Q: I have a recurring dream that someone is trying to break into my house. It’s usually a very scary man, maybe about forty years old. (I get chills even thinking about him now). When I wake up from this dream, I often have to get out of bed to make sure the door is locked before I can go back to sleep.
A: Oh dreamer, this is such a common theme. I’m glad you brought it to our attention so we can work through it together. You want these dreams to go away and stop taunting you, I know. You wonder what they could possibly mean and why they’re afflicting you. They’re disturbing your sleep and penetrating your waking life with the fear they contain. These dreams are very important dreams, but they rarely mean anything like what you’re likely to think they do.
First of all, I’d like to refer you to a little post I wrote about recurring nightmares. Please give it a read to help gauge what type of nightmares you typically suffer from. It can be important to identify some trauma history around nightmares, in addition to overall symbolism.
Okay, before we go on, I need to ask you to do one more thing: Get a piece of paper and a pen. Go on… I know it’s old fashioned. Now take a moment to go back into the feeling of this dream, then write down as many descriptors of this scary guy as you can muster. But write down what he’s like besides being scary. Does he have a job? Does he have a family? What do you know about him that you might be surprised to know. Then, finally, ask yourself what you think he wants from you.
It’s really important that you try to get to know this guy because he is your shadow. He’s you. I know, it’s yucky to hear that, but keep listening. This is important stuff. When we have an idea of who we are, our perspective about ourselves can become kind of rigid and fixed. Those things you avoid acknowledging about yourself to feel more comfortable don’t just go away. They get cut-off from your awareness and then tend to fester and get pissed. In your dreams, they turn into actual figures, and they can turn kind of primal and wild in their frustration at being neglected. These figures are part of your whole person, but they’re being left out in the cold. No wonder they want to break in.
So, the underlying sense in this dream is that you feel under attack. You likely feel like you’re under attack or in danger in some form out in the world too. But your dreams are telling you something very clearly here: despite all the dangers in the world that may cause a person to feel fear, you are currently under attack by your own self. Nothing more. Get real with yourself here. Try to be gentle and forgiving. Take your time. What are you running from? What are you trying not to notice? Who are you scared of being?
The answer to these questions can be found in gently trying to understand who this figure is that’s trying to break-in. There may also be information in what house you’re in in these dreams. Is it your current home or a childhood home, for instance? Notice what time of your life these dreams are situated in, and you may gather more information about what part of your life they’re speaking to.
As you do this exploration, take heart! There is always a happy ending when these dreams resolve. You will find that this man actually just wanted to tell you he loved you, for instance. Or he may hand you flowers. I know this might sound absurd, but this man is not as scary as he feels. The anticipation of jumping out of a plane is scarer than the jump itself (or so I’ve heard…). Similarly, anticipating an encounter with someone you’re trying to avoid tends to be worse than the encounter itself. Try not to think about this too much, but work on engaging with this man a little more directly–either in your dreams, if you can, or in waking life projected onto strangers or people you don’t like. Get to know him and what he wants. Try not to avoid him internally or externally. Discover what’s happening when you start to feel under attack in waking life. Stay safe, but also bring your guards down a little. Get curious. You may discover that your life changes in positive ways as this happens. And you’ll be surprised by how.
P.S. You may enjoy listening to this Radio Lab episode called “Haunted Dreams” in which a man who has been plagued by the same dreams as you–for twenty years!– finds a way to make them stop. It’s a great episode but–spoiler alert–they stop rather short of explaining why the dreams were there in the first place and what changed for the man after the dreams stopped. Perhaps your own exploration into this territory can illuminate those questions further.
Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!
Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in dream work, the quarter-life crisis, and work with individuals in their 20s and 30s. www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com