Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dreaming Up “The Bad Guys”

On my walk this morning, I saw a little boy dressed as a dragon, following his mother up a steep hill, roaring. He was tiny (barely four years old, probably) but formidable, in his fierce, floppy dragon-head hat, with his spiked tail swinging from side to side when he stomped his feet. Rows of green fins or scales lined his striped leggings and sleeves, and ran down his back. His sister (just a bit older) waited with their father at the top of the hill.

The little girl shouted, “Mom, are you the good guy?” Her mom, trudging up the hill, replied, “Yes. I’m the good guy.” The girl shouted, “You’re the good guy, and he’s the bad guy!” Mom said, tentatively, “Yes…”

The girl hollered at her brother, who had stopped walking to listen to the exchange: “You’re the bad guy! We’re the good guys! You’re the bad guy!” He stood with his mouth open—uncertain. Perhaps at first he’d intended to roar and be the bad guy, but his sister’s tone became increasingly taunting, and now it looked like he might decide to cry instead.

His mom couldn’t see his face, but his dad saw it and interceded, calling to him—“You’re not a bad guy.” And with that affirmation, the dragon burst out, in a teary wail of self-defense: “No! I’m not a bad guy! No, I’m not! I’m not a bad guy! I’M NOT A BAD GUY!”

Nobody really wants to be the bad guy. Yes, it feels powerful to make a lot of noise and to be a dragon… But, ultimately, the good guys are “us” and the bad guys are “them”—and being excluded from “us” just doesn’t feel right. Of course, this applies to the adult world as well as to the world of dragons and their older sisters.

In our present adult world, we’ve got a lot of noisy, dangerous “bad guys” in positions of authority, and many of us are running scared or trying to defend ourselves by defining ourselves as “us.” When we shout at the dragons and try to make them go away so that we can be a happy family of “good guys” without them… Well, good luck with that. I know that Donald Trump has virtually nothing in common with the adorable little boy in the dragon suit, yet I can’t help thinking maybe that’s how he started out. If bad guys exist, he’s certainly a bad guy. But how helpful is the whole game of bad guys and good guys anyway?

In dreams, the bad guys can seem truly awful. There’s someone dangerous, something horrible, some monstrous creature that does unbearable things. In nightmares, the damage done by these bad guys feels terribly real. Even in waking life, we can get caught up in a movie scenario where everything is reduced to the worst possible bad people against the best, most peaceful, most reasonable, good people… It seems like this is the way things actually are. But when the movie ends, we find that the world is much more complex and subtle and paradoxical than it seemed. The world is not a movie. Dreams are not movies, either. Unlike the popular clichés in those blockbuster films, dreams potentially express the richness of real life. While nightmares may play out the bad guy/good guy dichotomy, they also invite us to explore the possibilities surrounding such simplistic scenarios.

If I listen to the bad guy in the dream, I find that he doesn’t see himself as the bad guy—and maybe I learn something, even if I still don’t like him much. If I look at all of the other elements in the dream—the dragon costumes, the sets and supporting characters, the unexpected emotions and inconsistent details—then I find that I have to include everything in order to have any real understanding of what is actually going on.

There’s no “us” and “them” in a dream—it’s all me, or something larger than me: the dreamer and the dream-maker. The human family includes the good guys and the bad guys, the dragons, big sisters, parents, and observers. The dream is a big, intricate, inconsistent story. Every aspect of that story deserves my care and attention.

Here’s another story: When I was about six (this was the 1960s), my best friend and I were playing “cowboys and Indians” with my two little sisters and her two little brothers. My mom was making us headbands with feathers from construction paper, but her brother Brian didn’t get one. “Doesn’t Brian want a feather?” Mom asked. Astonished that she didn’t understand, I explained, “Well, somebody has to be white!”

Mom thought this was both hilarious and ironic, because my friend and her brothers were African-American. I was offended by her laughter, “I know he’s black! But we’re not Indians, either! It’s a game!” Still, everything had changed. She asked Brian, “Do you want a feather?” He nodded, and she made him one.

I’m not sure how Brian got excluded from the in-group (the “In-dians”) in the first place. He wasn’t the youngest, so he probably wasn’t just stuck with the role; he probably chose to be a “cowboy.” Most American boys in those days thought being a cowboy was pretty cool. But being defined as “white” was different. We all knew that the white guys were the bad guys in this story—we came from liberal, educated, middle class families after all, and the relationship between white people and Native Americans, like that between white people and black people, was fraught with uncomfortable power imbalances, fear and shame. It didn’t matter whether we were white kids or black kids—it was definitely preferable to be “Indians.”

I’m sure I sulked. How could we play the game if no one was going to be “It,” no one was going to be “other,” no one was going to be the bad guy? But, without too much difficulty, we rearranged our assumptions and redefined the game. We could all be “us”—all “Indians.”

We probably didn’t turn this into a game where everyone got along and lived happily ever after. Where’s the fun in that? It’s more likely that we just invented invisible white cowboys to fight. But, as in a dream, the literal division between “us” and “them” could be broken down. The bad guys were imaginary. The bad guys were projections of ourselves. We were all “us”—even though some of us were big sisters and some of us were little brothers or sisters; some of us were black and some of us were white; some of us were enjoying the game and some of us wanted to go watch television.

It’s hard to find common ground with the people “we” see as “them”—especially when “they” are acting pretty badly right now. But, we’re all part of the same dream, the same game. Let’s redefine the rules. Let’s be ferocious in our determination to be ourselves, to be included and inclusive. Let’s be willing to see the good guys and the bad guys as one complicated family playing an unpredictable but flexible game. Everyone gets a feather.

The little dragon boy knew that he was not the bad guy. Being a dragon is not a game of good and bad, it’s a game of authentic embodying and imagining. Being a dragon means speaking (or roaring) from the heart, “I’m wild, I’m strong!” and sometimes, “I’m angry! I’m noisy! I’m awful!” But, ultimately, being a dragon means being a mythical and magical creature with endless possibilities for self-expression, relationship, transformation. Maybe the dragon’s sister just needed a dragon costume. Maybe even their parents needed to be dragons. Watching all this from a distance, I thought maybe the only reason I noticed the scene was because I need to be a dragon, too. Do you?



  1. Mindfunda

    Hi Kirsten,

    Thank you for your post. It is indeed no fun to be the bad guy.
    I have been a bad guy in raising my guys sometimes, when i lost my temper and shouted, much louder than I wanted to and saw their tears and became terribly ashamed of myself.

    My sons can be ba guys when they make fun of girls, see the look on my face and sayto each other: “Don’t say that in from of mama”. I know at moments like that that all my good intentions did
    not catch on (yet).

    Embracing the dragon, to enable him to watch the treasure, because that is the ultimate
    goal of any dragon, to be the treasure hunter, it requires enough maturity to know what the treasure
    is and who it needs protecting from. And that is where dreams can lend a helping hand.

    So, sending you a friendly roar
    I remain the faithful dragon

    • kirstenbackstrom

      And a “friendly roar” back to you, Susanne! Thank you for your thoughtful perspective on the dragon dilemma… Your insights and intentions are meaningful and valuable.

  2. Jenna Farr Ludwig

    This is a thought-provoking blog, Kirsten. I recently had a dream in which Donald Trump was adolescent and unsure of himself, not pure evil as I would expect him to be in my dreams. When I asked him why he is doing the things he’s doing as president, he told me that he has no clue…that what he’s mainly feeling is overwhelmed. Not the conscious picture I have of him, but the dream does give me pause to look at him in a slightly different light.

    Thank you for your thoughts…


    • kirstenbackstrom

      Wow—that dream does seem to reflect the insecurity/instability within the “bad guy” image. I don’t know what to conclude from all of these reflections, but maybe just that coming to any kind of conclusion about bad/good and them/us leads to complications… I always appreciate how you approach dreams, Jenna, thank you!

  3. Heather Clark

    Kirsten, really appreciated this post. Gave a little one hour talk on dreamwork last week and referred folks to your site. Blessings on your continued work!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for the encouraging words, Heather! And thank you for sharing this with others. And, thanks, too, for bringing your own dreamwork wisdom into the world.

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