No More Nightmares!
by Ann S. Klein, MFCC, LMFT
What Is a Nightmare?
No one likes nightmares (except perhaps horror writers), but almost everyone has them from time to time. Why do nightmares happen? What are they really about? And what can be done about them? Letís take a look!
Any strongly unpleasant dream may be a nightmare. Itís the feeling, not the content that turns a dream into a nightmare. Fear, shame, guilt, frustration, pain, panic, anger, grief, confusion, or any other negative emotion may reach nightmare proportions. My mother had a horrible nightmare: she was in a huge white room with hundreds of plants. Sounded lovely to me Ė but to her it was (unconsciously) the afterworld, and she wasnít ready to die. It was a terrifying nightmare!
What causes nightmares? Usually it is your own trapped personal power, turned inward. This is very common in our society, because of childhood training and social conventions that require you to hide or deny some parts of yourself Ė even some positive ones.
For instance, women in our culture are never supposed to get angry. Yet anger is a natural emotion that is very useful and appropriate in some circumstances. Anger appears in nightmares in many forms (explosions, wild animals, fires, floods, to name just a few possible images). When you work a nightmare, by speaking as the image, youíll find out very quickly what it represents to you. And once you hear the message, you are on the road to breaking the denial and recovering the personal power that was locked away.
Another cause of nightmares is imbalance. If youíve gotten out of alignment with your inner integrity in some way, perhaps even a way that youíre not consciously aware of, your mind may create a nightmare to get your attention. Or if you are developing a physical condition (or thereís something in your environment thatís not right) your dreaming mind may let you know through nightmares.
A few nightmares may be precognitive, trying to warn you of a future event. Usually these are extremely vivid, recurrent and have a waking life setting and theme, such as an attack on someoneís life or a serious accident. But just because a dream has these qualities does not necessarily mean it is predictive. Dreamwork will help you find out.
In all of these cases, notice that the underlying purpose of the nightmare is to make you aware of a problem so that you can take action and straighten it out. The nightmare has a positive, supportive intent: to help you. This is almost always the case, as becomes obvious when you work the nightmare.
If your nightmare does not clear up after working with it, a therapist may be able to help you. If the nightmare presence intrudes persistently into your waking life, you may want to seek help from a dreamwork specialist such as Robert Moss, whose expertise goes beyond the psychological and therapeutic aspects of dreaming.
Nightmares often recur over time. Can you blame the inner part that is trying to get your attention for getting more insistent, as you continue to ignore it? The first message may just be a dream, but over time your dreams turns up the "volume", finally "shouting" at you, by creating a nightmare that you canít easily ignore.
There are many common recurrent dream themes in our culture: earthquakes, tidal waves, fires, being stalked or attacked, trying to lock doors against an intruder, teeth crumbling, lost toilets, test taking, no-pants in public, etc. Even though the imagery may be common across many people, the meaning is specific to each dreamer. One person with a no-pants nightmare may be feeling exposed in their career, while another may be acting too forthright about their feelings (or any number of other things). Dreamwork makes the message clear.
Recognizing Dream Enemies
Most nightmares include an "enemy". But some may be subtle and difficult to pin-point at first. The telephone that wonít connect, the sales person who wonít wait on you, the endless hallways that lead nowhere, the glue youíre caught in, are all dream enemies. What they have in common is that they appear to be "against" you. They are attacking, thwarting, shaming, blaming or otherwise irritating you in some way. After you recognize dream enemies in waking, by going back over your nightmares, you can learn to identify them on the spot and take action!
Grasping the Nettle
The simplest way to solve most nightmares is to face the enemy during the dream. You can learn to do this with intentional dreaming (described below). Solving nightmares this way usually has a positive impact on your waking life as well. Remember that the dream "enemy" is really a part of yourself that you are refusing to acknowledge in most cases. If so, confronting the enemy and asking "what do you want?" or "why are you doing this?" can provide some fascinating and very useful answers. Most often, youíll hear the message the image has been trying to get through to you. In those cases, itís easy to become friends with the enemy and the nightmare vanishes.
In some cases the answer will be "Iím trying to kill you", or some such. In these cases, fight the enemy, to the death if necessary. There is no danger in a dream: even death is impermanent. You can call on dream friends to aid your battle, but fight right along until they arrive. By conquering your dream enemy you are conquering your own fear and reclaiming your rightful power.
Solving Nightmares by Intention
Use the intention statement, "Tonight I face my enemies in my dreams!" as a focus. Repeat it many times a day, and repeatedly as you drift off to sleep, and again repeatedly as you fall back asleep after awakening during the night. After a few nights of this, youíll find yourself facing them down spontaneously.
Dreamwork with Nightmares
You can also resolve a nightmare by working with it in waking time. Speak as the images in the dream, especially any enemy or negative images (not only the attacker, but the knife, the blood, etc.). Speak each one in the first person, present tense, to make it more real and immediate. Listen as you speak, and see if any of what the image has to say describes an aspect of you or your life. From the imageís viewpoint, tell what youíre made of, what you look like, what condition youíre in, and what your purpose is. If you want more guidance with this process, check out the Interactive Dreaming multimedia CD (see biographical note below).
Children and Nightmares
Children are especially subject to nightmares. The good news is theyíre also very good at conquering nightmares once you teach them how. They have no beliefs or experience to tell them that itís difficult to face a dream enemy or call for help from dream friend during a dream.
Redreaming Victory and Gifts
The final touch on working a nightmare (after youíve gleaned its meaning) is to do a waking fantasy in which you conquer your enemy, either by killing them or turning them into a friend, and then receive a gift from them. This is a symbol that they are now in your service and on your side---that you have re-integrated them. And itís lots of fun. Take it to the limit (or past it). Have as much pleasure and delight as you can imagine in your dream fantasy.
Copyright 1998 Ann Klein
Ann Klein is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Englewood, Colorado. She has worked with dreams personally and professionally for over 15 years. Her intentional dreams guided her to create Interactive Dreaming. This is a highly entertaining multimedia CD that helps you learn about your dreams, dream intentionally, do dreamwork, and keep a journal of your dreams. It is now available at her web site http://www.dreamcd.com (a psychospiritual site sheís created to publish articles and link to resources on spiritual and psychological topics) or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ann Klein will be publishing articles here on dreams and dreamwork regulary.
Author's Cautionary Notes: If you find that dreamwork becomes emotionally overwhelming, be sure to see a professional therapist. If you are currently in therapy or have had mood-altering medications prescribed for you, or are currently taking such medications, check with a therapist before doing dreamwork on your own.
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