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
I took a nap and I dreamed about my father passing away. He was laying in a coffin, but in real life he is still alive. This dream was a nightmare for me I was crying and very afraid.
Dear Dreamer: I’m so sorry! Those dreams are awful. You wake up confused about who’s dead and who’s alive, and maybe worried that the dream is a premonition of an actual event. As you’ve adjusted to daily living, you’ve probably come to find that your father is alive and not in literal danger. So what does this dream mean for you?
Without having spoken with you, I would gander a couple of strong possibilities: your father complex is dying due to some new events or awareness in your life, and/or you have an unconscious and confusing death wish for your father. Let me explain.
If you’re anything like anyone alive, your relationship with your father is complicated. In your own particular blend of feelings that all children share, you love your father and are angry with him. You are hurt from past events and also grateful for things. Unconsciously, you balance out all of your conscious beliefs about him with their opposites. For instance, a woman may dream of her father all the time but in therapy will proclaim to have had a very good childhood with him, with nothing more to say. After months pass, however, she may begin to have conscious memories of his angry episodes or feeling his cold tone filter throughout the house. Consciously, she liked her dad. Unconsciously, things were much more complicated.
Carl Jung’s notion of a “complex” is a little like what acupuncturists work on when they’re seeking to clear a stuck point in the body: it’s a bundle of energy in your system that, when triggered by a word or a life event or even a nostalgic smell, can release all sorts of information. Until it’s triggered though, a complex sits there quietly, unconsciously, invisible to everyone except in certain patterns of behavior. Your “father complex” is your bundle of memories and experiences related to your father and other influential men in your life–including cultural images of the father or men in leadership positions. As an adult, some aspect of the way you view all men is filtered through this complex. A male guru, for instance, may appear all-knowing to a woman with a positive father complex. On the other side, for women who grew up with an angry, unpredictable father, even the kindest, simplest man may appear conniving.
So I would ask you, in what ways has your father complex been triggered lately? Have you begun dating a new man? Do you have a new male teacher? Or has your relationship with your father in life changed in any way? Listen to the image: The father is passing away. The father is dead. The father is going to be buried. What does that evoke for you? Perhaps you’re moving through a chapter of growth and you are gaining your own authority and leadership within yourself, or perhaps you’re able to be that much more present with a male partner now because you can see him more clearly for who he is. If you take some time to journal about this dream, letting your mind wander and your body experience the image, some significant insights are likely to arise.
As I said above, the second major possibility to explore is that you have some unconscious death wish for your father. To get into this tricky territory, let me quote Carl Jung on a woman’s dream of her dead mother:
…there does exist in our dreamer the tendency to be rid of her mother; expressed in the language of the unconscious, she wants her mother to die. But the dreamer should certainly not be saddled with this tendency because, strictly speaking, it was not she who fabricated the dream, but the unconscious.
Note that Jung is careful to emphasize what I want to emphasize with you: “The very fact that she can dream of such a thing proves that she does not consciously think of it. She has no notion why her [father] should be got rid of.”
Knowing absolutely nothing of your particular situation, it is hard for me to venture a guess as to why your unconscious may be harboring some infantile death wish for your father. Again, however, I wonder if your current romantic relationship status may have something to do with it. Are you seeking to enter into a relationship of which you feel your father would disapprove? Are you considering marriage and therefore–forgive my awkward heteronormative take here–needing to psychologically supplant the primary man in your life? Consider the deep cultural roots around the replacement of the father with the husband–think of the tradition of fathers “giving away” their daughters in wedding ceremonies.
Whether it’s a secret death wish or simply an increasing awareness around the father complex in your life, your dream suggests a threshold time. Some significant aspect of your life is changing. The image of death says as much. It is not a sleeping image or a wounded image, it is not a near death, but death itself. Old social customs and mythological tradition holds that when an old king dies, a new king is born and begins his reign. Consider this. The ground is being prepared for a new paradigm; an old ruling paradigm is falling away and a new one is coming.
Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!