Question: Can you tell what my dream means?
Answer: The short answer: no. People have the mistaken idea that a psychological professional can simply hear a dream and render an interpretation. The typical way of working with a dream psychologically involves a very active dialog with the dreamer. The dreamer supplies “associations” to the dream which are unique to the dreamer. In fact, the very same dream dreamed by two different people would have at least very different interpretations. In the long run, the “meaning” of a dream is in the way in which the dreamer utilizes the dream. By having experience with many dreams of many people, a professional can at least suggest certain typical ways of approaching themes and images in the dream.
Question: Aren’t dreams just non-sense?
Answer: While it has often been said that dreams do not make sense, the seeming senselessness of dreams is due to the fact that dreams speak a metaphorical language rather than a literal language. In the same way that a foreign language sounds incomprehensible if you haven’t studied the language, dreams can also appear to be incomprehensible. However, like any language, dreams often have their own grammar, vocabulary, and typical turns of phrases. With patience, they can be translated. Nevertheless, it is always easy enough to discount dreams as meaningless jabber. Probably it is better to say that the mystery remains: there are things going on in dreams we do not understand at present.
Question: What are nightmares?
Answer: Nightmares are a universal occurrence that we all experience at some time in our lives. Some people may experience nightmares often. Nightmares are disturbing dreams which may follow us for years, worrying us with their persistence and their vividness.
The nightmare is often accompanied by feelings of oppression and helplessness. Nightmares make a more lasting impression upon us and the feelings from the dream will often linger on into our waking life the following day. The nightmare serves to get our attention to something that is psychologically important to us, often something that has been seriously neglected in our waking life. Sometimes it is possible to deal with the nightmare by coming to terms with it and understanding what our fears are about.
Recurrent nightmares indicate a particularly serious problem in our waking life that needs to be confronted. We may wake from these dreams with feelings of acute distress or worry or even panic. These fears may arise from our deepest frustrations, repressions and inner conflicts. They may also be a form of self-punishment for unacceptable parts of ourselves that we need to come to terms with.
A frequent theme is of being chased or pursued by a monster or demon of some kind. This may indicate some aspect of our emotional life that we are trying to run away from. Monsters in mythology often guard the treasure sought by the hero. They often guard sacred or holy places. We are the hero in our dreams just as we are the hero in our daily waking lives. We must confront and understand the monster in the dream which represents some unwanted part of our self that we need to confront and integrate in order to recover the treasure which is a deeper psychological understanding of our self. If we can turn around and face what it is that we fear it will transform itself in the dream and will cease to be horrifying once its nature is identified.
We sometimes dream of someone trying to break into our home. This is often an inner psychological figure who may represent some shameful or unwanted part of our self who is breaking into our consciousness. It is about to break into our awareness and then we will have to confront this unwanted aspect of our self. The purpose of this seems to be to reflect all the worst aspects of our character so that we may become more fully conscious of those traits and accept these unwanted but vitally necessary parts of our self. These aspects are often quite evident to those whom we live with or know us well but are hidden from our own conscious opinion of our self and thus appear alien and scary to us in our dreams. The intruder in the dream may represent some awareness or insight that is about to break through into our consciousness. It appears scary because it is unknown what demands it will make on us but it actually should be welcomed into our psychological house because it brings with it a gift of self awareness. Every aspect of the dream represents some part of our self.
The intruder in the dream represents some part of our self that we have kept outside our awareness for too long and now needs to be let in. It may represent a feeling or attitude that we need to be more conscious of.
Another nightmare is the disaster dream. These are often extremely vivid and we may awaken terrified and apprehensive. These dreams should not be ignored nor taken literally. The disaster may indicate some emotional upheaval that is taking place or about to take place in our life. The disaster may involve an earthquake, our world is being shaken up; or an avalanche, feeling overwhelmed and buried by some situation we find our self in or perhaps the thawing out of some frozen emotions; or a flood, being caught up in the currents of everyday life and not feeling on solid ground; or a fire, being consumed by passion or rage or some other strong feeling that may feel out of control. The disaster may be a positive image indicating a significant change is tearing down old patterns of behavior or it may be a warning of something valuable in our life that is falling apart or being swept away. Sometimes it may represent both aspects since change and crisis often carry both positive and negative feelings with them.
The nightmare is a dream that needs to be taken seriously. They are urgent psychological messages that something in our emotional psyche needs to be paid attention to and can no longer be ignored.
Question: How can I remember my dreams?
Answer: It is often helpful to make a conscious reminder to oneself before retiring for bed by saying, `I will remember a dream tonight’. It is important to lie still for a few moments when awakening from a dream and to stay with the feelings and images of the dream. Then record in a notebook by the bedside a few key words from the most vivid images or symbols that appear in the dream. Later that day when convenient, fill out the plot and action of the dream in more detail. It is very difficult to try and hold a dream in memory if it is not first written down. Dreams tend to evaporate quickly with the light of day. It may be useful to write down any immediate associations or reactions to the dream. Start to reflect on the separate images in the dream and see what comes to mind. Take note of the feelings and associations that flood your mind as you pay attention to the images. Examine action that takes place in the dream which is often like a play or movie with a plot and sub-plots.
It is important to remember that the images in a dream are not to be taken literally. The dream will often exaggerate images and feelings in grotesque and bizarre ways to try and get our attention. Understanding dreams is more like reading poetry than prose. It is a world of imagination and fantasy that can show us aspects of ourselves that are like long buried treasures waiting to be discovered.
Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance. He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”