What Your Daydreams Can Tell You and Why You Should Listen

Daydreams and reality - what happens when they don't match up?

Posted Nov 16, 2013

“I always expected to be married by now”

“I was going to be an astronaut”

“I wanted to be the first woman president”

How do our dreams of who we are going to be and our actual experiences fit together? What happens when what we want to do or be doesn’t turn out to be what we actually are or do?

Linda* was thirty-three, not married and not dating anyone. She had an excellent job which she enjoyed, although she did not love it. She had a loving family and good friends. “But I was going to be married by now,” she said. “I want to have a husband who cares about me, children and a dog and maybe even a cat.”

In my book and posts about daydreams I talk about how daydreams can help us know something about ourselves and about what we want. But daydreams are not facts. They are not even necessarily truths about who we are or what we really hope for our future.

Daydreams, like night dreams, have several layers. The topmost layer is the one that we often know best. That’s the one that comes out when children talk about what they want to do when they grow up. It’s where fantasies of our wedding, or how many children we’re going to have, or where we’re going to live or go for a vacation get expressed. It’s what psychoanalysts call the manifest content of a thought – the content that’s most visible to our conscious minds.

But there are other levels of thought in these waking dreams. These are what psychoanalysts call latent or underlying meanings. One of these layers of meaning contains images of who we would like to be – both in the here and now and in the future.  And while these images are often framed in very specific pictures in the manifest content, they also often have other, far more significant meanings.

As we work towards our developing future selves, there are two important things to keep in mind:

1 - We have more than one potential and satisfied self. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-couch/201104/our-many-selves

2 –Understanding the underlying meanings rather than trying to achieve the actual mental pictures of our future can be a far more productive path to future happiness.  

Linda, for instance, realized that her images provided her with a sense of how she would like to go forward in her life. She decided to fix up her apartment as she imagined she might have done if she were getting married. She also decided to take a vacation to the place that she had always thought of as her honeymoon destination. “Why should I wait to visit Paris? It’s a place I’d really like to see!” she said.

As she examined her images of being a mom, she talked about teaching her children how to take care of the planet they lived on. And then she thought, “But that’s something I should be doing now!” She did some research and found an ecologically-oriented organization that seemed to have some of the same goals that she had. Volunteering at the organization gave her a tremendous sense of value. “It’s what I imagined I’d be getting from having my own children.”

Interestingly, as Linda continued to glean ideas about how to go forward in her life from her daydreams about her future self, she developed a number of other ideas about how to live in the present. She made some changes in her day to day life, and as she did, she also gradually became more comfortable with who she was and how she was living.

“I don’t feel so desperate to have that future that I always imagined was the only possible way for me,” she said. “I feel good about who I am and what my life is like right now.  As I get older, I’m sure I’ll make changes; but I hope they’ll always be based on what I understand about myself, and not on what I think I should be doing.”

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy
Teaser Image Source: fdbarth copyright November 16 2013