotions and, in particular, with fantasies that are defensively and creatively generated by the researcher. Once acknowledged, these can be transformed into hunches, ideas and insights. We provide an example of the emotional dynamics surrounding a novice researcher’s use of grounded theory within her doctoral research. We highlight three distinctive researcher fantasies of containment, coherence and purity associated with her experience of the method. We discuss how engagement with these fantasies deepened the researcher’s analysis and thereby enhanced the process of building theory from the data. Therefore, our paper contributes to an understanding of how fantasies mobilized by such an open-ended research method can help to refine our thinking about emerging theory.