Dreams may not be the secret window into the frustrated desires of the unconscious that Sigmund Freud first posited in 1899, but growing evidence suggests that dreams — and, more so, sleep — are powerfully connected to the processing of human emotions.
In the subconscious, our desires take shape. Often they are merely in the form of a fantasy of how nice it would be if we had that one thing we wanted most, especially when we feel like we have been given the short end of the stick recently or have been met with a mountain of problems to which the solution is an uphill climb.
Sigmund Freud was the first to identify dreams as wish fulfillment fantasies. In fact, early in his career he believed it was the primary function of all dreams to fulfill desires through which the dreamer could derive pleasure. In New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis Freud wrote, “in every dream an instinctual wish has to be represented as fulfilled. The shutting-off of mental life from reality at night and the regression to primitive mechanisms which this makes possible enable this wished-for instinctual satisfaction to be experienced in a hallucinatory manner”.
Freud was particularly obsessed with dreams that he believed were of an infantile sexual nature, probably because he himself was fixated on the topic. Although dream experts agree that some dreams do represent wish fulfillment, it is not the only function of our dreaming life to fulfill desires.
In contrast to Freud, Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, contended that most dreams are attitude-compensations. The attitudes that dreams compensate are those of the ego. Jung said that compensatory dreams “add to the conscious psychological situation of the moment all those aspects which are essential for a totally different point of view.”
Dreaming of eating donuts when you have been on a diet for two weeks or having passionate sex with a mystery lover are certainly pleasant dreams. These dreams may fulfill a deep wish, but more true is that they compensate for what the dreamer has been denied. In this case, they are called “compensatory dreams”. The subconscious has had enough of denial and abstinence and creates a picture perfect scenario to satisfy a deep hunger. Underneath it all, the subconscious seeks homeostasis and happiness and functions to create a happier way of life than the one the dreamer faces during the day. Sex dreams are particularly common among those who have gone far too long without a passionate lover. The longer you go without sex the more frequent the dreams tend to become. More than a desire, the dream mentions an unsatisfied instinctual need.
Loss and separation, especially death, creates sorrow and conflict for the subconscious. Even when the conscious mind has become accustomed to the loss, the subconscious yearns, mourns and tries to make peace with the fact that it has lost someone or something important. In this case, the subconscious tries to reconcile the loss in some way by creating a fantasy of happier times.
For a year after my mother’s death, my adult daughter had a series of dreams in which she discovers that her grandmother didn’t die. It was all a horrible joke and a lie. Grandma was brought back to life in the dream as if she had never departed. Undoubtedly, the fact that my mother had died suddenly in a traffic accident contributed to my daughter’s feelings of disbelief and shock. Her subconscious didn’t want to face the fact that her beloved grandmother had died so suddenly. The wish was that her death was all a joke or a mistake and that life with grandma would continue on. The dreams revealed how attached my daughter was and how she still needed to accept the finality of death.
Among those who have experienced a relationship failure, dreaming that they are reunited with their mate is quite common. In the dream, the dreamer is making up in some way for the discord in the relationship. Even when the conscious mind has no thoughts of the two reconciling, the subconscious may just not want to let go. As a result, it creates a kiss-and-make up scenario to point out it is the deeper wish of the dreamer to be together again with his or her mate. These dreams are often disconcerting to someone who has finally gotten up the courage to end it and for those who long for a reconciliation when there is no possibility of it ever happening. Reconciliation dreams are too often misinterpreted as precognitive, when in fact they are pure fantasy.
Life Fulfillment Fantasy Dreams
I once had a funny dream that I had just been elected President and was standing in front of an audience proclaiming my victory and giving a long-winded speech. I recognized that the dream represented my deep need and wish to make a difference in the world and to be recognized as a leader. We all dream of making it big in the world, whether in our careers or just by doing something out of the ordinary through which we are recognized and honored by those around us. So important is the quest for significance that our subconscious often creates opportunities in dreams so that we feel valued or recognized in some way. An artist who hasn’t sold a painting in a year may dream of an exhibition in a gallery in which all his or her paintings are sold for top dollar. A struggling musician may dream of becoming a rock star performing in front of an audience of thousands. And an author may dream their next book makes The New York Times Best Seller List. All these dream scenarios fulfill the deepest wish for fame and recognition even when the reality measures short of success.
Why does the subconscious create such fantasies? It appears that as Jung suggested it is to affirm that anything is possible and to help the dreamer shed limiting attitudes. But more importantly, it is to uplift the consciousness of the individual out of misery and into a state of happiness no matter how temporary it might be. The subconscious seeks to create harmony, peace, joy and love above all.