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How Dreamwork Restores Our Ability to Feel

Some of us are brutally aware of our tendency toward dissociation or checking out in the face of big feelings, whether those feelings are painful or pleasurable. Others of us are less aware at how we have adapted over time to not feeling our feelings, or to feel muted versions of feelings.

For some of us, it’s not until we are in a therapeutic or coaching environment, and have been asked the question, “How does that make you feel?” that we realize we don’t feel or don’t know how we feel. 

There are a few reasons why you may not know how you feel when asked, “How does that make you feel?” One possible reason is C-PTSD, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that results from prolonged abuse or neglect in childhood, and which has recently been recognized as an official psychiatric diagnosis in ICD-11, after years of research and advocacy.

With C-PTSD, you may not have experienced one unique identifiable traumatic incident, but instead were subject to chronic abuse, neglect, or fear for your safety in a family system in which there was severe dysfunction or instability.

It could be that you grew up with a violent parent or sibling. Or, perhaps you were bullied at school. For some, C-PTSD symptoms are the result of being raised by a mentally unstable adult caretaker who was incapable of appropriate love, support, guidance, or care.

There are some really great resources out there for learning about C-PTSD, if this is new to you. The book I recommend starting with is Pete Walker’s Complex PTSD: Surviving to Thriving. If you prefer videos, I recommend Heidi Priebe’s YouTube channel. (I’m not a psychotherapist, as you know, so please remember these are simply recommendations for educational resources.)

Once you see yourself inside the descriptions of adults with C-PTSD (or receive a diagnosis from a healthcare professional), you may become dramatically aware that you are not experiencing the world as embodied or as present as is possible. It could be that you are willing to feel and desire to, but are unable. 

I’ve found that dreamwork is one way to regain the use of our feelings, so to speak. Natural Dreamwork, in particular, is very effective at reconnecting us with our heart space, bodies, and soul in a very practical way using the images and encounters in dreams. It’s very possible this is one of the main functions of dreams and dreaming: to enliven us with feeling.

In the beginning, though, for those of us who have become desensitized or detached from feeling, it can be challenging. Your dreams know this about you, and I believe, honor the stage you’re at by gently offering memories, events, or encounters that push you a little toward feeling. You may or may not respond to those pushes in the dreams, but in our dreamwork sessions we get a second chance to.

In a dreamwork session, we re-enter a dream, and slow it down, purposefully stopping during parts of the dream that offer us an opportunity to feel. It could be that when you dreamed the dream originally you reacted in a way you typically might in waking life: you made up a story about what was going on, you left the scene and hid out in the bathroom, or you ignored or snapped at someone who was attempting to engage with you. That’s okay.

In a dreamwork session, we can explore whether there may have been a feeling rising up in you before you reacted. I may invite you to try to feel that feeling in the session by closing your eyes and remembering the dream scene. You can accept my invitation or decline it. It’s up to you. Dreamers are often really surprised by the feelings that easily arise when we slow down and tune in again to the dream image.

If feeling emotions proves too challenging in the beginning, we sometimes will simply start by paying attention to sensory experiences in the dream. What do you see when you re-enter the dream? What’s the temperature like? What’s the lighting like? Is there a smell? A texture? Tuning in more to our sensory experience in a dream can also work to increase our feeling capacity.

In a conversation with someone recently, I referred to dreamwork as a kind of exposure therapy for people who are anxious or afraid of feeling big feelings. Over time, our capacity for feeling and sensing increases both in dreams and in waking life, sometimes through our active intent and sometimes simply as a result of our willingness to remember our dreams and work them.

In case I have to say this: As frightening as it may be, there are also many benefits to remembering how to feel deeply. For one, reality feels more real. Time slows down. There is more awe, joy, and delight; for when we shut down or mute our feelings, we shut them all down — joy and delight, too.

Our dreams guide us back to a full range of feeling. 

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