Are Nightmares Helpful? Why Bad Dreams May Be Good for You
I’ve long been an active dreamer. My dreams are lengthy, plot-driven and very detailed. I nearly always remember them when I wake up.
But they are not particularly pleasant. From the proverbial math test that you haven’t studied for, to the play you’re in where you don’t know your lines – I regularly experience some of the most common dreams in adulthood.
I’ve always accepted my troubling dreams as a sign that I am… troubled. Not massively so. But for those of us who lack the benefit of a ‘quiet mind,’ I think it’s inevitable that the thoughts and feelings swirling around inside of us during the day are going to need some sort of outlet at night.
Lately, however, I’ve been re-assessing whether the fact that I have disturbing dreams might actually be a sign that I’m on a journey towards happiness.
What Are Dreams?
There are different theories on what dreams mean and how to interpret them. For Freud and others in the psychoanalytic tradition, dreams were a form of wish fulfilment.
Even some scholars who don’t fully buy into Freud believe that dreams serve as a way of processing repressed thoughts and feelings – sexual and otherwise – that live in our unconscious mind.
Other researchers interpret dreams as a form of problem-solving. From this perspective, the brain responds to potential future danger by running – and responding to – a bunch of different scenarios while we sleep, just to keep us alert.
Still others believe that dreams help us process emotions by encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the stories we construct and the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are.
Being Lost in Your Dreams
In my case, the dreams I’ve had over the past few years very closely track some of my major anxieties – and personal evolution.
For a long time, I had dreams about trying to get somewhere. This sometimes took the form of an elevator, where I’d push a button to go to a certain floor, but then the elevator would fly off in many directions, never landing at my destination.
That dream has also, at times, taken the form of me driving or walking somewhere without a map. I try desperately to figure out where I need to get to but am increasingly worried about being late.
I feel like this is a fairly straightforward metaphor for the journey of professional reinvention I’ve been on, one that has intensified in the last year or so. It’s a dream about uncertainty and movement.
Dreams About Parties
In the last few months, however, the ‘being lost’ dreams have really faded. In their place have come a series of dreams about attending parties with other people: family, friends, strangers.
In these parties, I can always see the fun going on in another room, but something blocks me from taking part.
If you google “dreams about parties” you’ll find interpretations range from social anxiety to needing to let your hair down to partying too much.
For me, it’s simpler than that: I’m on a path towards personal and professional fulfilment, but I’m still not entirely sure that I’m permitted to enjoy it.
So the dream is very clearly reminding me that despite all the work I’ve done to construct a new narrative for myself, there’s still a bit of fear, and possibly even ambivalence, about seizing a life that is better suited to who I am.
Why Struggle Is Good for You
I’m OK with the idea that even as I feel ever closer to being at peace with myself, I may continue to struggle for a good while longer in life.
In this, I’m 100% with self-help guru Mark Manson, who argues in his new book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, that a certain amount of pain and darkness is the necessary and inevitable price of self-discovery and self-acceptance.
So, I embrace my dreams. They tire me out. But they also remind me that I’m alive.
How do your dreams help you to get a deeper understanding of yourself and your personal journey? Do you have any recurring dreams? Please share in the comments below.
Delia Lloyd is an American writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Guardian. She blogs about adulthood at realdelia.com and is currently at work on a book about swimming and adulthood. Follow her on Twitter at @realdelia.