A Jungian Perspective on Nightmares and Bad Dreams


Dreams do not hide your true and deepest feelings from your conscious mind; rather, they are a gateway to them. But before delving into the Jungian perspective on dreams - more specifically, nightmares and bad dreams, it will be helpful to elucidate the Jungian view of the mind. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed in the existence of the unconscious mind and said it consisted of two layers: the personal unconscious, which is a reservoir of material (i.e. memories) which has been forgotten or suppressed, and the collective unconscious, which is a reservoir of material that has been inherited and contains archetypal images with universal meanings – these archetypes manifest themselves in symbols, art and mythology. According to Jung, dreams are a way of acquainting yourself with both the personal and collective unconscious. Dreams are also integral to a process which Jung called individuation.

Jung claimed that humans thirst for wholeness; we want all the parts of ourselves to be integrated, rather than conflicted and compartmentalised. Individuation is the name Jung gave to the process of achieving wholeness. It is a process which involves an individual self – a being distinct from the human species – emerging from the integration of the collective and personal unconscious. Jung described individuation as “the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘in-dividual’, that is a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole’”. Individuation is also a somewhat spiritual process. Jung also said that individuation “…implies becoming one’s own self. We could, therefore, translate individuation as ‘coming to selfhood’ or ‘self-realisation’”.  This process of ‘self-realisation’ was a “natural transformation”, according to Jung, and it was something “the unconscious had in mind”.

Jung also regarded individuation as a solution to an age-old problem: how to bring our conscious mind into a working relationship with our unconscious mind, that unknown and hidden terrain. Eastern religions have also strived to achieve this. As Jung said, “…the individuation process…forms one of the main interests of Taoism and Zen Buddhism.” Coming from a Christian background himself, Jung also realised how this idea was expressed in the Bible: “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21).

However, the “self-knowledge” involved in individuation – becoming conscious of the unconscious – is no easy task; it is a challenge. Jung stated that individuation was a task for heroes, not for the faint of heart or those who can’t stand against the crowd and be different. Individuation involves deep inner work can involve many hardships such as separation not only from the person you used to be but also separation from family, friends and society. Individuation is difficult because it involves giving up our persona, the mask we put on which is made up of cultural expectations (inherited from our parents, friends and society). The persona is not our true self. Throughout our lives we have been compromising, even betraying, our authentic nature in order to wear this mask.

Individuation involves an act of heroism because it means stepping out of conventional reality and not being afraid to be different. Self-realisation was never considered an easy task by the ancient mystics. It is a spiritual journey which requires constant dedication. Coming to terms with our unconscious is also challenging. Facing our shadow (which relates to nightmares and bad dreams, as we will see) can invoke feelings of fear and anxiety, but it is necessary for individuation. The work of individuation, Jung said, takes us through the “swamplands of our soul”. The benefits of individuation include a feeling of liberation, being free from our past and from the unconsciousness of our parents. We gain a genuine sense of individuality and our actions will reflect our values. Our sense of inner conflict and disharmony ends and our quality of life improves. We will also be able to form more meaningful and closer relationships because ‘like finds like’.

Now all of this relates to nightmares because, as mentioned before, dreams are a window into the unconscious mind. Nightmares and bad dreams - dreams which elicit fear, terror, anxiety, disgust, guilt, shame, despair or sadness – are symbolic manifestations of the shadow, which is hidden and operates outside of our awareness. Following Jung’s distinction between the personal and collective unconscious, there is a personal shadow, which is made of repressed experiences which we deem unacceptable, due to conditioning by adults from childhood. These experiences may be fantasies, dreams, instincts, desires, sadness or sexual curiosity which were rejected in childhood. When we act on shadow desires, for example, it results in feelings of guilt, shame, regret, self-disgust and grief. Unbearable feelings of abandonment, panic, rage and frustration when our needs were not met in infancy also form our personal shadow. Anything that we deny, that we want to hide from or don’t want to know about ourselves comprises our personal shadow.

Then there is the collective shadow. Jung said that “None of us stands outside humanity’s black collective shadow.” The collective shadow, unlike the personal shadow, is impersonal and primitive. The collective shadow, formed by the instincts and drives of the ancient limbic system – or the emotional centre of our brain – is “the two-million-year-old human being in us all,” according to Jung. It contains all of the terrors and struggles that humans have faced since their primal beginnings. We are hard-wired to respond in a certain way to starvation, illness, natural disasters and predators. It also contains our primitive instincts associated with survival, such as sexual desire.

A rejection of these archetypal drives can be a source of great angst. An evolutionary reason as to why we might reject our collective shadow is because when our ancestors lived in groups, it was important to curb basic drives in order to foster co-operation. Aspects of our self which are in conflict with co-operation for survival – greed, jealousy, fear and rage – became the enemy within. Expressions of these traits were therefore intimately linked to ostracization by the group and even death. These aspects of our self are still the enemy within today – when we express them we experience feelings of guilt, shame and self-disgust.

One way that the personal shadow manifests itself is through psychological projection, which is when a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. These projections usually remain hidden, so that we are constantly judging others, without realising that we are in fact judging ourselves. If we despise someone for being lazy, cowardly, mean or deceitful or if we are constantly annoyed at someone for being arrogant, greedy or mean, this perception reflects a despised part of ourselves. Other people act as a mirror to our inner life. The author Herman Hesse, in his novel Demian (which is influenced by Jungian psychology) said: “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

Recognising and withdrawing these projections is essential to working with the shadow. When you cease to project your shadow onto others, you will become a much less judgemental. In order to integrate your shadow into your personality, you first must recognise and accept that these despised traits are a part of your self and not other people. Furthermore, being aware and understanding of the shadow, without becoming attached to it, is what makes integration possible. In Buddhism, the same advice is given – in order to be free from mental suffering you should not hide from it or try to avoid it; you should be deeply aware of it, assimilate it, but not become attached to it. This is practised in mindfulness meditation.

Both the personal and collective shadow can be manifested in symbolism. Our sense of having to deal with something strange and primitive is produced, in most cultures, in the myth of the battle between the hero and a monster. The dragon, for example, symbolically represents the drives of the lower, ancient brain, and the hero’s task is to protect himself by slaying this primitive force. These mythical battles are really symbolic expressions of the inner battles that we all experience.

Shadow symbolism is also expressed in our dreams, usually in the form of nightmares and bad dreams. In dreams, dark and sinister landscapes represent shadow territory, while sinister figures such as muggers, murderers, terrorists, rapists, muggers and burglars are classic shadow characters. Of course, our dreams may contain threatening creatures (both real and mythical) which are also expressions of our shadow. Being chased by these sinister figures and creatures may be an expression of that ancient fear of predators. During the nightmare or bad dream, and immediately upon awakening, we can feel fear and anxiety, just like if we were actually feeling threatened by another person or by a predatory animal.

Despite the fact that nightmares and bad dreams can elicit negative emotions, they can offer us great opportunities to recognise our shadow and learn to integrate it into our self. In nightmares or bad dreams, when we are being pursued or attacked by someone, some animal or some monster, we are never able to hide from them. The dark and sinister figure in question seems to always know where you are. This is because you are running away from an aspect of your self, so no wonder they know how to track you down! Fearing this symbolic expression of your shadow and trying to escape it is fruitless, even though it seems instinctive.

Stephen LaBerge’s famous book, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, gives an interesting analysis of nightmares, as well as how to deal with sinister figures in order to achieve positive results. For LaBerge, “…one of the most adaptive responses to an unpleasant dream situation is to face it…” As LaBerge also goes on to note, “…when one attempts to force a dream figure to disappear, it may become more threatening…There is little difference between this and running from dream monsters.” This fits in with the Buddhist notion of being open to your shadow side and not trying to push it away. This is why lucid dreaming is useful – it allows the individual to be aware of the fact that they are having an unpleasant dream and then resolve to face the fear-provoking imagery. If we become lucid during a nightmare, we should not attempt to attack or destroy the hostile dream figure, since these figures are most likely represent aspects of our personality, so destroying them would be like destroying parts of ourselves.

The psychologist Paul Tholey suggests that the dreamer should try to engage in dialogue with the hostile dream figure, with the goal of achieving some kind of reconciliation. Tholey found that when dreamers used this conciliatory approach, the hostile figures would often transform from beasts or mythological beings into humans and that these transformations “often allowed the subjects to immediately understand the meaning of the dream.” If you treat the hostile figure as your equal and talk with it (LaBerge gives instructions on how to converse with dream characters) they will often become friendly. Tholey found that when dreamers verbally or physically attacked dream characters they would regress, i.e. transform from a mother to a witch to a beast.

LaBerge offers ways to overcome the fear and anxiety associated with different nightmare themes. In a dream, a pursuer is a feared or disliked aspect of our shadow, a denied part of our personality. When being pursued, stop running and turn around to face the pursuer. The pursuer may disappear or become harmless; if not, engage in dialogue with the character or animal. Now, this shadow aspect can benefit us by being integrated. If you’re being attacked, defend yourself, engage in conciliatory dialogue or extend acceptance and love towards them. In the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness meditation, the individual extends compassion towards the most difficult people in their lives – this has been shown to promote positive emotions and feelings of social connection. In a similar vein, extending compassion towards the most difficult aspects of your self – your shadow – encourages healing and self-growth.

If you’re having a ‘falling’ nightmare, just relax and allow yourself to land safely. Alternatively, you can float or fly. A dream in which you are falling may suggest that you are feeling unsupported, out-of-control and that you need to be more grounded in your life. You may have a bad dream in which you are paralysed, stuck or trapped. If so, relax. This may indicate that you feel trapped in life. Don’t fight the situation or let anxiety overwhelm you; instead, adopt an attitude of interest and curiosity. Explore new rooms and places in the dream.

Another common nightmare theme is being unprepared for an exam or speech. If you are lucid, you can leave the exam hall if you want or you might be able to enhance your self-confidence by answering the questions or giving a speech. Another unpleasant dream may involve being naked or dressed in little clothing in public. Usually the other dream characters don’t notice or care, but since you still do, this indicates that you feel embarrassed about yourself or lack confidence. To deal with the situation, just have fun with the ability to be naked in public and get away with it. All of these encounters with the shadow are opportunities for individuation, to achieve wholeness. The Judeo-Christian tradition has taught us to deny the shadow – to fear and banish our demons – but it is actually far more productive to embrace the shadow, to befriend it and form a close relationship with it. Our shadow is not unworthy, immoral, sinful or evil, as Christianity has insisted. You should confront your shadow, in dreams, because it has something to teach you.

Connie Zweig is a Jungian psychotherapist and author of Romancing the Shadow and editor of the anthology Meeting the Shadow. In an interview she says, “The more the shadow hides, the more it’s outside awareness, the tighter its hold over us.” If we become aware of it and understand it, say in dreams, for example, then it will be less likely to erupt into destructive and self-destructive behaviours in our waking life. Having mastery over the shadow means we will be less prone to projection. We will also be less prone to spontaneous eruptions of the shadow in behaviours such as self-harm, addiction, binging, violence, jumping into unhealthy relationships; so forth and so on.

Although the shadow is the dark aspect of our personality, it can still be a positive force in our lives. As Zweig has commented, “…there are incredible potentials, gifts and talents lying dormant there as well.” Likewise, Jung believed that the shadow, although a reservoir for human darkness, was the seat of creativity. Indeed, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche extolled the benefits of suffering – it enables you to become a stronger and more creative individual. As Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, "The discipline of suffering, of great suffering - do you not know that it is this discipline alone that has produced all the elevations of humanity so far?" In addition, the mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that overcoming adversity and personal limitations – as expressed in the ‘hero’s journey’ - is essential for self-improvement.

Confronting shadow figures in dreams will offer a solution to a problem you are facing in your waking life. It is important to self-integrate the shadow, both for our mental health and for spiritual attainment. As LaBerge notes, “It is no accident that the words whole, health and holy come from the same root.” Psychologist Ernest Rossi argues in his book, Dreams and the Growth of Personality, that an important function of dreaming is integration: the synthesis of separate psychological structures into a more comprehensive personality. Rossi argues that dreams do not merely reflect our wishes, they are dramas reflecting psychological change, growth and transformation.

Ugly and terrifying characters in our dreams can be transformed into beautiful and friendly characters. Just as the hero slays the dragon in order to save the princess, if we can overcome the grip of our shadow, we will be on the right path to discovering the prize of wholeness. The shadow, therefore, is like hidden treasure; but in order to discover that treasure, we have to swim into the depths of our psyche and confront many unpleasant creatures along the way. As the German psychologist Kuenkel said, “The true way to healing” is to seek out the “barking dogs of the unconscious” and reconcile with them. Emotional balance, according to Kuenkel, can only be obtained through this process. Tholey argues that these conscious confrontations with the shadow allow an individual to become more self-reliant and flexible when it comes to responding to challenging situations in real life.

Being able to engage with hostile figures in dreams in a friendly way, as discussed earlier, can spill over into ordinary life. Instead of being inclined to antagonise or exacerbate conflict with others, you can appease the situation through calm dialogue. Greet your demons and monsters like a long-lost friend and so too will your enemies in real life cease to be enemies. As is taught in loving-kindness meditation, before extending love to others you first have to love yourself (which includes loving your shadow).

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