Well-Being//

What Our Dreams Reveal About Our Well-being, According to a Psychotherapist

"Dreams can be a precursor to self-confession."

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

One day, a twenty-four-year-old woman I’d been seeing for a few months came in and told me about the previous night’s dream.

“I’m at the mall,” Holly began, “and I run into this girl, Liza, who was horrible to me in high school. She didn’t tease me to my face, like some other girls did. She just completely ignored me! Which would have been okay, except that if I ran into her outside of school, she’d pretend she had no idea who I was. Which was crazy, because we’d been at the same school for three years, and we had several classes together.

“Anyway, she lived a block away, so I’d run into her a lot — you know, around the neighborhood — and I’d have to pretend I didn’t see her, because if I said hi or waved or acknowledged her in any way, she’d scrunch up her forehead and give me this look like she was trying to place me but couldn’t. And then she’d say, in this fake-sweet voice, ‘I’m sorry, do I know you?’ or ‘Have we met before?’ or, if I was lucky, ‘This is so embarrassing, but what’s your name again?’ ”

Holly’s voice faltered for a second, then she continued. “So in the dream, I’m at the mall, and Liza is there. I’m no longer in high school and I look different — I’m thin, wearing the perfect outfit, blow-dried hair. I’m flipping through some clothes on a rack when Liza comes over to browse through the same rack, and she starts making small talk about the clothes, the way you might with a stranger. At first I’m pissed, like here we go again — she’s still pretending not to recognize me. Except then I realize that now it’s real — she doesn’t recognize me because I look so good.”

Holly shifted on the couch, covering herself with the blanket. We’ve talked in the past about how she uses that blanket to cover up her body, to hide her size.

“So I play innocent, and we start chatting about the clothes and what our jobs are, and as I’m talking, I see this look of recognition dawning on her face. It’s like she’s trying to reconcile her image of me from twelfth grade — you know, pimply, fat, frizzy hair — with me now. I see her brain connecting the dots, and then she says, ‘Oh my God! Holly! We went to high school together!’ ”

Holly was starting to laugh now. She was tall and striking, with long chestnut hair and eyes the color of a tropical ocean, and she was still a good forty pounds overweight.

“So,” she continued, “I scrunch up my forehead and say, in the same fake-sweet voice she used to use on me, ‘Wait, I’m so sorry. Do I know you?’ And she says, ‘Of course you know me — it’s Liza! We had geometry and ancient history and French together — remember Ms. Hyatt’s class?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I had Ms. Hyatt, but, gosh, I don’t remember you. You were in that class?’ And she says, ‘Holly! We lived a block away from each other. I used to see you at the movies and the yogurt place and that one time in Victoria’s Secret by the dressing rooms —’ ”

Holly laughed some more. “She’s totally giving away that she did know me all those times. But I say, ‘Wow, how weird, I don’t remember you, but it’s nice to meet you.’ And then my phone rings and it’s her high school boyfriend telling me to hurry up, we’ll be late for our movie. So I give her that condescending smile she used to give me, and I walk away, leaving her feeling how I felt in high school. And then I realize that the ringing phone is actually my alarm and it was all a dream.”

Later, Holly would call this her “poetic justice dream,” but to me it was about a common theme that comes up in therapy, and not just in dreams — the theme of exclusion. It’s the fear that we’ll be left out, ignored, shunned, and end up unlovable and alone.

Carl Jung coined the term collective unconscious to refer to the part of the mind that holds ancestral memory, or experience that is common to all humankind. Whereas Freud interpreted dreams on the object level, meaning how the content of the dream related to the dreamer in real life (the cast of characters, the specific situations), in Jungian psychology, dreams are interpreted on the subject level, meaning how they relate to common themes in our collective unconscious.

It’s no surprise that we often dream about our fears. We have a lot of fears. What are we afraid of?

We are afraid of being hurt. We are afraid of being humiliated. We are afraid of failure and we are afraid of success. We are afraid of being alone and we are afraid of connection. We are afraid to listen to what our hearts are telling us. We are afraid of being unhappy and we are afraid of being too happy (in these dreams, inevitably, we’re punished for our joy). We are afraid of not having our parents’ approval and we are afraid of accepting ourselves for who we really are. We are afraid of bad health and good fortune. We are afraid of our envy and of having too much. We are afraid to have hope for things that we might not get. We are afraid of change and we are afraid of not changing. We are afraid of something happening to our kids, our jobs. We are afraid of not having control and afraid of our own power. We are afraid of how briefly we are alive and how long we will be dead. (We are afraid that after we die, we won’t have mattered.) We are afraid of being responsible for our own lives.

Sometimes it takes a while to admit our fears, especially to ourselves. I’ve noticed that dreams can be a precursor to self-confession — a kind of pre-confession. Something buried is brought closer to the surface, but not in its entirety. A patient dreams that she’s lying in bed hugging her roommate; initially she thinks it’s about their strong friendship but later she realizes she’s attracted to women. A man has a recurring dream that he’s been caught speeding on the freeway; a year into this dream, he begins to consider that his decades of cheating on his taxes — of positioning himself above the rules — might catch up with him.

After I’ve been seeing Wendell for a few months, my patient’s dream about her high school classmate seeps into mine. I’m at the mall, looking through a rack of dresses, when Boyfriend appears at the same rack. Apparently, he’s shopping for a birthday gift for his new girlfriend.

“Oh, which birthday?” I ask in the dream. “Fiftieth,” he says. At first I’m relieved in the pettiest way — not only is she not the clichéd twenty-five-year-old, but she’s actually older than I am. It makes sense. Boyfriend wanted no kids in the house, and she’s old enough to have kids in college. Boyfriend and I are having a pleasant conversation — friendly, innocuous — until I happen to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror adjacent to the rack. That’s when I see that I’m actually an old lady — late seventies, maybe eighties. It turns out that Boyfriend’s fifty-year-old girlfriend is, in fact, decades younger than I am.

“Did you ever write your book?” Boyfriend asks. “What book?” I say, watching my wrinkled, prune-like lips move in the mirror.

“The book about your death,” he replies matter-of-factly. And then my alarm goes off. All day, as I hear other patients’ dreams, I can’t stop thinking about mine. It haunts me, this dream.

It haunts me because it’s my pre-confession.

Excerpted from MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE: A Therapist, Her  Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb. Copyright © Lori Gottlieb. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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