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Do You Daydream or Overthink?

I’ve been slowly making my way through Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. This book has been recommended to me a few times over the last seven or so years that I have been independently researching trauma, C-PTSD, attachment wounding, and related topics. I’m near the end in which Walker reviews the different types of reactions to “abandonment pain,” one of which is dissociation, which can manifest as fantasizing, reminiscing, or even deep contemplation, not just numbness, spacing out, or avoidance.

In other words, while it may feel really relaxing, or even creative and productive, to be in deep contemplation or immersed in a fantasy world or encounter, it’s important to notice when we tend do this–and in response to what.

Walker, rightfully so, connects the tendency to slip into fantasy (and stay there) with a co-existing condition of dissociation in the presence of uncomfortable emotional or physical sensation.

The same goes for thinking. I’m not referring here to your average pause or consideration. I’m talking about individuals who often will think and think and think about a problem or research heavily a relationship matter or talk incessantly to friends or colleagues about a concern or a challenge. Walker refers to this as the “left-brain cognitive distraction of worrying and obsessing.”

Yes, there is a chance that all of that thinking and talking is a distraction from feeling. Thinking may mimic feeling — after all, you may be expressing (let’s say, in a journal) something that seems like feeling — but when we sit and quiet ourselves and attempt to feel from our heart or body rather than communicate what is in our mind about a situation, we may find that nothing arises or that we don’t even understand the assignment.

In dreamwork, our objective (if there is one) is to feel. For many of us, this isn’t an easy task at the beginning of our work with dreams.

If you find it difficult or near impossible to feel when asked “what are you feeling?”, I want to stop here and express compassion for you about that, especially if feeling was unacceptable or dangerous in your home environment as a child. I’ve been there.

Not being able to fully feel doesn’t make us broken. Coping strategies are good for us. If you learned to daydream as a way to temporarily fantasize yourself out of a painful situation or if you were forced to imagine what was wrong because no one would tell you, then you were a strong and resilient kid. But coping strategies we learned as ill-protected or neglected children can become outdated and no longer needed, without our knowing or realizing. 

In the case of daydreaming or thinking, some of us have even been acknowledged or praised by others for how good we are at it. If you are a successful fiction writer, for instance, or if you are in a professional role that requires serious thinking and analysis, you may have gotten A LOT of praise (not to mention income, awards, promotions, etc.) for the very act that may in fact be keeping you from feeling.

Even without the external rewards, some of us have been very comforted across the years of our lives by our ability to slip into reverie. We may pride ourselves on our ability to imagine ourselves in entertaining situations when we are bored or in pleasureful activities when we are struggling. 

As a writer, my skills of creating worlds and predicting outcomes have been beneficial for me both professionally and personally. However, since I’ve become focused on healing through dreamwork, I am ever more attuned to my tendency to lean on my imaginative abilities or my overthinking when life feels stressful or overwhelming, rather than facing into and feeling whatever is arising in the moment.

The way we find our way back into feeling using our dreams is to first distinguish the difference between reactions and feelings in our dreams. This takes some time for those of us who have learned to dissociate from feeling as a result of growing up in dysfunctional or abusive households, or as a result of being inside an abusive relationship in adulthood.

Working with the content of our dreams enables us to observe our own tendencies to avoid, repress, or deny our feelings, and turn instead to fantasizing or over-thinking even in dreams. When we sit down and re-enter a dream slowly, we may notice how our dream self quickly constructs a whole story out of little-to-no evidence in a dream. When we write up our dreams, we can recognize this by a key phrase: I know. When you “know” something in a dream, without there being actual evidence in the dream itself, it’s a clue to slow down and ask yourself, “how do I know?”

If we have learned to create stories, either as a way to dissociate from feeling or as a means for regulating our anxious selves as we move through an uncertain situation, that’s going to show up a lot as a type of reactivity in our dreams. It often will manifest as a knowing something has happened or someone is <insert label here>.

Here is an example: In a dream I had recently, I was in a house. I believed in the dream that an old guy in the other room had been living in or once lived in our house and he’s done bad things, like “killed people,” in “serial killer sociopathic ways.”

There’s someone else in the house, a man who’s related to me (maybe a partner or a father, older than me) who is talking to the old man. He is allowing him to stay in our house! Why would he do that? Isn’t he dangerous?

Let’s stop here. So what actually happened in the dream? When we look more closely, we can begin to differentiate between what was an actual event in the dream and what I inferred or deduced was happening.

I was in a house. I see (maybe) from across a hallway an old guy in another room. I see a male relative talking to the old man. That’s it. Everything else is a story I made up, that kind of “dream knowing” we are all familiar with. There is no evidence in the dream the old man has killed anyone. No one has told me that. I don’t know who the man is. There is no news story on the television reporting a missing serial killer. There isn’t even any evidence in the dream the guy lived in our house before we did. The dream starts with me inside a house, observing an interaction between the two men. 

Further, I am somewhat far away from the interaction between the two men; far enough away I can’t hear what they are saying. I may have seen their expressions in the dream, but when I try to recall this after, I don’t see their faces at all.

When I returned to the dream with my dreamwork practitioner, and we slowed it down to try to tune into what I was feeling in the dream before the “knowing” arose about the old man, I realized I felt like a child. I didn’t feel like Adult Jen in the dream. I felt vulnerable and scared. Something was going on and I didn’t know what. I didn’t like the way that man looked. I had some concern that “the grownup” in charge, the person responsible for my safety, was going to let this scary-looking man stay. My dream self constructed a whole story pretty quickly about the old man, and what would happen next, simply by observing this encounter from a distance.

And it was a very dramatic story, indeed! Old house. Sociopathic killer. Betrayal by someone close to me.

In fact, when I slowed the dream down with my dreamwork practitioner, I realized how much story I was creating out of no actual evidence in the dream aside from “knowing.”  And when we slowed it down even more, I realized just how scared I was pretty quickly simply by observing the encounter.

Is it possible my dream self created the back story of the old man so I could “know” and “be better prepared” for whatever was actually going to happen, as an anxious, hypervigilant child might?

It’s likely.

What I could have done, my dreamwork practitioner suggested, was ask the male relative, who feels safe and familiar to me in the dream, “Is that man dangerous?” I could feel my fear and speak out loud. I could ask for clarification.

So in the weeks since I’ve had the dream I’ve been revisiting it with that possibility in my mind and heart. I’ve tried to visualize and feel into what it would be like to feel my fear, then approach the male relative and ask a question rather than make up a story in my mind (and believe it!) about what had happened and was going to happen.

It’s been wonderful to consider that what my dream self knows with certainty in the dream may not, in fact, be “true.”

It’s been wonderful to consider this option about the stories I make up in waking life, too.

It turns out that daydreamers and overthinkers tend to daydream and overthink in dreams, too. Sometimes, it’s a very habitual or automatic way we react instead of feel.

For me, it’s been eye-opening and actually kind of funny to see how creative my mind can get when reacting in a dream instead of feeling or sensing. I laugh a lot at my dream self these days, in a kind and loving way.

I still love and admire in myself my creativity and vivid imagination, and I still allow myself to use my daydreaming as a way to self-soothe when I need to. But now I also know that I tend toward this behavior when I am stressed or overwhelmed, and I can make a choice in any given moment whether I want to distract or dissociate, or if it’s safe to feel in the moment whatever is arising, even if what arises is frightening.

This is one way how dreams enable us to re-learn how to feel feelings. And, what follows is typically very profound and healing.

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