It’s one of life’s cruel little tricks – you’re no longer together – you miss him and every now and again, you wake up from the most absorbing dream, in which the two of you are still together and you roll over to find an empty pillow where his head should be.
For the first few minutes, the trauma of the separation is new once more – because you’re experiencing it as if it were – after which you may settle down into a sad acceptance of the facts and bitterness for the rest of the day at having had the dream. But then, you may do what many of us do with our dreams… you begin to analyse them. What do they mean? Is it a message? Should I take action? Or is it just my mind clearing out junk?
Working in counselling, we tend to say facts are unimportant compared to feelings. When someone comes into the office distressed or confused, we don’t try to work out what ‘really happened’, because what really happened, isn’t the issue. The issue is how this person feels about what happened. I take the same stance with dreams. It’s not important whether dreams are spiritual, psychological or a combination of the two. What’s important is, the way they affect you, the dreamer.
I remember one dreamer telling me about a reoccurring dream she’d been having which was two years after a breakup. In the dream, her ex was still her ex, and she ran into him at a strange house party. He was very sweet and glad to see her, but when she expressed her sadness at their break-up his tone didn’t change. He was still very sweet, saying things like, “Oh you poor thing” and “How terrible for you” which seemed very phoney to her, to the point where it became patronizing and she wanted to shake him. After these dreams, she had to fight the urge to call him on the phone and yell at him. Not because she believed the dream was true, but because she felt sure, that was really the way he would act if confronted with those words from her mouth. However, they were no longer in contact and had only spoken once, very briefly after he moved out. During this two-minute phone call, they both asked how the other was doing, she asked after his new girlfriend and he asked after her mom. She had been trying not to piss him off because she still thought there was a chance for them.
So she came to me with this dream, often seeking approval to confront him, which I couldn’t give her. They had been broken up for two years and although the break-up, the way she described it, was underhanded and cruel, he had by her accounts moved on and seeking any genuine closure from him now would surely fail, reopen old wounds and cause conflict.
However it was also clear, this one-time two-minute phone call had not given her anything like the material she needed for closure. And now she felt it lacking and in her dreams, essentially engaged in ‘wish fulfilment’ dreaming – that is, she wished for the opportunity to get closure – but even in her unconscious state, she knew this new contact with him wouldn’t give her closure.
I told her this – that she instinctively knew, the contact would not be a positive one for her. That, in her wish fulfilment dream, she even imagined him being nice to her and still found it ‘phony’ and dissatisfactory. But still, she felt like the dream held a message and she should act upon it. At the very least, she wanted to see if he really would act as she had dreamed he would. I also thought it was likely he would. After all, they had been together for 10 years and she knew him very well. Two years was unlikely to change a person that much.
Thankfully, she didn’t act upon her desire to find his phone number. Still, every time she had this dream, she felt awful and it threw her off all day at work.
I asked Dr Anderson what he thought about this dream and dreams and their meanings and as expected he gave me a very scientific answer, but also one with an interesting insight into how we can limit these experiences and move forward to find new love.
David: Dreams occur because one part of our brain is active as we are sleeping and another part of our brain is attempting to interpret the meaning. So when people say, dreams are just the mind throwing out junk, or defragging in the night, in a way they are right. One part of the brain is allowing thoughts to fire off randomly without our consciousness interfering, and another wonders what’s going on.
For example, the synapses might fire off an image of your ex (because he’s in there in storage a million times over) and the receiving area wonders why images of your ex are being brought up and a story is created. Your interpreting brain goes, “Oh, it’s him. We’re thinking of him. We must be back together, great.” Then it waits for more info because this part of your brain knows nothing except what it is sent. It is like a little person sitting inside a black silent room with nothing but a flickering TV and a typewriter with which to tell you what’s going on. It waits for the flash of images and tries to create a script to match. But because the information being received from the other part of your brain is not conscious, the material received is illogical.
So one part of your brain might be sending images and thoughts of Your Ex + Your Mom’s Dog + Chocolate Chip Ice Cream and the interpreter has to get creative. “Do you mean, your ex is out walking your mom’s dog and giving him ice cream which he knows he mustn’t because it’s bad for dogs… and therefore he must be doing because he hates you?”
As you can see, it all gets out of hand pretty quickly. And this is why dreams are so hard to describe sometimes – because they are illogical.
Bethany: But if one part of the brain is firing randomly, why is it that some people get reoccurring dreams of their ex over and over again, rather than a mix of other people?
David: Because your interpreter recognizes him or her the easiest and picks up on them. So if your brain fired off three different faces: a guy on the L, the girl who serves you at the coffee shop, plus your ex, it’s your ex that is recognised most quickly. Just as if you saw all three at the check out of the grocery store, you’d recognise your ex first and foremost and you might not even notice the other two.
Bethany: Okay, so what can we do about reoccurring dreams about our exes?
David: The first thing to do is realize, your brain is having these dreams because it does recognize the person. And they are recognizing them (or over-recognizing them) because they are still fresh and current in your mind. You are still consciously thinking about that person in the daytime.
Bethany: Although, maybe you can’t help it because you’re dreaming about them too.
David: But when people have these reoccurring daytime thoughts, they can do something about it and this will have a knock-on effect on their dreams.
Bethany: He’s grinning strangely at me.
David: Because you’re going to think I’m mad, but aversion therapy really works and you can do it to yourself. But don’t worry, this is very mild aversion therapy, nothing crazy. You just make a conscious effort, not to think about this person, or look at their photos or look them up online and you put a little elastic band around your wrist and when you catch yourself thinking of them, you give it a snap and think of something else.
Bethany: Oh, I remember that from when I gave up smoking.
David: And did it work.
Bethany: Well, I don’t smoke anymore and don’t miss it.
David: There you go. By slowly making this person less relevant and fresh in your mind, by stopping the process of reinforcing the memories you have of them, you can limit the cases of dreaming of them.
Bethany: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
Bethany: It seems so sad!
Most people don’t want to just stop thinking about their exes, but I have to agree, it is a way towards healing and happiness. And until you do find closure, either from their actions or your own, you’ll never be able to find new love. And that is what the dreams are trying to achieve… so perhaps the best thing to do is act consciously to support your own healing instincts… and act to limit the times you think about your ex.
David: And Snap!