What Are the ‘Should’ Statements in Your Dreams Telling You?

Person with short hair in tank top lies on bed, hands resting on stomach, eyes closer. Room is lit by sunset in sepia tonesThe language of dreams can seem foreign, especially for those of us who were not brought up honoring our dreams. However, when we chronicle our dreams and examine them more carefully, something magical happens: a light of sorts is switched on and we can see our interior landscapes, including the blocks we run into as we navigate life, more clearly.

One powerful way to uncover these blocks is with the “should” exercise. Peruse your dream journal and you will likely find these little suckers, these shoulds, all over the place—hidden like spores, unseen at first to the naked eye. It’s because we say the word all the time. I often hear it in therapy sessions, especially with people struggling with grief:

“I should be over this by now.”

“I shouldn’t do that.”

More often, we hear these judgments from others:

“You shouldn’t care about that or feel that way anymore.”

“You should just move on!”

“Should” statements can feel especially painful coming from those we care about. They can make us feel like failures, like there is something wrong with us.

When you see “should” statements in your dreams, you can bet it’s an inner critic making these claims and not your authentic self, who knows better. This is shadow stuff creeping up and revealing the tension between two opposing choices.

Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson, in his book Owning Your Own Shadow, explores this “tension of opposites” in great detail. He suggests we must “cook” in that state for a while in order to garner wisdom from the two choices and, eventually, identify a third choice that informs us authentically and leads to better results. “To transform opposition into paradox is to allow both sides of an issue, both pairs of opposites, to exist in equal dignity and worth,” Johnson writes.

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So how do we find the paradox in our dreams?

Here is an example of “should” statements in a dream and how you can work with them. The “shoulds,” along with the feelings and negative thoughts that come with them, are highlighted to reveal more clarity around the situation.

I am with two other people, hanging out on Halloween. I don’t know these people, but one is a girl and the other is a boy. We are trying to get dressed up and have fun. There is anxiety because we need to figure out what we want to be. I want the costume to be great, but it’s difficult to put together. We are trying to stitch things and put our minds together as to what we should be, because there are parties going on that we want to attend. I don’t feel like I belong at these events, very self-conscious. I don’t like what we are wearing. We don’t have enough time or perhaps cooperation from each other to make the costume right.

By noticing the “shoulds” in our dreams, we can begin to detect these statements in waking life with much more mindfulness.

If we look at the “shoulds” and feelings of this dream, we can get right to the heart of the matter. Carl Jung identifies the persona as the face or mask we show the world, often symbolized by costumes, clothing, and uniforms, etc., worn in dreams. The tension in this dream is finding the right fit in terms of identity, role, and how the dreamer shows themselves to the world. A boy and a girl also suggests opposing energies within the dreamer. Since it’s Halloween, we may add a shadow element here of what has been hidden and needs to surface.

The dreamer is not only anxious about having enough time to make the right choice, but more importantly feeling judged by others, as reflected in the statement, “I don’t feel like I belong at these events, very self-conscious.” The dreamer perhaps has a belief they are an outsider and may never be accepted for who they are.

The remarkable part of this dream is that the answer to the problem is within it, right here: “We don’t have enough time or perhaps cooperation from each other to make the costume right.” In other words, if the dreamer slows down and tends to their own needs instead of focusing on what they perceive to be others’ expectations, they will find the right fit (cooperation from the opposing energies!).

By noticing the “shoulds” in our dreams, we can begin to detect these statements in waking life with much more mindfulness. As Johnson puts it, “If I can stay with my conflicting impulses long enough, the two opposing forces will teach each other something and produce an insight that serves them both. This is not compromise but a depth of understanding that puts my life in perspective and allows me to know with certainty what I should do. That certainty is one of the most precious qualities known to humankind.”


  1. Johnson, R. A. (1991). Owning Your Own Shadow: Under­stand­ing the Dark Side of the Psyche. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
  2. Jung, C. (1963). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London: Collins and Routledge.
  3. Krippner, S., Bogzaran, F., & De Carvalkho, A. P. (2002). Extraordinary Dreams and How to Work with Them. Albany, NY: SUNY.
  4. Lasley, J. (2004). Honoring the Dream: A Handbook for Dream Group Leaders. Mount Pleasant, SC: DreamsWork Publications.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Linda H. Mastrangelo, MA, LMFT, Dreamwork Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Vivian

    January 17th, 2017 at 8:08 AM

    How can you turn the shoulds into something more positive? Not like it is a failure that you have come across, but state it more as a goal you would like to try and achieve?

  • Ellen

    January 17th, 2017 at 11:27 AM

    My dreams never really make all that much sense to me, and half the time I can’t even remember what it was that I dreamed about even if it was strange!
    So even if I am supposed to learn some kind of lesson there is a good chance that I won’t ever be able to use it in real life.

  • Angelika R

    January 22nd, 2018 at 9:02 AM

    Ellen, there are ways to “learn” to understand the dream language.
    And there are ways to improve the “recall”…like putting a piece of paper and a pen onto your nightstand..
    don’t start to “think” when you wake up.
    I do work with my dreams over 40 years ( I studied at the Jung Institute in Zuerich) so I kinda
    learned that language a bit…there are some rules of thumbs..like if you dream of a person that person represents probably an aspect of yourself..if you are interested, send me a dream..

  • Ray D.

    January 17th, 2017 at 4:57 PM

    You do ‘t have to wait until your dreaming to find the shoulds. They are right there in you stream of consciousness. Check out the work of Albert Ellis

  • Lola

    January 19th, 2017 at 11:01 AM

    It can be pretty frightening sometimes when you come to understand just how accurately our dreams can actually reflect what is going on in our daily lives. I don’t think that we all have always paid all that much attention to that but for many of us who are seeking answers, we don’t realize that we would already have them if we would be a little more willing to pay attention to some of the things that we dream about at night.

  • gerald Y

    January 24th, 2017 at 4:03 PM

    I want to go to sleep to get away from all of the uncomfortable things that I probably should do, not use it as a time of reflecting on that stuff I am trying hard to escape!

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