Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Ugly Duckling Dreams

If my dream-self were graded on her performance by the standards of my most judgmental waking self, she’d get an “Unsatisfactory” on her report card. The “I” character in my dreams has been disappointing lately. She fails to work and play well with other dream characters—is frequently sullen and whiney and withdrawn. She doesn’t make the most of opportunities, step up to challenges, or take responsibility for her mistakes. She falls apart under pressure, and her dream-space is often cluttered, neglected, and unimaginative. In short, the dreamer often wakes up dissatisfied with this character’s work, and discouraged about her prospects.

Fortunately, there are less judgmental parts of me exploring dreams and discovering what they have to teach! When I go through a phase where my dream world seems lackluster and my dream-self is miserable, I do tend to wake up discouraged—but I also see these dream patterns as part of a larger process. Like little Einsteins, my recent dreams fail to impress at this phase in their development—but when the time is right, I trust that they will come out with something brilliant! I know this because I’ve gone through this phase dozens of times before (with my own and others’ dreams), and if I bear with the ugly ducklings, they always turn out to be swans.

Dreams themselves are not making judgments. They simply tell it like it is. And since their goal is wholeness and healing [see Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work Tool Kit, #1], they tend to focus on the places where things are painful or out-of-balance.

When things are going really badly in my waking life (not the case right now), I might have reassuring or beautiful dreams, to help me get through the dark times and show me that there is more to my life than unhappiness—and I might also have some difficult, unpleasant dreams that reflect my waking experiences in a new light and give me a chance to work with these experiences in different ways.

On the other hand, when things are going fairly well in my waking life (as they are at the moment), my dreams seem to think I don’t need a lot of reassuring, beautiful images and stories. They seem to think this is a good opportunity for me to have dreams that make me take a good, hard look at the places where I still have work to do. I reassure myself that it’s because I’m so basically healthy and open that my dreams dare to show me this awful stuff. They must know it won’t break my spirit, but make me stronger… So I have bad dreams because I’m in good shape! Who knew?

Though I’m being silly here, there’s an element of truth. We’re having lots of unremembered dreams every night serving all sorts of obscure purposes, but it’s virtually certain that the ones we remember are the ones that we can actually use in some way. I wouldn’t even remember all these dreams about surly neighbors and lost luggage and dirty laundry and cat poop if they couldn’t be of some use to me. When I write them down, tell them to friends, unfold the images (even though I don’t feel like it), and let them tell me about themselves, I find that they change, and I change, in subtle and occasionally dramatic ways.

For example, I’ve had many dreams lately where my dream-self gets into a snit or a worry-fest and refuses to cooperate with events in the dream. The other characters are off on a field trip, and she stays home. Graduation is tomorrow, but she doesn’t feel well and probably won’t go. Someone is handing out maps, and she doesn’t get one—so she cries. And I wake up feeling icky. Okay, this is pretty pathetic.

However, since I’ve been noticing the pattern, a new trend has developed. Just when the dream-self starts to turn inward in misery, another character shows up with some real sorrow or fear. A loved one is in pain, and the dream-self responds. I feel, in the dream, the deep grief of the other person (my mentor, my sister, my partner, my friend), and my own grief at her suffering. A self-centered sadness is transformed into a larger experience of love and compassion.

The dreams continue to seem ordinary and unpleasant in many ways, and I might have missed this subtle turning point if I hadn’t been paying (reluctant) attention. But I know I can trust that this ugly duckling is slowly growing up to be something quite beautiful—if not a swan, then at least a decent duck. The cycle of unpleasant dreams will gradually evolve into a new way of experiencing old problems—and then I can move on. A new batch of ducklings will hatch out, and the whole process will begin again. At the very least, my dreams are teaching me patience!



  1. Phil Backstrom

    When I get busy on the Internet (sad to say: only seldom) I try to read your exploration of your dreams – to find they are not unlike my own when it comes to their difference. I have some ghastly (but often very challenging ) terror nightmares with both good and bad guys…..
    Love, dad

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you for connecting here, Dad! It sounds like your dreams are very intense at times. I remember having a nightmare as a kid, and you comforting me by telling me about your own childhood nightmares–to let me know I wasn’t alone with the experience. It helped me, then, just to feel that it was normal to have scary dreams, and that we can survive them, experiment with them, integrate them into our lives, even if we don’t “understand” them. It also helped just to know that you were there.
      Love you.

  2. Cynthia Bauman

    Kirsten, thank you for sharing your wisdom here, today… AHA! I am encouraged by your patient experience and insight — enjoyed the contrast between “Swandom” and “Decent Duck”!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Cynthia! I love your way of describing the “ugly duckling” as the “Decent Duck.” The dignity and grace of essential decency should not be under-rated! We don’t all need to be swans all the time–and neither do our dreams.

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