Dear Therapist:

Ever since I can remember I have had disturbing dreams. Even now as an adult I find that I have these vivid nightmares almost every night. It’s gotten to a point where it’s kind of out of hand and I am wondering if this means something is wrong with me? Is there something I can do to make this stop? Would therapy help with something like this? I’d appreciate any guidance you could give me. Thanks.



Given the general nature of your question, I can only respond in a very generalized manner. Dreams are by and large understood as the unconscious mind’s way of processing emotions that are not being (fully) dealt with by the conscious mind.

As children, we all develop defense mechanisms that are designed by the unconscious mind to help us deal with emotions that we are not yet ready or able to process consciously. Some common defenses are repression (hiding emotions from the conscious mind), denial (denying reality), projection (assigning our own emotions to others), and intellectualization (thinking of our emotions in a clinical way). If, while we are awake, we suppress our emotions through defense mechanisms, these emotions have no way of being reduced; in fact, over time, they tend to increase in intensity.

Our unconscious mind is always operating. It consists of our fears, insecurities, emotional needs, and other elements. It governs much of what we feel, think, and do. While we like to believe that we are largely governed by our conscious thoughts, many of these thoughts are controlled by unconscious impulses. The less we acknowledge our unconscious needs, fears, and insecurities—and the ways in which they affect our daily lives—the more powerful our unconscious mind tends to grow.

Dreams allow us to catch a glimpse of the power of the unconscious mind. We have all been dreaming all our lives, so we don’t question the process. When you stop to consider it, however, our reactions while in a dream state are quite bizarre. Though we are asleep, we are aware of what is happening in our dreams. Strange things happen, yet we accept them with equanimity. Crazy and impossible occurrences are simply taken in stride.

When we are awake, we are only aware of our conscious thoughts. Although our unconscious mind is operating behind the scenes, we have no access to it. While dreaming, however, we are granted access to the realm of the unconscious. This is a time when we are able to see some of what the unconscious mind is capable of. Dreams allow us to get a sense of what our unconscious mind is doing behind the scenes while we are awake.

Although classic dream interpretation focuses on things like symbolism and mental associations, a simpler approach is to focus on the emotions that are present. Often, despite varied dream scenarios and occurrences, one or more specific emotions are common to most of them. From this perspective, the imagery, symbols, and associations of dreams are simply the unconscious mind’s way of communicating our needs, fears, and insecurities to the conscious mind.

Your defense mechanisms were created in childhood based on childhood needs. As an adult, you no longer need these defenses; you can deal with your emotions in more adaptive ways. However, as long as your unconscious mind controls your reactions, it will continue to suppress your conscious mind’s access to these emotions.

If you can begin identifying and acknowledging the needs, fear, and insecurities that are being addressed in your dreams, you will be giving your conscious mind access to these. Of course, this is a very generalized discussion, and there may be other factors that should be addressed. Regardless, the right therapist can help you to navigate these, helping you to attain peace of mind.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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