"You want hear about the dreams” began John. “Well, it was a night of horrors." He raised his hand in front of his face, "It was like my unconscious was just there, and ripped open so that I could see and feel everything. I slept maybe half an hour at a time, waking in panic each time from a new dream. Do you want to hear about my dark night of the soul, and what I learned about myself?” I certainly did.
“In the first dream, I was at work, at my computer. My boss walked in and I had Google Images open, with a picture of a house on the screen - I was trying to find a home. She saw that I was not working. At that moment I knew that I had been seen for a bad worker, and would be fired.”
“How did you respond in the dream?”
“Well that’s the interesting thing, I saw that she had an emotional problem, and I tried to fix it for her.”
“You were offering her something in order to keep your job?”
“Yes, I think so. I think I was trying to make myself kind and helpful, so that she would accept me. Otherwise I would be rejected.”
We sat with that for a moment. “What happened next?”
“Well, I awoke, wrote the dream down, and went back to sleep. In the next dream I was with a close friend. We were at my ex-partner’s house. As you know I secretly found the break up very hard – I had planned to propose to her on the first day of the new year.”
“The house seemed strange. My partner treated my friend and I as equals. There was nothing special about me to her."
"How did that feel?"
"When I awoke I felt like I was nobody, nothing. Yet in the dream all I remember is a powerful lost, anxious feeling. And a deep yearning. My friend and I tried to find somewhere to sleep, but I wasn’t allowed in my now ex-partner's room. I felt so shut out. I wanted to go in there but knew she didn’t want it, that she wanted me gone. And I just had to respect that....”
At this point John teared up. I wanted to ask more but he continued.
“So I woke up with my heart racing. I wrote the dream down, sat up for a while feeling really sad, then went back to sleep. In my next dream my friend and I were still trying to find somewhere to sleep. We went into an old church where homeless people were sleeping among the pews. There was a woman there who was really critical of me – dismissive, mocking.”
“What do you mean?”
“She kept saying, You don’t belong here, get out of here. It was this strong feeling that she hated me and just wanted me gone.”
“From the church?”
“Yes, but gone in a deeper way….”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I too was homeless but somehow more displaced – my vulnerability was lower than theirs in her eyes, and her contempt continued. I had to bundle my things up in a panic and get out.”
"My phone, and this rope that I was trying to tie something important up with."
“And that was the beginning of another dream?”
“Yes. That dream finished with me trying to pick everything up in a panic, to hold it all together, but I couldn't, everything kept slipping through my hands. After waking again with my heart pounding more, and eventually falling asleep again - it was a long night - I was now with my friend out on the street. The street was rough. There were gangs and mad people all about us - insane - and they were violent. We were completely exposed. And then I awoke again.”
“You felt very vulnerable?”
“Well, yes, and worse. You see, in the next dream, I was in the police station. I’m somebody who will hurt myself rather than others, so to speak - will try to take care of others even at risk to myself. But I entered this dream having been charged of a crime. I don’t know what, I hadn't committed any, but I was having to sign some document. I was locked in some room alone where I could never speak to other people again. The point was that I was seen as guilty, hated, a criminal who deserves no love, and furthermore, will never again be considered a good man. I was crying about that last point, pleading them to understand, saying I'm not that kind of man!”
“These are some powerful images, John.”
“Yes. There were other dreams during this night.”
“Several, and they had a theme, captured by this one. A man I admire had come to my house, where I had that friend from the other dreams staying, and he left us a gift. I was busy making a place for my friend to stay in my home, so missed the visitor. My friend told me of the gift, and that he would charge me for my portion.”
What do you make of that?
It felt like love was somehow for trade, like other people would make me pay.”
“Pay for getting love?”
“Yes…no…pay for giving it….”
“What do you mean?”
“I don't know. What was powerful was this sense that deepened throughout the night, whenever I awoke, to a point where I profoundly despaired: a feeling that I was absolutely ugly to my core. I don’t mean just physically ugly, I mean ugly as deeply unlovable, to the center of my being. A conviction that I had seen myself, had been seen, thoroughly inside, and nobody could ever love me.”
“Is this how you feel normally?”
“Beforehand I would have said no, but on this terrible night I recognised that this feeling sits at the heart of me always, and usually I just don’t see it. It drives my life. I have tried to be good and clever, so that other people would not see my ugliness, and would love me.”
“How do you want to respond to that insight?”
Tears were flowing down John's cheeks.
“I’m so tired of trying to be good and clever. I'm so tired of feeling like something to be traded for some semblance of love. And so I'm tired of feeling so unlovable."
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Chris Buzelli
While based on a therapy session, all details are highly disguised for anonymity.
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.