The majority of dreams contain imagery that is frightening or distressing. These images often elicit strong emotional responses, and partially because of this can be some of the hardest images to understand symbolically. It can help to remember that frightening dream contents are often the way the unconscious chooses to picture those aspects of our personality that have been deemed unacceptable. If we can remember this, we will be able to see the scary images in our dreams as contents that may have an important positive value if we are able to come into a different relationship with them. In other words, lots of things that appear terribly awful and distressing in dreams are symbolic representations of contents that are not actually harmful at all, but in fact are potentially helpful things that we have decided are off-limits for us.
This simple idea can be hard to grasp and take in, so a few examples are important to clarify. The following dream was dreamt by a woman in her forties and is used with her permission.
My friend Tina and I were running from some soldiers. They were definitely Nazis. Then we were imprisoned behind a fence with other people. I knew we had to find some way to escape from the Nazis.
At first, the dreamer and I were stumped. What in her psyche was so oppressive and deadly that an image of Nazis was an appropriate way to symbolize it? When I asked about her friend Tina, things got a little clearer: “Tina is my friend who has a terrible time with anger. She gets very upset if she thinks that anyone is angry with her, and she will do anything to avoid confrontation.”
This client and I had already discussed how anger was also a difficult emotion for her as well. Like her friend Tina, she did not feel comfortable being angry at others, nor knowing that others were angry with her. The dream Nazis then were a picture of her own angry feelings, which were experienced as threatening, overpowering, and frightening. This extreme imagery showed how out of proportion her fear of her anger was. Dreams tend to use imagery that exaggerates in a compensatory manner, offsetting to the left to a degree exactly equal to the degree to which the conscious attitude is out of balance to the right. So in this case, the dreamer’s internal injunction against feeling angry was pretty badly out of balance.
Another example. This one was dreamed by a man in his thirties. Again, the dream is used with the dreamer’s permission.
I am with a friend. We are going out downtown. We are being followed by a homeless guy with no arms and no legs. We go into a restaurant and the homeless guy attacks me before I can close the door on him. He is biting at my pants leg. I wake up terrified.
Again, the potential meaning of the dream came into focus when I asked what he had in common with the friend in the dream. The patient answered that both he and the fried were ambitious. The friend in the dream was overtly so, pursuing big career goals in a way that made some feel that he was acting arrogantly. My patient, however, had always been taught to cultivate humility. He was a very talented person who had every right to pursue big dreams, but because overt ambition had been disallowed for being selfish or in bad taste, he had been cutting off his ambition at the knees, so to speak, and now here it was following him in a most threatening manner.
This interpretation was genuinely helpful to this client. He had been engaged in a process of making some career decisions, and the dream gave him permission to pursue something on a grander scale than he had thought was right. This new attitude proved to be appropriate for him, and he experienced less anxiety and depression as a result.