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You Will Never View Violence In Dreams The Same Way

10/03/2016 08:17pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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By Dr. Angel Morgan via DreamsCloud

In recent years, dream sharing has become more frequent and popular online. When reading these dream narratives, I have found there are some commonly repeated questions about violence in dreams that deserve commentary and discussion. For the sake of dream education, let's get this conversation started.

The most general question I see posted after sharing a dream with violence (and usually some kind of gory death) in it, is "Why am I dreaming this??!!" Usually there are other added comments such as, "I would never hurt that person," or, "I am not a violent person at all, so why did I dream that??"

Of course, the answer will always depend on the dreamer's life circumstances, and we are all unique. However, there are some pieces of the truth that can be shared about the dreaming process that may help ease some of the fear and pain many dreamers suffer from unnecessarily.

Unless the dream is extraordinary (1), our ordinary dreams tend to be symbolic, using metaphors or puns to tell a story about what we are feeling and experiencing that concerns us most at the time of the dream. So dream violence may or may not have anything to do with waking life violence.

For example, if someone has experienced violence in waking life, then yes violence can make its way into that person's dream because they need to process and eventually heal from what happened. This is commonly experienced in PTSD nightmares (2). In these situations, sometimes violence is dreamed as an exact memory, while other times experienced violence takes a new form that is symbolic of what happened while retaining the emotional charge.

On the other hand, what about those violent dreams that confuse so many people because they consider themselves peace-loving sweethearts? That's where symbolism really plays a part. I'll demonstrate what I mean with a dream I had last night.

In my dream, an adorable little fox (that reminds me of my son when he was a toddler) is under my care. Although he is a wild fox, I feed him. Suddenly, I see blood pouring out of his ear and I know he has been either poisoned, bombed, or both. The fact is, he is dying. I offer to take him to the forest (because I know he should die there, not under my care). He looks happy and says yes, I should take him to the forest. I hug him. He runs off into the forest where I know he will die.

This dream was not as sad or scary as it may seem, because I understood its symbolic meaning. In waking life, my 18-year-old son who is my youngest child (little fox) just moved to another state to go to college. He is going through a process of transformation (death/rebirth) into an adult by living without me, out in the adult world (forest). This process is changing us, and holding onto an image of him as a small child is no longer appropriate. My role as his mother now is to let him go, so he can grow up. This is not easy, but we both know it is necessary and right for his development. While waking up, I imagined the little fox's transition from his death into a rebirth of my grown son -- swinging on the forest vines, Tarzan-style.

In waking life, I do not condone violence. When violence appears in dreams, I see that as a mirror for intense feelings and usually a problem to solve. Our dreaming minds brilliantly reveal symbols that tell a story about what concerns us most. Then it is our job to learn, decode, and decide what our own dreams mean. In this process, we can discover the symbolic role of the dream violence and how it can sometimes serve us in our evolving self-discovery, health, and wholeness.

When someone you love, care about, work with, or just saw passing by on the street, appears violently hurt, dying, or dead in a dream (and you can rule out a literal interpretation because you know they are fine in waking life), here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you puzzle through your individual dream vocabularies.

When someone is violently wounded in a dream:
  • How do I feel this person (or the part of me that reminds me of this person) is hurting?
  • How do I feel hurt by something this person said or did that felt negative?
When someone is dying or dead in a dream:
  • How do I feel something about this person (or the part of me that reminds me of this person) is changing?
  • How do I associate this person (or this person's habits and behaviors) with something negative that doesn't serve me in my life anymore?

Our dreams can help us identify what we authentically feel about what is happening in our lives, endeavors, and relationships. Although there are always exceptions, it usually doesn't mean that we want to act violently or hurt anyone in waking life when there is violence in our dreams. Imagining a successful healing, or completing the transformation process (e.g., little fox to Tarzan) can really help dreamers feel better about any dream violence they were previously puzzled by.

Do violent movies, TV, and video games cause people to have violent dreams?

Yes, anything we "take in" during waking life can make an appearance in our dreams. However, the way our dreaming minds use those images will always depend on the dreamer. Sometimes, when unhealthy habits or behaviors need to get transformed in waking life, imagery from a violent movie can actually be helpful in a dream. For example, in the early 2000s I hadn't watched a violent movie in a long time. Because Russell Crowe was the star, I watched Gladiator (3). That night, I had a gladiator-filled nightmare that "killed off" all the negative energy in my life where I had been feeling stuck. When we don't identify as violent people in waking life, our dreaming minds often use gladiators or others we recognize as killers, to do the dirty work and help us "clean house" in dreams.

Do people dream about killing a lot?

To give another example of symbolism, some violent dreams about fighting and killing can represent the process of being physically sick, when cells are battling it out for the dreamer to get well. There are a lot of reasons why people may have violent dreams, and it would be a mistake to think that reading someone's dream of killing means they are a killer in waking life.

Can dreams predict who will commit a crime?

What violent criminals dream about is more complex. Considering the role of symbolism in ordinary dream language, clearly people are not criminals for having violent dreams as long as they don't act on them in waking life. In other words, dream narratives cannot predict who will commit crimes, unless dreamers include a waking life intention to commit a crime in that narrative.

How often do psychologists take violent dreams seriously when speaking to patients?

When psychologists have been trained to work with dreams, they have deeper knowledge to help patients work with their violent dreams... and are less inclined to mistake a violent dream (on its own) for intent to do harm in waking life. The right questions need to be asked in therapy, and that is each practitioner's art. Unfortunately, in most universities it isn't required for psychologists in training to take a course in Dreams, even though that seems counterintuitive and even ridiculous to those of us who specialize with dreams in the field of psychology.

Learning to distinguish between dream violence and waking life violence is important for mental health in our society (4), and understanding what each violent dream means is every individual dreamer's task. The growth of dream sharing online is a healthy development. I enjoy seeing more individuals developing sympathy, understanding, self-esteem, and community (5). There is no one-size-fits-all with dream interpretation, including dreams about violence, but diffusing dream fear with dream knowledge is a giant leap in the right direction (6).

References:
  1. Krippner,S.,Bogzaran,F.,&deCarvalho,A.P.(2002).Extraordinary dreams and how to work with them. New York: State University of New York Press.

  • Krippner,S.,Pitchford,D.B.,&Davies,J.(2012).Post-traumaticstress disorder (Biographies of disease). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC- CLIO/Greenwood.
  • Scott,R.(Director).(2000).Gladiator[MotionPicture].Glendale,CA: DreamWorks SKG/Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures.
  • Stewart,K.(1954).Mentalhygieneandworldpeace.MentalHygiene38, 387-403.
  • Morgan,A.K.(2014,December).Dreamsharingasahealingmethod: Tropical roots and contemporary community potential. Journal of Tropical Psychology, 4(e12). Cambridge University Press: doi:10.1017/jtp.2014.12.
  • Morgan,A.K.(2016).Dragons,angels,andritesofpassage:The universal language of children's dreams. In C. Johnson & J. Campbell (Eds.), Sleep monsters and superheroes: Empowering children through creative dreamplay. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.