Between the Self and the Subconscious

Every night each of us is transported to a place inside of ourselves to live out fantastic scenarios and storylines created within our own minds. We travel to a place where the rules of physics and even storytelling do not apply. The images may be in color, black and white, vivid and lively, or they may be abstract and meaningless. We all dream different thing but dreaming is universal and since the dawn of humankind we have been trying to work out the mechanism and the meaning of these alternate worlds and lives we live in nightly succession.

I never remember when my thoughts and perceptions make the leap the space from the real world outside to the inner one of fantasy but I am one of the lucky—or not so lucky—ones that dream in vivid imagery and emotion and carry the memory of these dreams into my waking life. My dreams are so real sometimes that I wake up feeling confused about who and when I am. I am shocked even to find that I have a different life than the one I just woke from. Sometimes I wake relieved. Sometimes I wake and mourn a fantasy I never wanted to wake from.

I am disturbed not just by the visceral nature of my dreams but by the content too.

I dream of old friends and lovers seeking the answers and closure I never had. I reenact my worst self sometimes the way it was and sometimes in ways that are warped or exaggerated to highlight some shame or regret. Most nights I play myself and the scenes are shot from a first-person perspective and sometimes the camera pans out and an actor is mercifully generated from my mind plays me to provide distance from pain and shame.

My rational mind cannot follow the haphazard way the dreaming mind pursues its answers. I cannot even guess at the answers it seeks by its seemingly random choice of setting, situation, and character. Some nights the old antagonists, deuteragonists, and love interests don the faces of present friends and loved ones, but most nights I do not even recognize the actors it asks me to rehearse these scenes with.

There are nights too when those I dream of from the present wear faces from long ago. They are their worst selves this way I am mine. We deceive and hurt one another with unprecedented cruelty and callousness. They say dreams can foretell the future. They say too that dreams reveal a truth we cannot see in ourselves or in others. I wake suspicious of them and of myself. I wake up hopeless that the past will always be repeated and that no matter how I try I will always be this way and the proverbial “they” will always that.

My mind and memory mix and meld the past and the future, my dream mind understanding each as who they are regardless of setting or disguise, as I play out my anxieties and desires as a loop of choices and mistakes I’ve made and will make.

Of these future tense events, I tell myself they would never come true. I could never want this or them. I could never do or think that way, but I wonder too. I am surprised by just how mistaken my unconscious mind is about what I want or what I might do, or maybe I only feign surprise? 

I honestly do not know, but where else, how else, could these images manifest if not from some black and hidden part of me? What I dream is a truth told by fiction. What that fiction provides is distance enough to accept for a time that there exists darkness in me. Some put there by others and some that is made entirely of me.

I wonder at this darkness. I try to reach it but it seems buried beyond my reach or want to plumb, buried so deep by upbringing, propriety, and self-image I cannot bear to even try. What might exist there? What other truths or predictions may arise out of that devious and lewd place? How far down does the darkness go?

Those nights I dream of old flings and future affairs, I wonder what it means. Do I still long for those I’ve left behind? Would I have betrayed the one I love now so easily? Those nights I dream of grave danger, I dream I am running, running, running away from a threat so big and so fierce I cannot see or stop to comprehend it. Does that make me a coward at heart? Would I never stand and fight?

I dream of lives so different from my own I hardly recognize myself in them. Where do these new personas originate from? I dream of places I’ve never been to and of people I have never met. I dream that the people who know me either do not exist for me or do not at all, I cannot tell. Do I wish I were someone else, somewhere else, do the people close to me in this time and life mean so little to me, really?

As if future horrors were not enough a few nights a year, and during times of stress, a few nights a week, the dream maker makes for me a nightmare of what I fail to repress, retellings so real I may wake up to real pain and wet tears. Why must the mind bring them up again and again? The emotional self has suffered enough. The rational self has accepted it all. What more can be gleaned from such terrors?

There are no answers to these questions. The parts of me that produce these dreamscapes are ancient and unknowable to me. They evolved eons ago and exist in places I cannot go. The symbols and metaphors aren’t decipherable. I dream I have lockjaw, that my clothes won’t stay on, that my hair is falling out, that I am falling down, that I can fly, that someone is chasing me, that someone is breaking in, that I cannot see my wife’s face, that no one can hear me, that I am being killed, that I am dead.

From the distance of story-telling and narration, I may be trying to say that I need to let go or to rethink. I may be afraid of being seen and I may long to be truly seen. These dreams could mean I am trying to escape or avoid some horror or desire either in me or in my past. I may be feeling unheard. I may be worried about losing my sense of power or I may just be dealing with low self-esteem and a preoccupation with my appearance. I may be trying to face my greatest fears or I may be trying to remind myself of unfinished business.

It might be nothing at all. These stories I make for myself might be made of old pieces of my life found strewn about the cutting room floor of my memory and colored by the emotion of the day. It may be nothing but a way to occupy my mind while daily maintenance is performed and upgrades are installed.

But my gut tells me otherwise. Not every dream may be the dark revelations of the subconscious, nor are they made wholly of excess emotion and dregs of the day’s thoughts. I do not think that the dream makers in us are really so far away as they feel and the meaning might be simpler to discern than we imagine.

Perhaps our dreams are only one of the many mediums we have to interact with and understand ourselves. Perhaps, we are our own best friend and worst enemy down to our subconscious and perhaps because we know ourselves best of all it is in this place, a world both of our own creation and out of our control that we conjure up the worst of ourselves and for ourselves simply because we can.

The interpretation, therefore, may not lie in the dream’s content but in the kind of dreams we choose to construct. What plays out in the course of every night may have less to do with that darkness in you, the secrets you try to keep from yourself, or your greatest fears and may have everything to do with just how you feel about yourself.

It may be that a nightmare is only a way of punishment or a bit of tough love and a dazzling illusion of peace, pleasure, or prosperity a gift or a great and merciful lie and a night of dreams so real you don’t just dream them but live them may have nothing to do with how you feel about this life you have been given and more to do with the distance between your inner life and your outer reality. It may mean signify nothing more than how rich and deep the relationship you have with yourself is.


This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 17: Distance, but in the course of exploring the concept I happened upon something else entirely. I hope it still counts.

Photo by Shot by Cerqueira on Unsplash

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I have never actually lived alone. I went from my mother’s home as a teenager, to living with my cousins, to living with roommates, to living with my now fiance and for almost 17 years since. I’ve never been on my own, but I’ve never felt that I had missed out on anything.

Lately, I have been trying something new. I’ve been trying to be more accepting of myself, my perspective, and my emotions and to allow my feelings to flow more freely and without judgement. Since I’ve started practicing such radical acceptance, I’ve found it harder to balance who I am as a person against who I am as a half of one whole.

Sometimes the hardest (though by far the most rewarding) part of being a human is never truly belonging to yourself alone. I suppose this balancing act is a part of all relationships between any two people and the people they truly are deep down inside. Maybe we are all made up of such halves piled on top of one whole who never really got to be.


These entries are inspired by the journal posts of Thord D. Hedengren