The dreams we call nightmares are often terrifying, violent, morbid, and can leave us feeling like our minds have turned against us. But the imagery is symbolic and is trying to help us understand something important happening in our lives.
The next dream shows what I mean. The dreamer had recently decided to stop self-harming (cutting himself), and in response he had a dream that showed him the source of the issue behind the self-harming, his present conditions, and where he can find help:
I dream that I am at my university except the buildings are rundown and abandoned. There are construction hats lying around like someone had been trying to fix up the place. I am called over to a canteen area and I find my granny there along with a shadowy figure that reminds me of my dad who I haven’t seen or talked to in many years.
We eat together and they ask me the standard dinner table questions about my life, and I suddenly feel a sharp pain in my left breast. When they aren’t paying attention I look down my shirt and see a hard patch of skin on my chest — a rock hard lump about the size of a lychee berry shooting pain all through my chest. Suddenly the tool I use for self-harming is gripped in my hand and with relief I slice into the lump and remove it with my fingers, all the while making sure I’m not seen by my relatives.
I’m holding this terrible cystic lump in my hand and feel like I want to just scream. I excuse myself to run to the bathroom and get rid of the cyst, but there’s no sink, no toilet. Voices approach and I’m afraid to be found with the cyst, so I eat it.
Turns out the construction workers had returned. I rejoin my granny and the father-type figure and they’ve finished the meal and are laying down to sleep in sleeping bags. When I think they are asleep I check my chest and see a huge gash. I try to pinch the edges together. Suddenly I hear my granny and look up to see her standing in front of me but it’s not really her, it’s some evil creepy thing with her voice. She says, “So, you’re still doing THAT. Huh. Hardly surprising.” I then wake up freaked out.
What a nightmare, eh? So what message is it telling the dreamer?
Begin with the dream setting, the dreamer’s university with construction going on, symbolized by the construction hats laying around. It’s a sign that the dreamer is making changes in his life. He has decided to stop harming himself.
Next look at the dream characters. The dreamer’s granny is present, and so is his absent father. The granny is there because her love helped him decide to stop self-harming, and the father is in the scene because the dreamer harms himself in response to his father’s absence.
In the next scene he is asked typical questions about his life that make him feel uneasy. After all, someone who is secretly self-harming doesn’t want to be scrutinized.
Now we look at the symbols and symbolism. The dreamer notices a hard patch over his left breast. To me it looks like a callous over his heart. It’s a way of saying that he’s become numb to his feelings. By removing it he’s saying that he wants to feel again, but he’s going to go through some growing pains. By eating it he is dealing with the consequences of years of self harm. He can’t run from what he’s done to himself, he has to go through the slow and painful process of coming to terms with himself.
Another way of looking at that scene is the dreamer wants to feel something other than being numb, and self-harm and pain for some people is better than nothing. Plus, the heart area is a primary place where emotions are felt.
Next consider the symbolism of a lychee berry. This comes from the dreamer’s associations — he says the cyst-thing is the same size as a berry. I wonder if it’s the same color, too, because lychee berries are red like a heart. Spontaneous associations like the dreamer comparing the cyst to a lychee berry are a way of figuring out what dream symbolism means. The gash over the dreamer’s chest that’s left after he removes the cyst is also symbolism for a wounded heart.
The final scene with granny turning into some possessed, evil thing is an expression of the dreamer’s fears, it has nothing to do with how she feels. It expresses fear that he will disappoint her. The dreamer has made a major, beneficial change, and the driving force behind it is granny’s love. Her love for her grandson is helping him to bridge a gap and end a bad cycle of behavior.
When understood as symbolism, this nightmare about self-harming makes sense!