Do you have strange dreams? Here are nine guidelines for decoding them.
Q. Lately my dreams are really bizarre! They’re not nightmares, just totally weird stuff that makes me wonder if I am messed up. In a recent one, for instance, I was at what I took to be a funeral luncheon and someone said to me, “I can’t believe you were in the cemetery alone.” When I asked why, he said, “Because the severed hand in the graveyard is emitting poisonous gasses as it decays.” Am I supposed to find anything meaningful in these wacky stories? I know people like you think they’re meaningful, but they’re creeping me out!
A. Many scientists would say dreams are nothing more than stories formed by random firing of brain cells while we sleep. This view is no more provable than Freud’s ideas that dreams are a “royal road to the unconscious.” Though there’s plenty of disagreement about what they mean (if anything), I’ve never heard anyone deny that dreams are part of the human experience. To me that means we’re free to use them in a creative way for our own reflection, growth, or healing.
In almost 35 years of listening to patient’s dreams, I have been witness to astounding wisdom delivered to people in the clever, personalized dramas we call dreams. There was a man who could never measure up to his father who dreamed he was on top of a tall skyscraper, only to look over and see his father on one ten feet higher. Then he called down to his mother on the ground: “Is it OK if I come down now?” Based on our discussion of that dream, he decided to give up a career path he thought would please his father and pursue his own life.
The symbols dreams use can be absolutely fascinating. A young, married man dreamed about an earthquake leveling the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. He was shouting, “Is anyone alive in here?” as he wandered through the rubble. I asked him if his wife might be late with her period. He said, “Well, as a matter of fact, she is. We’ve been stressed about the possibility that she is pregnant.” We talked about how it would shake up their lives if that was true. It looks to me like some amazingly creative dream process took the raw material of this man’s life and turned it into an allegory.
I struggled toward the end of my Ph.D. training about whether to take a job as a professor wherever I could find one or move back to where my wife and I are from and take the best clinical practice job available. During that discernment, I had a dream about being kidnapped on a ship at gunpoint by my professors. In the next scene, my hair was being shaved off and I was thrown into what seemed like a concentration camp. I was desperate to find the key to escape. It seems to me the Dreammaker went a bit overboard making the point of the dream as clear as possible. My wife and I have lived for the past 30 years in our hometown.
There’s no right way to relate to dreams, but here are some guidelines I use for working with my own and those of my patients:
1. Let go of finding the one right interpretation. Play with multiple interpretations.
2. Allow the dream to be just a starting point for an interesting, right-brained exploration of your life. Don’t worry if you get the dream all figured out or if your reflections are all directly related to the dream. A dream has served its purpose if it leads us into creative reflection.
3. Don’t assume dreams are about your unconscious pathology (as Freud believed). Consider instead that dreams may be wisdom stories. When you relate to dreams this way, it’s much more likely you’ll find wisdom that is relevant to your life. Maybe dreams connect us to a “higher unconscious”—a part of ourselves that is wiser than our ordinary waking awareness.
4. Look past the bizarre content of dreams. I tell patients, “When it comes to useful dreams, the more bizarre the better!” Assume that symbols in dreams are often highly exaggerated. If you dream of killing someone, you might want to reflect on any anger you hold toward that person. If you dream of having sex with someone, try seeing it as a desire to be closer to that person, but not necessarily in a sexual way.
5. I’m not inclined to use only universal dream symbols, the kind you can look up in a book. This approach implies that if you and I dream about a turtle, the symbol has the same meaning for both of us. But what if you had a beloved pet turtle that died when you were four and introduced you to the reality of death? And what if I run a factory that makes turtle soup? Couldn’t the turtle symbol mean something quite different to each of us? Just ask yourself, “Why is this the perfect symbol for something in my life? Why did the Dreammaker choose this exact person or symbol to be included in this story?” Use free association—just brainstorming what comes to mind when you sit with a symbol—to consider what the symbols in your dream might mean.
6. If there are a number of people in a dream, try working with the dream as if each person is an aspect of yourself. Or try assuming that the dream chose the cast of characters in the dream very carefully. Use free association to determine what each person in the dream might symbolize in your life.
7. Pay attention to the feeling of a dream. If you jump off a cliff in a dream, notice if you wake up in fear or with a sense of freedom. The emotional tone connected with a person or symbol in a dream can help determine how to use the dream.
8. If you are in a difficult period of life, in a major transition, or need to make a big decision, watch your dreams. You may get some really useful input from a source beyond your logical mind.
9. If you have trouble remembering your dreams, just keep a notebook and pen next to your bed. When you wake up, jot any dream material down immediately before it is gone. This helps transfer it to long-term memory so you can spend time with it later.
I have no idea what your severed hand dream means, but maybe some of these ideas can help you play with it. Maybe someone important to you who had “lended a hand” in life and is now gone. But that’s only one direction to go. Have fun playing with the possibilities
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Send your questions to [email protected]. Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.