Bad Dreams Have Meaning

Shadow Monster
Photo: Chia-Hsin Ho / Creative Commons / Via Flickr: hsinho

In honor of the season, we are looking at things that scare or frighten us and why that is.  Our colleague and process worker, David Bedrick, helps us understand how inner critics sometimes appear in bad dreams and how we can make use of the messages they bring. The following article originally appeared in Psychology Today.

Critics inhabit our outer world and inner world. Some critics have useful feedback for us, teaching us to sharpen our skills, open our eyes, or awaken our hearts. However, many are neither benign nor exist for our benefit. With sharp eyes and red pens, they watch our thoughts, feelings, and actions and invariably conclude that we have erred, are in need of correction, or are simply unworthy.

Following are 3 common types of dreams (and their key themes) that highlight the potency, dynamics, and inner workings of the critics that often bar the path to our gifts, joy, peace, power, and beauty.

DREAM 1: DEADLY CRITICISM

“I dreamt that a work colleague told me that not only did she not like me but also that nobody else liked me. She went on to say that I also wasn’t good at working with young people (I am a social worker)—I just thought I was. I then went and committed suicide by cutting my wrists! It was being told that I wasn’t good at working with young people that really upset me.”

Theme 1: Criticism Can Be Deadly

Not being liked, or being subject to regular criticism, can be deadly. Some people advise, often with good intentions, “Don’t worry about what others think,” or “Let their opinions wash off your back; take them with a grain of salt.” There are certainly moments when this is sage advice, but at other times it dismisses the potency of such assaults, leaving us feeling ashamed of our vulnerability and minimizing the impact criticism has on our lives.

To say it plainly: Being criticized, ostracized, or excluded from the circle of care, friendship and family, can kill. Just ask transgender people, about half of whom “have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one-quarter report having made a suicide attempt.(link is external)

Theme 2: Outer Criticism Can Lead to Inner Criticism

This dream goes beyond expressing the deadliness of criticism; it is specific about how deadly it is for the dreamer: Criticism cuts. This dream suggests the possibility that the dreamer cuts herself, literally, or via criticizing herself or “cutting” herself down.

If you’ve suffered from powerful outer criticism, you may be critical internally, even beneath the level of your own awareness. This inner criticism may go on all day long. There is an expression that many find descriptive of inner criticism: “Death by a thousand cuts.” While being subject to a bit of criticism may be bearable, ongoing inner criticism may “add up to a slow and painful demise.”(link is external)

Theme 3: Dreaming of Suicide

The suicide in this dream can be looked at in two ways: First, as I suggest above, the dreamer is “killing” herself—hurting herself, cutting herself off, or cutting herself down. (I am not suggesting that she is literally killing herself: That was not the case with this dreamer.)

However, sometimes a person needs to end something—“kill” a pattern, a way of living, or even a belief they have about themselves. For example, this dream suggests that the dreamer has internalized the belief that she is not good at what she does. The fact that the dream puts a knife in her hand suggests the possibility that she can use that knife, and it’s deadliness, to “cut” herself off from that belief and change the pattern of inner criticism.

Theme 4: The Need for Compassion in Interpreting Dreams

Criticism and unfriendliness is dangerous to this dreamer. This highlights the need be gentle and self-loving when interpreting our dreams. People who are highly self-critical may use their dreams as weapons against themselves, concluding that the dreams are pointing out ways they are screwing up, in need of correction or fixing. This attitude is dangerous, and will only feed into the criticism we already have for ourselves.

Directions implied by the dream: If this dream moves you, ask yourself in what ways you cut yourself down or cut yourself off—not saying your opinion, not following a creative direction, not bringing out your intelligence, your passion, your “way,” or something else? Take the answers to this question seriously. These “cuts” can kill, even if you think you can make the sacrifice, and put up with your silence, your self-abuse, or the abuse of others.

DREAM 2: HERE COMES THE JUDGE

“I submit a story to be judged and, despite the judges/teachers assuring me it is entertaining and full of humor and pathos, they all keep writing ‘D’ at the top of the page. So I see all these red Ds in indelible marker and can’t figure out how to make the story—or my writing in general?—better.
”

Theme 1: The Judge, the Evaluator

Our culture is steeped in the symbol of the judge. Anyone, from music teachers and parents to clergy and employers, can sit in judgment of your work—and your worth. Of course, we have internalized these qualities and judge ourselves, often unjustly.

Theme 2: Submitting to Evaluation

Most of us have little resistance to this kind of judgment because it seems normal and necessary. We have spent many years in school “submitting” our homework, for example. “It’s just the way things are,” some say, or “I need to be given feedback and evaluation to improve and grow.” In short, we submit, as does the dreamer who “submits her story,” without critical reflection about the care, fairness, or intent of the judge.

The definition of the word submit is instructive here: to “accept or yield to a superior force or to the authority or will of another person.”

Whether evaluation comes from inside of ourselves or from outside, we accept the judge’s ruling or grade as if it is accurate—as if it is the truth. With little critical evaluation of the judge or judgment, we begin working to change ourselves, ignoring  the injury to our esteem. In the language of the dream, these judges can leave an “indelible mark” on us—a lasting opinion of our own worth—as they have on the dreamer’s evaluation of her writing.

This kind of judgment is epidemic when it comes to weight-loss and body image, especially for women who regularly judge themselves when looking in the mirror or stepping on the scale. Many too readily submit to this judgment and then rush into weight-loss programs, even though they rarely work. This kind of judgment leaves an indelible mark on these individuals’ sense of beauty and worth.

Directions implied by the dream: One way of working with this kind of dynamic is by integrating the power of the judge. Some benefit by judging the judge, asking, for instance, “Who are you to judge me? Are you fair? Do you always criticize and never praise? Does your judgment help me? Do you empower me to make sustainable change or do you simply leave me feeling worse about myself?” In doing this, we can take over the power of the judge and use it to think critically about judgments about ourselves.

DREAM 3: HIDING FROM THE CRITIC

“I was at work, filling out a FedEx form, and my boss came near. I tried to hide the form from her, so she would not know I was planning to leave for a better job. Just then, I looked up and there were a handful of red-shirted frontiersmen coming towards us, brandishing rifles. I panicked and ran the other way, down the hill into the woods. Looking up, I saw a group of Red Coats coming toward me, brandishing rifles with bayonets. I panicked and woke up in a state of anxiety.”

Theme 1: Keeping Ourselves in the Dark

This dreamer wants to make a change in her life. However, someone (a boss—a person with power or authority over the dreamer) is against her change. This antagonistic viewpoint is likely to be held by real people in the dreamer’s life as well as by the dreamer herself. The dreamer deals with this antagonism by trying to hide her true intention to make a life change.

This kind of “hiding” is actually quite common: Many of us don’t tell others, or ourselves, what we really want. For example, I remember leaving my consulting firm in 1994. About a year before that, I started showing up late, missing deadlines, taking longer lunches, and not working to my capacity. My behavior showed my lack of commitment, that I wanted a change, but I couldn’t face the implications of actually leaving as it would threaten my financial security and cause conflict in my relationships. Eventually, speaking to a friend, I found myself saying, “I don’t want to this kind of work any more. I want to study clinical psychology.” I wasn’t ready before then; I couldn’t deal with the revolution—changing my home, significant relationships, and my income source.

Theme 2: Starting a Revolution

The dreamer tries to hide her intentions, but apparently she cannot. She has to face her resistance to making a change. In real life, she hadn’t fully owned and declared her intention to leave her job.

Facing the resistance means engaging in a kind of revolution, a war. She has to deal with the counter-revolutionary forces—the Red Coats. Apparently, her secret is not so safe or these counter-revolutionary forces would not be so clearly represented in the dream. She doesn’t feel fully ready, but the battle is on. She is in a “state of anxiety.”

In real life, she was worrying about her financial security and letting people down. The dream suggests that she had to face her fears and fight for her independence. (This dreamer did just that: She changed her job and her whole way of life.)

Directions implied by the dream: If this dream resonates for you, you may ask yourself how or what are you hiding. Are you aware of your deepest intentions, hopes, and dreams? Who do you keep them hidden from? Often these inner and outer critics have never lived their dreams—and they may be jealous of anyone’s movement toward freedom, self-love, and the expression of their true gifts and passions.

This article was originally published November 30, 2015 on PsychologyToday.com.

 

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