Painful emotions in dreams

Painful Emotions in Dreams Jane Teresa Anderson

“I dreamed that my wife married another man. It was such a vivid dream and I felt very devastated, felt the pain of losing her in that way. What does it mean?”

This plea for help arrived on my desk this week, and as it is such a common and worrying dream theme, I decided to share some guidelines for those of you who know the deep emotional pain this kind of dream can deliver in the middle of the night, and the anxiety its imprint can leave over the next few days.

What makes a dream vivid? Think about the last really vivid dream you had. We may describe a dream as being vivid if it was particularly colourful, or unusually clear, or intensely numinous, or if it offered spiritual comfort, or spiritual discomfort, or if taste, smell, touch and hearing senses were heightened. We may regard a dream as vivid because it was unusually surreal, or because it was totally believable, as if it really happened.

Different people will have different opinions on what makes a dream vivid, but they usually have one thing in common – heightened emotion. That emotion may be uplifting, such as intense love, awe, surprise, joy, elation. Or it may be painful, such as intense devastation, loss, betrayal, fear, guilt, horror, shock.

We feel intense emotions in our dreams when those same emotions have been triggered at some level in our waking life.

We feel intense emotions in our dreams when those same emotions have been triggered at some level in our waking life.

We feel intense emotions in our dreams when those same emotions have been triggered at some level in our waking life. Remember, dreams reflect our conscious and unconscious experiences of the last 24-48 hours, and it’s the nature of dreams to be dramatic. The man who felt the pain of loss in his dream about his wife marrying another man, was processing feelings of loss triggered by events during the two days before his dream.

It’s most likely that this man felt a prickle of loss in some area of his life, whether that was in his public or private life, whether it was around his work, his personal life, his spiritual life, his sense of pride, his creativity, his finances, his hopes for the future, his physical health, his long-term goals. The list is endless, but the full details of his dream, once interpreted, would reveal the story and the deeper issues underlying his feelings of loss.

The prickle of loss he felt would have been the tip of the iceberg, the full extent of the emotion remaining unconscious. (The intensity of the emotion in the dream informs us that it registered deep in his unconscious.) You might think that feeling it lightly (just a prickle) is a good thing, but it’s not. When we push intense emotions down into our unconscious mind, they grow in power. Our unconscious emotions (and beliefs, and experiences) drive the way we live our lives, though we are oblivious to this unless we pay attention to our dreams.

This man was clearly shocked by his dream. The fidelity of his relationship is not in question. This dream is not about his relationship with his wife.

It is about an area of his life that he had regarded as committed, settled, secure (like his marriage), but that felt shaky around the time of his dream. His dreaming mind pictured his feeling of painful loss and devastation as being like losing a treasured commitment, a foundation stone of his life – his wife.

This kind of dream can come up when you feel threatened by a change in your life. That change might be good, such as deciding to give up a commitment to a previous plan (perhaps a career or business) to commit to a new and better option, or it might be more challenging, such as losing a job due to your employer’s changed commitments.

When change requires us to give up something of our old way, or our old beliefs or attitudes, we often need to process a deep sense of loss (or we push it into our unconscious to try to avoid the pain). When we choose the change ourselves, the old self can feel abandoned or betrayed by the new self. When change is forced upon us, that sense of abandonment or betrayal may feel closer to the surface, and we may find ourselves blaming outside sources – the employer, the economy, the system – rather than taking the healing route of processing the pain and letting it go.

This man dreamed his wife married another man. Somewhere in his life, during the 24-48 hours before his dream, he experienced a shift in commitment which triggered feelings of loss and devastation. His best way forward is to acknowledge these feelings, explore them and understand them so that the choices he makes from now on come from a place of growth rather than from a place of loss.

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14 comments on “Painful emotions in dreams”

  1. Charlotte Reply

    Thank you for your elucidation. I had a dream in which I was struggling over crumblng English stone buildings to try to find my boyfriend. When I entered his house (odd that I was aware of this distinction in the dream: it was his house not ours) he was standing laughing with a blonde woman. Their faces moved quickly away as though they had been embracing. My heart literally broke as I looked into his eyes: eyes that told me without a shadow of doubt, that he had been untrue to me. My knees buckled beneath me and I fell to the ground. He reached down to help me up from a great height and I noticed he had dirt and little leaves all over his face, clothing and hair, as though he had been rolling around in the forest. He was dressed like a Medieval Huntsman. He tried to kiss me but I turned my lips away and it was then that I saw the woman leaning against the corridor wall with a triumphant, amused air and noticed that there were leaves in her hair. I literally awoke in the most intense, heartbroken state with terrible anxiety wracking my abdomen. My whole body really. I can’t stop crying. The worst thing is that he is far away in England and I can’t reach him to hear his voice. This dream was so vivid, the complexities of the emotions in his eyes alone. This is more than just a dream. What significance do the earth and leaves have? I am consumed by this experience. I am literally in physical pain. I’ve heard that if you die in a dream, you actually die. I feel as though my heart was literally broken in my dream and that I am now inconsolably heartbroken in real life. Please help me get past this.

    • Jane Teresa Anderson Reply

      Hi Charlotte,

      It’s untrue that if you die in a dream you actually die. Many have lived to tell the tale – including me.

      The pain you are feeling is real and valid, but it’s a pain relating to changes you are experiencing in your life now, not at all necessarily related to what your boyfriend is doing (or not doing) but more about your own feelings about relationship, dependence and independence. Think of it this way: whatever the reason your boyfriend is currently oversesas, this is a time for you to explore and experience being on your own on a day to day basis, and this is bringing up stuff that your dream is processing.

      If you’d like me to go deeply into your dream, you might like to go this way:

      Hope this helps meanwhile,

      Jane Teresa

    • Jane Teresa Anderson Reply

      Well Kris, Here we are 🙂

      I believe in caring every moment, no matter how many or how few moments might remain.


  2. levi Reply

    I was in love with someone ten years back, may be still i feel the same. Six years ago he married someone else. I feel the pain in my heart when I am sleeping. Even I see finding other guy for whom i could feel the same. But in real I dont feel or expect same pain in heart, same feeling for any one. I dont know how long my heart my mind will take time to get rid of this hurt feeling.

    • Jane Teresa Anderson Reply

      Hi Levi,

      You might like to do some dream alchemy to help you release the hurt feeling.

      Jane Teresa

  3. Courtney Reply

    Hi there,

    My boyfriend had a dream the other night in which I died. He said that he had only had one other dream like that and that was about his father. He seemed quite shaken up about it and said that it felt so real. He said in the dream he found out when he was at work that I died through a post on Facebook, and that I died in a freak accident. Most of his dream after that consisted of him trying to get to my family and figure out what happened. He hasn’t met my sisters, but has met my parents briefly. could you please help understand what this could mean?


    • Jane Teresa Anderson Reply

      Hi Court,

      I can understand why you are upset and anxious about this dream, but like all dreams, this is symbolic. It’s your boyfriend’s dream, and it’s all about him, not about you. He might like to read this article:

      If he’d like to deeply understand his dream, he might like to book a consultation with me.

      Many blessings,

      Jane Teresa

  4. ck Reply

    I like how you interpreted the dream in a realistic way. I live with constant nightmares and have been trying to research how to make them stop. Most other articles I read are to me very unrealistic. I have PTSD and hide most of my emotions in my daily life. Do you think the reason for these constant vivid emotionally charged dreams are a result of stifling my feeling in my life? How can you resolve that?
    Thank you in advance

    • Jane Teresa Anderson Reply

      Hello CK,

      Thank you for your comment and your question. To begin, you might like to read this blog I wrote about PTSD and dreams:

      Yes, hiding most of your emotions in daily life does mean that your dreams will be hard at work trying to process the resulting stress that this causes. Some of your dreams may also be trying to process your PTSD experiences and fears. The blog at the above link answers your question about how to stop nightmares. I have also written an ebook called ‘How to stop bad dreams and nightmares’ which you will find in my Dream Store.

      I recommend you read the blog, and consider booking a consultation or a run of dream therapy sessions (see my Dream Store) so that I can guide you professionally with this.

      Many blessings,
      Jane Teresa

  5. hayley Reply

    I dreamt about being on a cruise ship its was a pleasant dream until the end when the ship started to turn in circles like it was going down a drain but it was purposely done by the captain for an older mans health anyway I dreamnt the next morning of me telling my uncle about that dream I was wondering what it meant to have a dream where im telling him about an actual dream I had the night before

    • Jane Teresa Anderson Reply

      Hi Hayley,

      Did the ship just turn in circles (was it going to stay afloat), or was it going to go under, like going down a drain?

      To answer your question, there will be a connection between how you see your uncle and how you’re dealing with the issue the dream is reflecting.

      Jane Teresa

  6. Cindy Reply

    I dreamt I came out of the train station and headed towards the flight of stairs that leads to the exit of the station.

    I took the flight of stairs and stopped when near to the top. Left with two or three steps before I reached the top. I looked back the steps were so steep and I felt like I’m going to fall off the steps any time. But there were school girls going down the stairs and it seem so easy and normal to them. There is no way for me to head down back the steep stairs. I turned towards the last few steps. Still overwhelmed by the steep stairs I was standing. I crumbled to the ground because of fear and try to cling on to whatever I can so that I would not fall off the step. But there was nothing that I can hold on. I felt so scared of falling off. Suddenly the exit door opened. Someone grabbed me and pulled me to up to the top of the stair. And I realized its a female colleague (whom I wasn’t especially close to).

    • Jane Teresa Anderson Reply

      Hi Cindy, Thank you for your contribution to this thread, expressing the supreme fear and overwhelm you felt in trying to cling on rather than retreat or finish your climb. Sometimes it’s in that moment of letting go when there’s nothing to hang on to (surrendering) that pulls us through (as happened in your dream). You must have done this in the day or two before your dream.
      Many blessings,
      Jane Teresa

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