Name your psychopathology

“The Nightmare” by John Henry Fuseli

Your dreams are sending you information, and it’s all about you. Your mother might appear in dreams, but it’s not really her, it’s your imaginary her, or rather, the mother-archetype your mother represents. And you are in your dreams too, of course, watching, feeling, reacting and engaging with the symbolic, imaginary world we enter during sleep.

If you are like most people, the majority of your dream experiences are unpleasant, at least this is what current research indicates. And bio-medical monitoring of dreaming people reveals that the physiological and bio-chemical changes which take place would be intolerable during waking life. Heart rate, breathing, and body temperature fluctuations, limb movement, twitching and vocalizations occur while dreaming, as if we are vigorously engaged in waking life. But there’s more; psychic and emotional fluctuations are happening too.

“Dreams,” wrote the late psychoanalyst James Hillman, “protect sleep.” As we know, sleep is essential; sleep deprivation of even three days can produce psychosis. Dreams reveal the deep psychic “stuff” we all have to work through, and the best place to do this work is within the Underworld of Sleep where our behavior and the behavior of “others” occurs while our bodies are safely immobile. So occupied in sleep and dreams for periods of time each night, memory resets, muscles relax, and neural pathways establish themselves.

If you are able to remember your dreams, and even better, write them down, in time you will discover patterns that reveal the workings of your deepest self. By remembering and recording dreams their images can later be examined and reimagined. The subconscious instincts and drives buried within each of us, some preceding consciousness itself, are ancient and powerful. Only within the safety of dreaming sleep can such primitive expressions of being manifest.

Perhaps you have killed someone or something in a dream, or conversely, been pursued by someone or something intent on killing you. In some dreams you may experience the exhilaration of flight or find yourself sobbing inconsolably in sadness. You may use weapons or powerful words, or have them used against you. In one dream I found myself standing naked in the pouring rain of downtown Portland gazing up at a neon sign atop the “Hotel Confusion.”

In dreams, patterns of subjective psychopathology are revealed. By “psychopathology” is meant the indications of chronic psychic challenges, compulsions, drives and needs that underlie personality and influence how we relate to the world-at-large. Hillman calls this the “Work of Soul”; it comprises what we conventionally call “being human.” If experience of abandonment, for example, is a psychopathic wound, dreams of being lost within a labyrinth might occur. Fundamentally, Hillman believes, dreams are about coping with the inevitability of death.

Occasionally, subconscious drives underlying dreams rise to the surface in a person fully awake and become a primary stimulus of thought, speech and action. When psychopathology of dreams invades waking life, producing feelings of persecution, anxiety, paranoia and panic, people can become dangerously unstable. In a desperate attempt to overcome the involuntary activation of their subconscious dream world imagination, they can become delusional, concoct complicated conspiracy theories and act upon them, sometimes violently. Ironically, such people can also be perceived by others as heroic and brave, and even rise to positions of influence and power.

Jealousy, lust, heartbreak, craving, fright, hunger, helplessness and rage…the varieties of psychopathology are as deep and infinite as human imagination.

2 thoughts on “Name your psychopathology

  1. I think it can be done, but that if it’s a directed activity it is the intrusion of the “waking” ego into dream work, and becomes another activity directed by intellect, not unfettered imagination.

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