Nightmares are the most disturbing type of dream people have. They literally wake us up with fright and often make us feel uneasy throughout the next day. Some people have recurring nightmares that disrupt healthy sleep patterns over long periods of time. Culturally, we do not give much credence to our dreams so we tend to ignore these uncomfortable experiences. However, if we take the time to understand our nightmares, they offer us a great gift.
Some nightmares are repressed feelings from a trauma, such as being in war battle, a car accident or earthquake. We are unable to totally feel our fright in the moment of the trauma and so we push it into our unconscious. When we are safe again, our psyches help us to process the experience by releasing the feelings into our dreams. These nightmares often go away after the trauma is fully experienced. If the dreamer develops a phobia or has unresolved feelings of guilt or anger associated with the trauma, the dreams may continue until the issue is understood and attended to.
Other nightmares arise from our unresolved inner conflicts formed from clashing beliefs, attitudes and judgments from childhood. Many people have this kind of nightmare when they are personally growing risking something new, developing a new skill or changing an old pattern. These dreams often dramatize a confrontation by our "conditioned" selves with our "natural" selves. Our "true or natural self" is who we are when we are born, complete with natural potentials and inclinations. Our "conditioned self" is who we learned to be from our family and culture. We conform as an instinct for survival.
Most of us have to render unconscious some natural feelings, talents and potentials in order to be accepted and loved. For instance, anger is a natural, healthy response to threatening or hurtful interactions, but most of us have been taught it is bad to feel or express anger or we may show a talent for art but because our parents want us to be engineers, we repress our desire to paint.
Our natural potentials never die. We can shove almost any part of ourselves into our unconscious, but it will seek expression. When we are growing, we are often developing parts of ourselves we didn't feel free to express before. A nightmare is often a "breakthrough dream" (coined by Richard Corrierre and Joseph Hart in their book, The Dream Makers). It is a signal that the "natural self" is facing a judgment or opposing belief of the "conditioned self." Because we grow up believing our parents' belief system is right, the "conditioned self" judges the "natural self" to be wrong or bad.
For instance, at age 33, you realize that you hate engineering and want to be an artist. You quit your job to go back to school, and then start having nightmares. Your "conditioned self" judges you to be doing something unproductive and unimportant, which will displease your parents even now. Not only that, other conditioned beliefs kick in you don't really have the talent work isn't suppose to be fun and art is for sissies. When you dream a dark shadow is about ready to kill you and you wake up screaming, the shadow is actually your "natural self" which the "conditioned self" is afraid of. You are, after all, challenging your deepest conditioned beliefs and attitudes you adopted for survival. Your "conditioned self" feels it is going to die under this new declaration of change a scary affair, indeed!
The gift of these personal growth nightmares is substantial, for they point the finger at judgments that no longer serve us. Once we are aware of opposing energies, we can let go of them. We can thank our conditioned beliefs and judgments for helping us through our childhood, and make room for new life.
Amelia Sahentara, M.A. is the founder of Northwest Dream Circles and has been teaching people how to work with their dreams for personal growth since 1985. She is available for individual work, phone sessions, workshops and classes throughout the Northwest. She is presently earning a Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology. For more information, call (503) 356-0299