Q: I had a dream last night that I was sitting around with a bunch of old female friends (I’m a woman) and we were talking about haircuts. I looked in the mirror and saw that my hair was much thinner, shorter and choppier than it actually is. They were giving me advice on how to change it. I’ve had dreams in which my hair was different before, I think. What does this mean?
A: I find dreams about hair and haircuts fascinating. It’s just a simple image, but these dreams appear with some regularity, often catching the dreamer’s attention. It feels significant to look into the mirror in a dream and see yourself as different than you know yourself to be.
Let’s start with the archetypal layer of this dream. Prior to modern thinking, hair was often associated with virility and power.
The chiefs and magicians of the Masai, the African tribe, were afraid to lose their supernatural powers if they let their beards be cut . . . Hair is regarded as a sign of extraordinary power and magical strength. The young warriors of the Teutons cut their hair and beards only after having slain the enemy. Samson, too, was deprived of his power after Delilah had cut off his curls. (Children’s Dreams, p. 105)
Indeed, Samson, the strong man of the Bible, has supernatural strength because of his hair. Nothing can stop him or get in his way, until his wife cuts his hair when he is asleep and he awakes to find himself weak and powerless.
These mythological stories — like so many others — may be more true to reality than we originally thought. I’m intrigued by reports that the United States military conducted tests in the Vietnam War on new Native American recruits before they received their military haircuts and after. I can’t verify this story myself, but these military experiments apparently convinced even the most skeptical researchers that the men’s long hair had provided them with a profound intuition that gave them a significant edge in battle. Like Samson, when their hair was cut, they lost their unique skills as soldiers and were in danger much more often. It was theorized that their hair (our human hair) acted like the antennas of insects and whiskers of animals, providing an avenue of sensory input for the surrounding world. (Go ahead and read this article for more information on this research).
So how does this all relate to your dream?
When you look in the mirror, you’re surprised by what you see. Your hair is thinner, shorter and choppier than you know it to be and you’re surprised. In fact, you seem discomforted by this, as if in this moment you feel less confident than before. You don’t think, “Aha! Look at my hair!” Instead, your adjectives betray some confusion and disappointment. Does witnessing yourself in the mirror feel disconcerting? Do you feel less confident than you typically do? Your dream may be reflecting something about how you appear to others (at least in the current moment) not exactly as you perceive yourself. Is your dream calling your attention to a lack of confidence or relationships that are “cutting you down”? I wonder about what this particular group of friends tells you about your identity. Explore for yourself how they connect with your self-perception. Are they people from childhood? Women related to how you learned about who you are?
Of course you know that the way we wear our hair has a dramatic influence on how we are perceived in the world (think dreadlocks versus a mohawk versus a business cut). Not to mention hair as an indicator of ethnicity and resulting social power (something the African American community knows well — just last month I saw the term “wooly-headed” in a professional magazine. Yikes! That’s still being used??). Whether it speaks to intuition or super-human strength or not, hair does still correlate to how much power we hold socially and the groups with which we associate, by choice or not.
Haircuts and hairdos also speak to changing identities in general, not just as a loss or gain of power. Yes, the move into the military involves the ceremonial loss of hair, as does the path to becoming a buddhist monk or nun. Buddhist monastics shave their head as a demonstration of the loss of attachment to worldly things. Even the passage into marriage for many women and men involves a complicated ritual of preparation in regards to her/his hair.
We can’t overlook the fact that, as an imagine, hair also reflects thoughts and ideas; the shape and style and quality of all that energy pouring out of your head. Someone may have a dream in which things are caught in their hair, for instance, pointing to a certain kind of messiness or mental infestation. Your dream indicates a change here too, one that doesn’t feel terribly positive to you. The mirror — another important symbol all by itself — reflects back a side of yourself that you can’t see alone. What we see in the mirror can help us to see ourselves both more accurately and as, strangely, separate from ourselves. We can observe what we were unable to observe before. Be it a shift in power or a shift in your thinking, something has thinned and become choppier and your dream is reflecting that back to you. Is this a shadow side in need or exploring? A mood?
If we were to sit together to explore this dream, I would invite you to delve deeper into the feelings that arise; the feeling of seeing yourself in the mirror, the feeling of contemplating a new haircut, and what you imagine that might look like. What are your attachments or insecurities in regards to your hair in waking life? I encourage you to contemplate your hair and how your identity may be shifting these days. Ask a trusted friend to sit with you and talk about the experience of seeing your hair as you did in the dream. Your dream is showing you something about who you are right now, step towards the image and take a look.
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
People who suffer from recurring nightmares are often desperate for anything to help make them go away. If you are one of those people, there are a few easy steps to take to help the recurring nightmares stop. The first step is identifying what time of nightmare they are.
What Type of Nightmare is Recurring?
Nightmares come in many varieties. You can think of their difference in origin and meaning in much the same way you might notice that a stomach pain could be the result of indigestion, or a bullet wound, or cancer: completely different diagnoses and different treatment required. They all require attention and self-care, however.
The following is a simple breakdown of some different types. This is not comprehensive and is only meant as an initial introduction.
If you have any questions at all, do not hesitate to contact a clinician in your area who works with dreams. Not all therapists do (in fact, the majority do not) so take some time to find the right person for you.
Nightmares Related to Post-Traumatic Stress
Nightmares related to a traumatic event or events are of a very specific variety. You can read more about my exploration of Post-Traumatic Stress dreams in an earlier entry. In summary, these nightmares are often highly literal representations of what occurred in waking life. There is room to debate if they are even dreams in the standard definition in that they are drawing so heavily from memory, therefore suggesting a disruption in the way events are generally metabolized. Nightmares that replay events or do not feel symbolic fall into this category. They are nightmares that do not make you think “what is that about??” when you wake up; you already know what they’re about far too well.
Non-Literal Nightmares Related to Trauma or Major Life Changes
Many nightmares result from trauma but are not actual replaying of events. These can be dreams like dismemberment, tsunamis, apocalypse but may be more a reflection of what is being altered in your life, or what is being ignored. Dreams of tsunamis, for instance, are quite common. These are likely to do with some kind of emotional overwhelm which, because it is showing up in dreams, you may not be acknowledging fully.
Stress Related Nightmares
Nightmares not related to trauma are often a result of being overwhelmed or “disconnected” and not paying attention to your inner life. These dreams can show up in any variety. Maybe you are running from something. Maybe someone is trying to break into your house. Maybe you’re seeing sickness or suffering a lot in your nightmares. They’re stressful to experience and you can wake up feeling groggy and frustrated and scared.
Sleep Paralysis, “Incubus” Nightmares, Night Terrors
Nightmares that feel like sleep paralysis or in which you experience a force in your room or sitting on your chest are not uncommon. These dreams are often referred to as “Night Terrors” and cultures all over the world have explanations for what is occurring in this highly visceral and terrifying experience. These dreams seem to result from a sense of “disembodiment” or what I think of as the disorientation of consciousness. They may come when you’ve slept way too long, or when you’re sleeping in a new location. They may also be more common for people who have experienced leaving their bodies through dissociation; a history of sexual abuse, for instance, may contribute to a greater incidence of these dreams. If you’re feeling powerless or trapped in your life, they may arise in those instances.
How do I Stop Recurring Nightmares?
Almost all nightmares, with the exception perhaps of the PTSD variety, have the effect of grounding you. If you notice the visceral experience they evoke, they may be a psychic immune system response to make you pay attention to your body and the physical world. They seem to support in improved awareness and force an individual to slow down and regain focus in their day to day life.
Stopping PTSD Related Nightmares
Help for these nightmares can come through working to jump-start your psychic metabolism by encouraging symbol making that is not happening organically. This may sound highly abstract, but stick with me here. Writing can help. Writing about what occurred and what the dreams are, but trying to recover what was lost. Reading poetry. Engaging in art or dance. Literally, these forms of relating in the world can help to calm nightmares over time. The “irrational”, artistic, symbolizing aspect of the mind has been disrupted. Everything is too literal.
There is also some excellent work being done around “re-dreaming” with PTSD nightmares in which certain images within the dream are consciously altered. Some lucid dreaming techniques are also helpful to bring conscious engagement into healing the disruptive dreams.
Help for All other Recurring Nightmares
1) Write your dreams down. Seriously. I bet you that if you write your dreams down in the morning, you will see a decrease in their intensity and frequency within a week.
2) Spend time exploring them. Why did that guy show up? What is that building from childhood doing there? Really explore it. Notice themes: What topics are showing up regularly? Which periods of life? Something is being triggered right now and some aspect of YOU is trying to make contact with you. Listen to it. The less you listen to it, the more intense the nightmares need to get to make you pay attention.
3) Get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. Do not get less than 7 hours of sleep a night. Sleep. Being under rested is a chronic issue in modern life and the effects are much more severe than people realize. If you sleep regularly and well and without sleeping pills, your nightmares will almost certainly be less frequent.
4) Consider playing more if you’re not playing enough, or consider getting more responsible and focused if you’re playing too much.
If you follow these simple tasks, your recurring nightmares are almost guaranteed to stop or at least decrease dramatically. There’s much, much more to be gained from working with your dreams, however. If working with your nightmares raises your interest in your inner life, let them take you there. Nightmares are not a nuisance. They tend to be helping you. Pay attention.