“What you don’t know can hurt you,” is an old saying that could be flipped around to say, “Knowing what you don’t want to know can help you.”
Ever since Sigmund Freud discovered the unconscious, which he compared to an iceberg’s large and dangerous edges below the water, humans by and large have resisted the idea. Oh, for sure, they give it lip service. But when it comes to recognizing their unconscious ideas, they are unable or unwilling to do so. It is akin to a child being burned by a hot iron; later, as an adult, she may rationally know an iron that is turned off won’t burn her, but she still won’t touch it.
People believe, unconsciously, that what they don’t know may hurt them. But Freud thought the unconscious mind could be beneficial and pointed to dreams as a way to make use of it. “Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious,” he noted.
The unconscious holds things we don’t want to know about ourselves, but it also holds potentials we suppress along with those things we don’t want to know. Hence, by pushing things into the unconscious we are robbing ourselves of strengths that could help us out in those hard times.
A woman was standing on her balcony one day and looking at the river and woods beyond her yard. She held on to the railing and didn’t notice (perhaps didn’t want to notice) that the railing was loose and wavered in her hands. Her attention was not on the railing but instead was on what she wanted to see. That night she dreamed she was standing on the balcony and the railing collapsed and she fell to the ground. When she awoke, she immediately recalled the loose railing of the day before. She had experienced a warning dream, urging her to repair the railing.
A man started a job in which he had to learn a new computer program. On his first day of work, he couldn’t get the hang of it. That night he dreamed about being in an office environment where coworkers were making fun of him. In his childhood, his two older brothers had made fun of him. When he awoke he recalled his brothers, and he became aware that he had been emotionally blocked on his first day of work because he was afraid he would fail and be ridiculed. When he became aware of this, he went to work with a new attitude on the second day and quickly mastered the program.
A woman tended to have distant relationships with men. She saw all men as sexual predators. She had a recurring dream of lecherous men assaulting her. After one of these dreams a memory popped to the surface that she had repressed, a memory of having been sexually abused by an uncle when she was a little girl. When she had tried to tell her mother about the incident, her mother had replied, “Don’t say such things about Uncle Albert. He would never do such a thing.” She wasn’t believed and so she stopped believing it herself and repressed it. Soon after she understood this dream, she met a trustable man and married.
Dreams have helped many famous people to achieve great things. Salvador Dali once tried all morning to start a new painting. In the afternoon, tiring of the effort, he took a nap in which he dreamed he discovered a painting in a strange room. He became fascinated by this painting, and when he awoke, he went to work recreating the painting in his dream. He painted his masterpiece, “The Persistence of Memory.”
Paul McCartney, one of the members of the famous singing group of the 1960s, was having trouble writing a new song. That night he dreamed he heard a song, complete with melody and lyrics. When he woke up he wrote it down, then called the other members of his group and sang it to them, sure that he must have heard it somewhere before. “Have you ever heard this song?” he asked. None of the Beatles had heard it, and so they recorded it. The song was “Yesterdays.”
Marilyn Monroe, the Hollywood actress, had a recurring dream that she was in church naked and she heard God’s voice telling her that her body was beautiful. In her psychoanalysis she traced the recurring dream to a memory from her childhood. Her stepmother caught her and her younger stepbrother playing naked in the backyard when she was six years old. Her stepmother, who was a religious fanatic, spanked her and made her feel forever ashamed for playing this “wicked” game with her son. Becoming aware of the roots of this dream in therapy, she was more accepting of her body and of sexuality and forged a successful acting career.
I generally advise my clients to keep a dream diary, which helps them to understand and get in touch with their unconscious. Sometimes dreams do indeed contain information they don’t want to know and finding it out may shock and hurt them at first. Perhaps, say, they have murderous wishes toward their mother. They don’t want to have such wishes, and they don’t want to acknowledge they have them. But for some reason they find themselves often snapping at their mother without knowing quite why. At the same time, they write down recurring dreams of people running over older women with a car, stabbing and robbing a homeless woman, or of an older woman falling off a cliff. If they tell these dreams to me and I suggest the woman in the dreams might represent their mother, they gawk with disbelief.
“You think I want my mother dead?” they ask.
“It’s a possibility. You’re always angry with her.”
Upon thinking about it, they get in touch with how deep their rage is. This enables them to do something about it (rather than keep it repressed so that it weighs them down and affects their behavior). They can try to talk to their mother, or they can work through the feelings and move on. Understanding our dreams releases us from the prison of our unconscious.