Yes, I know. After listening to clients' dreams for many years, I know just how weird and nonsensical they can appear at first. It might even seem that the creative director of your dreams, your unconscious, could care less whether you understand them.
But think of it this way -- if you went to a foreign country and didn't know the language, you'd find people's expressions pretty weird and nonsensical there, too. In order to understand them you'd have to take time and engage with them to bridge the gap. Similarly, narrowing the gap between you and your unconscious requires you to engage with it personally and understand its language -- rather than dismiss it.
Here's the deal with your unconscious: Don't expect it to express itself the same way you do, or "think" the same way you do. If you do, you're in for a rough ride -- and I'm not just talking about whether you understand your dreams or not. I'm talking about painful and potentially destructive inner conflict.
Not only does your unconscious speak an older, more symbolic language, it also has a different culture -- different motivations than the conscious ego you identify with. Dreams often portray the unconscious's way of seeing your situation -- the view from the other side.
While you can leave a foreign country and their foreign language behind, your unconscious will always be right there with you. You can ignore it (at your own peril) or work with it. Engaging with your dreams is a good way to begin working with it. And, having cooperative rapport with your unconscious helps to maintain mental health.
Here are five essential keys to help you engage with your dreams and your unconscious:
1. Take your dreams seriously but not literally.
Think symbolically. What might these images represent for you personally?
Losing your keys could represent losing your capacity to get inside your own self (your inner house), to know what you're feeling and to be comfortable living in your own skin.
Dropping and breaking your phone could represent a breakdown in your capacity to communicate with others.
Running out of gas in your car could represent running out of energy for the way you've been getting around in life.
The point is to ask: What does this dream reveal about how I'm living?
2. Consider whether the characters in the dream could be unrecognized aspects of yourself.
In your dream Uncle Steve may represent the part of you that is like Uncle Steve, too proud to accept help, but very much in need of it.
That baby you dreamed about may not represent an actual child, but your vulnerable, creative potential that needs nurturing.
And that oh-so-sexy man or woman you've been dreaming about may represent the part of yourself that you've been trying to get others to live out for you, for instance the heroic part or the emotional part.
3. Notice your response in your dream. Are you passive or active?
Dreams hold up reality in a way that's often revealing, and in doing so they may indirectly suggest a way forward.
If, for instance, you're merely passive in the dream, giving up rather than advocating for yourself, the implication is that you may need to take a more active stance. On the other hand, if the dream shows you banging your head against a wall, it's time to practice some acceptance.
4. Look for the missing piece.
Dreams are part of our homeostatic, self-regulating, self-balancing, psychological survival system. They can help us to see what we're unaware of and what we're trying to avoid.
If you try to interpret your dreams so that they confirm what you already believe, you probably won't get their possible benefits, and you may instead use them to justify a self-deception that keeps you in a comfortable, but stagnant, status quo.
Instead, ask: How does this dream compensate my conscious viewpoint? What might it add to the way I already see things? For instance, does it balance your view of yourself by pointing out that you are more, or less, virtuous, powerful, seductive, or avoidant than you usually think of yourself?
5. Get out of your head and into your experience.
Don't get too caught up in trying to be certain what the dream "means." Be suspicious of stock interpretations. Start by entering the feeling of the dream and noticing what you experience in your body as you engage with the dream. Imagine the drama of the dream moving forward. Dialog with the characters.
As a result of this kind of engagement, you may well end up feeling differently, even if you're not certain what the dream "means."
Whether or not you believe that dreams have some intentional "meaning," they are no more random than what you end up revealing when alcohol has removed your inhibitions. They offer a window onto what's happening inside.
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Will you fall apart completely if you ignore a particular dream? No. But if you keep disregarding them over time the gap between conscious and unconscious will widen. Give your dreams some attention and you'll have less inner conflict and more psychological expansion.
For more details about how to get the most out of your dreams, see Chapter 9 of my book, I'm Working On It in Therapy: How to Get the Most Out of Psychotherapy.
Bothered by those pesky anxiety dreams? Follow me here or on Twitter @Gary_Trosclair. I'll be posting about them soon.