You're suddenly back in high school, walking into class. You sit down at your desk, wondering how you ended up here after so many years post-graduation, when suddenly it occurs to you that your boss and all your work colleagues are sitting at the desks beside you. This is bizarre, you may wonder. Why would these people be here? They don't belong in this place, in this time with you. You turn around and suddenly you are at the dinner table at Thanksgiving. Aunt Martha is serving Uncle Joe some turkey which might seem like a mundane occurrence except that you haven't seen them for years and they are no longer married.
Does this sound familiar? You're not alone. Bizarre dreams are common but, because they are often so nonsensical and confusing, they are frequently dismissed as unimportant or non-valuable. However, before you write them off, let's take a closer look.
“Dreams are seen as a wealth of information, a rare and powerful opportunity to peek into the inner workings of one's subconcious mind.”
Since Freud's time, therapists have come to view dreams as gold mines. Dreams are seen as a wealth of information, a rare and powerful opportunity to peek into the inner workings of one's subconcious mind. In fact, as I embark on the therapy journey with my patients, many will start to report an increase in such bizarre dreams, which is never a surprise given that therapy often stirs up subconscious desires and conflicts.
What about the oddness of such dreams? Instead of using eloquent vocabulary to express itself, the mind often prefers to speak through symbols. These symbols may not have a readily-apparent correlation to your present reality; rather, that reality is presenting itself in information that may mix objects and situations that are out of context in your life and don't necessarily agree with your life's timeline. Hence two different dreams can be sewn together and people can show up in a time and place in which they do not belong, i.e. your adult children might show up in your childhood and your work colleagues can show up on your vacation. If in your dream something feels like it doesn't belong, then it's probably your mind sending a message- don't take it so literally and you might actually get a sense of what your mind is trying to say.
In my work on dreams, I've discovered various resources on universal symbols, which are objects in dreams that have the same meaning no matter whose dream they show up in. Although there are views that this may lend itself to an accurate interpretation of dreams, I have found the opposite to be true in my therapy: what one object may represent in your dream can vastly vary from what it means in mine.
I had once had a patient with whom I was meeting weekly for several years. We explored some very painful aspects of her past situations and experiences, most of which she had successfully avoided thinking about until now. As our therapy progressed, she started to have a recurrent dream during which an intimidating neurosurgeon had cut off the top of her scalp while she was still awake, was digging around in her brains, and was inviting every other doctor and nurse in the hospital into the OR suite to peer inside her open head. She laughed it off as disturbing but meaningless. However, upon further exploration, she started identifying feelings that therapy at times felt quite exposing and intrusive. She also acknowledged that when therapy felt uncertain or uncomfortable, she felt that I was “in her head” much like the neurosurgeon in her dream.
Throughout the years, I have heard several variations of such dreams and always use them as information to help me navigate therapy; perhaps in such a case, we needed to explore how therapy could feel like a more comfortable situation or what aspects of therapy exactly were making her feel so vulnerable.
However, in other cases, the dreams may be so convoluted that it's difficult to know exactly how to peel back the layers and explore them. In such circumstances, even if a patients doesn't know what a dream means, she will know how it made her feel. Many will awaken from these dreams feeling frantic, frightened or saddened. In such cases, we will typically start by exploring the feelings elicited by the dreams. Why would a car driving off into the distance make you feel deeply saddened? Perhaps it reminds you of the ending of something, or it may bring up old feelings of abandonment. Does it make you sad because it reminds of you of the time you were left behind or not included? Is it because the driver of the car is off to new adventures, while you have been feeling stuck in your current situation?
“Dreams are...fascinating, cleverly disguised and powerful pearls of insight into territory that is often hidden far from plain sight.”
Dreams are multi layered and often have multiple meanings. They're fascinating, cleverly disguised and powerful pearls of insight into territory that is often hidden far from plain sight. They can tap into one's deepest desires, feelings and fears, most of which has likely been hidden from the world and even from oneself.
Why is exploring your dreams important? People often mistakenly assume that what is out of our immediate vision is irrelevant. The reality is that many of these deep feelings drive our behaviors and impact how we react to different people and situations. As I frequently say to my patients, even if you are not actively thinking about those feelings, you still carry them with you. They speak to our very essence, providing information on what fuels and angers us, and even gives us some insight into what might make us feel content. Often people who feel stuck or self destructive and cannot understand their own behaviors can benefit from a deeper understanding of self, and analysis of such dreams can be a tool in doing so.
Bizarre dreams can occur with more intensity and frequency around major life changes, difficult periods of your life or in therapy. I like to think of these moments as a period where swirling a stick around the surface of a clear lake can bring the underlying mud to the surface, temporarily muddying the waters until it settles again. In such cases, understanding your dreams can help you uncover how you are coping with your current stressors and may even help you determine how best to navigate your current situation.
Although many will dismiss their odd dreams as irrelevant to day-to-day life, even those of us who are not therapists could benefit from recognizing their value. Dreams mean your mind is speaking to you. Don’t you want to hear what it has to say?