One of the least talked-about aspects of dreaming is emotions. These strange creatures have stirred up many a restless night in the form of fear, anger, or despair. They take many shapes in our dreams: a large, poisonous snake ready to strike; a homeless woman yelling profanities; a deep chasm ready to swallow the unsuspecting. In these moments, we can flee, fight, or surrender. Each action (or inaction) has its consequence and connection with how we move through waking life.
Emotions as Guides
Emotions are not just a part us but the center of creation and what makes us human. Sitting with emotions, without judgment, can have a profound, transformative effect on the mind, body, and spirit. Emotions have the power to heal.
Recognizing our emotions is not always easy, and to name them in the body can be daunting. Often, there is a disconnection out of shame or denial. Expressing emotions, especially anger, is often too scary in the heated moments of waking life, let alone in dreams and nightmares. (“Where did THAT come from?”)
In Spirituality and the Gentle Life, Adrian van Kaam speaks of this disconnection with our emotions so eloquently. He grew up in a community that did not tolerate anger in any way, so he feared expressing his emotions, even with people who supported him. If we can express both gentleness and anger with the people we trust, we can develop healthier ways of expressing these emotions. If we don’t have that opportunity, we can either talk with a friend or write it out. Van Kaam notes, “Once anger and aggression are out in the open, I can cope with them.” In other words, by recognizing anger and its origins, we are in a better place to work with them and develop healthier relationships.
The Power of Identifying Emotions
I have found working with dreams can be a gentle yet powerful gateway for healing, especially when it comes to identifying and working with emotions. The label of being “too emotional” carries a stigma in this culture as being weak or “out of control,” so we often suppress feelings by intellectualizing them. Sitting with, naming, and later embodying the emotion before making judgments is a powerful map to tracking emotional patterns in waking life.
A good place to begin when working with emotions in dreams is to name them. Dream specialist and author Justina Lasley explains in her book Wake Up to Your Dreams, “Emotions are so key to dreamwork. If you want to make the greatest change in your life, go to the place of your greatest fear. Dreams help you do that.” There is often a struggle with this exercise for that reason. It’s not easy to go to those dark places. I’ll hear things like “confusion” and “frustration” as responses in a session. But with gentle coaxing and exploration, people in therapy usually get to the core of their emotions. For example, what was labeled “confusion” may actually be fear and “frustration” may really be anger.
By naming our emotions, we can feel and therefore “own” them in the body. An image can also be created and then dialogued with, which Carl Jung calls active imagination. For example, a person might feel rage in a dream that stems from the head. If the emotion arises spontaneously—say, as an image of a tiger ferociously clawing the dreamer’s skull—it can later be dialogued with. Engaging with the emotion and allowing it to speak often brings potent information for the dreamer to work with.
Dialoguing with Emotions in Dreams: A Case Study
Letting emotions arise naturally can also have a strong effect on the therapeutic relationship. John Welwood’s words in Awakening the Heart resonated with me. He writes, “Venting emotions may be necessary along the way … but what often seems to release an emotional tangle is not catharsis per se, but letting our feelings speak to us and reveal what they are asking us to look at.” In other words, it is important to sit with and embody emotions before making judgments so we can have a better understanding of their origins and what they can teach us. This statement is so enlightening in terms of suppressing feelings with thoughts and not allowing emotions to come in because we fear them.
This “holding without judgment” had a profound effect on one of my clients when we worked on her emotions using the active imagination technique, which in turn revealed a belief system she has held for years. I had asked her to name an emotion that came up for her in one of her dreams of a skinny little girl trapped in a dark cave. She was able to locate that feeling somatically in her heart and belly. My client had worked on this image before and was willing to take it a step further by dialoguing with the little girl to see what came up. What surprised us both was what the little girl called herself.
Me: “What’s your name?”
Client: “I don’t know.”
Me: “If you could give yourself a name, what would it be?”
Client, perking up: “Joy!”
I have found working with dreams can be a gentle yet powerful gateway for healing, especially when it comes to identifying and working with emotions.
After the dialogue, the client was stunned by the name the little girl had chosen. This brought up a limiting feeling the client had created for herself: she often felt guilty for feeling good or joyful. Thus, the little girl, Joy, was not being nourished or cared for but instead hiding in a dark cave. What Joy wanted was for the client to check in from time to time and to be received. Afterward, we were both moved to tears by the experience.
Engaging with the emotions and allowing them to speak yielded some incredible information for the client to work with. It was also a humbling experience in terms of removing judgment and preconceived notions as to where this needed to go and allowing the process to enfold organically.
As to actively engaging in emotions versus suppressing our judgment of them, it was not surprising to note which interventions didn’t work. One such occasion was when I already had a goal in mind before we began the dialogue with Joy. I said to my client before we even talked to her, “All she has to do is get out of the cave.” Oh, really? How presumptuous of me!
“Immerse yourself in this place, what it feels like to be this little girl. You are this little girl,” I told my client. “How scared and lonely and looking at the sun. Imagine what that would be like as this little girl. The sadness in the heart and below the belly. Skinny body. Not being nourished in this dark cave. All she has to do is walk out.”
What arose for me was the need to fix the situation by saving Joy. Let’s bring her out of the cave! So obvious! This, of course, was my ego stepping in and wanting to be the heroine by saving the girl. There was resistance, of course. By setting the preconceived goal, I had put the pressure on wanting a future outcome rather than being present to trust what comes up naturally. I could feel the anxiety in my body as we moved through this process because I was worried it would fail somehow. I later realized my role was to receive and be supportive of her journey and not try to dictate or fix it. I didn’t have to “do” anything. In fact, Joy told us herself, “I want to be honored, acknowledged, received.”
Working with emotions is invaluable for inner growth, but even more so in terms of being humble before the great work. In alchemy, emotions are like the various stages of transformation in creating the philosopher’s stone. By actively engaging in each phase/emotion, we are trusting in the process as it unfolds naturally and therefore are transformed by it.
Diane Shainberg’s “Teaching Therapists How to Be with Their Clients” is one of my favorite articles in Awakening the Heart. She touches on the profound effects of allowing the process to be the guide rather than our egos, which includes being actively engaged with our emotions: “There is a key transformation in the supervisee when he is open to observing his patient as is, letting his patient be, dropping previously held judgments of himself and the patient, loosening ideas on how the therapy should go … the being is the doing.”
When we let go of judgment, get out of the way, and trust in the process, we can heal by cherishing who we truly are. If you’re interested in exploring your dreams and using them for your own healing, contact a therapist in your area who specializes in dreamwork.
- Jung, C.G. (1973). Memories, dreams and reflections. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
- Lasley, J. (2017). Wake up to your dreams: Transform your relationships, career, and health while you sleep. Beijing: Double Spiral Publications.
- Van Kaam, A. (1994). Spirituality and the gentle life. Pittsburgh, PA: Epiphany Association.
- Walsh, R., & Vaughan, F. (Eds.). (1993). Paths beyond ego: The transpersonal vision. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee.
- Welwood, J. (editor) (1983). Awakening the heart: East/West approaches to psychotherapy and the healing relationship. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
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