Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

No Bad Dreams: What’s Good About “Bad” Dreams?

nightmares-02Many people have primarily negative feelings about dreams. But, paradoxically, the unpleasantness of their dream experiences may be the very thing that leads them to new ways of thinking about their dream lives. With a few simple tools, “bad” dreams can become openings.

Suppose someone listens politely to my enthusiastic ravings about dream openings… then shrugs and says, “Well, it’s great that you have such wonderful dreams, but most of my dreams are exhausting and weird. Or sometimes I have awful nightmares. I’d really rather not remember them at all.” Well, that could be a total conversation stopper—or a chance to give a helping hand to a poor soul whose dreams are a drag.

Of course, when I encounter a disgruntled dreamer, I don’t start lecturing on the benefits of bad dreams. That would be rude. But I do ask about those dreams. What are they like? What feelings are associated with them? What images or themes seem to repeat? If the dreamer seems willing to answer such questions, or even seems just a little bit curious… then, there’s room to explore.

Sometimes, simply finding a connection between a recurring unpleasant dream emotion and a recurring unpleasant waking situation is enough to give the dreamer a different approach to problematic circumstances. Or, perhaps there’s a tiny, encouraging element within the “bad” dreams that the dreamer has overlooked—an element that offers hope, or insight, or reassurance.

Every conversation has its own direction, but once the conversation starts, most people will find that their interest in dreams has been awakened. If dreams present problems, they also present ways of working with those problems, and sometimes even outright solutions. When people discover this about their own problem dreams, they begin to think differently: instead of wishing dreams away, they find themselves inviting the opportunities that those dreams represent. And, once  people start inviting dream opportunities, more dreams will probably come to reinforce the positive impressions.

Here are three examples of some good things about “bad” dreams:

1-“Bad” dreams offer a great opportunity to recognize our own projections, and explore unknown aspects of ourselves.

Jeremy Taylor’s “Projective Dream Work” acknowledges that we are all projecting our inner experience on the outer world all the time, so working with dreams involves bringing these projections to conscious awareness. The more we become aware of our natural tendency to project “negative” characteristics onto others, the better off we will be. When we work with the “bad guys” (the frightening or ugly dream figures) in our nightmares, we learn to relate to the aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to face, and begin to find more wholesome expressions of those aspects. When we can relate to our own inner “villains,” we are a lot less likely to encounter those villainous qualities in other people.

2-Exaggerated negative emotions and unpleasant situations in dreams can help us bring insight, humor, and motivation to coping with waking life issues.

When we want to avoid dealing with situations in our waking lives that really need our attention, it can be all too easy to convince ourselves that a problem is not a problem. But, in dreams, there’s no getting around it. Since visual and emotional centers in the brain are more active during dreaming, dream experiences tend to be more intense and vivid than comparable waking experiences. So, “bad dreams” immerse us in exaggerated versions of our problems, fears, and stuck places. Such exaggeration can allow us to see the funny side of an otherwise unpleasant situation, or the serious side of a situation we aren’t taking seriously enough. When dreams get up in my face, I have to see the truth that’s right under my nose!

3-“Bad” dreams give us the experience of waking up from the awful stuckness or the real horror. We find there’s life beyond the nightmare. This is a tacit invitation to dare to move forward, beyond the edge or obstacle.

Sometimes, the best thing about a dream is waking up from it. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have the dreams in the first place! It means that we may need to have the same terrible dream over and over until we begin to get used to the fact that, however painful the nightmare may be, it always ends.

Waking life traumas are often defined by the fact that our lives essentially come to a halt at the crisis point. In a sense, we become divided between “before” and “after”—where our life “after” the crisis is empty, meaningless, or unreal. In order to reclaim our lives, we must begin to identify with the new life experiences that keep coming along, rather than remaining perpetually identified with the trauma, or with the absence of whatever was lost in that trauma.

Dreams that reenact a terrible turning point can be just as shocking or hopeless as the original experience, but when we wake up, shaken, yet again, we discover that there is another life to be lived. The dream was a dream, and now we are awake. Similarly, we may come to recognize that the past is a dream, in the sense that it cannot be sustained in the present. We can remember the past (as we remember a dream), and it has certainly had an impact (as the dream does), but the past is past, just as the dream is a dream.

It’s wonderful if our dreams give us inspiration, information, joy and wonder. It’s wonderful when waking life is full of glorious scenery, satisfying work, winning the lottery and falling in love. But, when dreaming or waking experiences are more mundane, downright miserable, tragic, or traumatic—well, what makes it worthwhile to keep on experiencing? We learn, we grow, we potentially can become wiser and more compassionate through all of our experiences, and dream experiences are no exception.

In fact, “bad” dream experiences can be even more beneficial because, unlike many waking experiences, they usually do not have significant, long-term ramifications for our health and safety. We can experiment with the unpleasantness of our dreams, and discover what they have to offer.

In this post, I’ve considered a few ways that “bad” dreams can be good. I hope this will encourage you to start conversations of your own, to reconsider your own unpleasant dreams and those of other disgruntled dreamers. In the next post, I’ll offer some tips for working with the dreams themselves!


  1. Marilyn Hagar

    Thank you! I’m so glad I took a moment to read this this morning. Your points 2 & 3 about good things from bad dreams helped me reflect in a little different way than I had been thinking. Your writing is wonderfully clarifying.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for the kind words, Marilyn. I’m really glad that those points were useful to you (I find them helpful, too!)—May your dreams be deep and sweet.

  2. Kiera O'Hara

    I love the new website design!
    Also this post is very helpful to me. And I forwarded it to my brother and sister, both of whom often comment that their dreams are usually disturbing and full of difficult emotions.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Kiera! I’m so glad to have you reading…

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