What Do Work Nightmares Tell Us?

Since today is  Halloween, I couldn’t resist taking a look at nightmares.  Work nightmares in particular.  These night terrors fall into two categories for me, waking horrors, things that happen at work that embarrass or freak you out, such as calling your boss by your spouse’s name during a meeting, (I won’t touch the Freudian implications of that one). Then there are the nightmares where you suddenly realize that you have to give a presentation in 15 minutes on a topic you know nothing about.  In this post, I’ll explore the sleeping nightmares and what they are trying to tell us.

Our dreams are messages that we send to ourselves. They tell us what we really think about a person, issue or activity. They are also one of the ways our subconscious tries to solve problems that have been presented to us during the waking hours.  Our dreams, even the awkward ones, give us some insight into our own minds.  

I once had a dream in which I was in a huge auditorium with thousands of people. My boss was standing on stage with a microphone when he announced that I would be leading the next part of the presentation. Presenting didn’t faze me, nor did being called upon to do the work unexpectedly, the nightmarish bit was that I had no microphone, no slides and no way of being seen or heard. I couldn’t get to the stage and I couldn’t get my boss’ attention to tell him. When I recalled the dream the following morning, it made me laugh…at myself.  I’d been worried about my budget and the tools I had for my job. My concern was that I would not be able to deliver on objectives because I didn’t have the right resources.  I thought I had resigned myself to working with what I had, but apparently, my subconscious had other ideas and wanted to demonstrate the outcome of working without the right tools.

Looking at your dreams is an opportunity to get to know yourself better, but you can’t be too literal. Just because work shows up in a dream, doesn’t mean the dream is about work.  We spend so much time at work that it makes it easy for our minds to call on those elements to send us messages. The opposite is also true. You could have elements of your personal life in a dream that’s really about work.

If you dream about sharpening a million pencils it doesn’t necessarily mean you are worried about dull pencils. You could be frustrated about menial work you have been doing or a repetitive task. The point is, dreams and their interpretation is a very personal thing.  The same item appearing in the dreams of two people can have dramatically different meanings for the dreamers. What we see, feel and hear in our dreams is all about us. Remember, everyone in your dream is you.

There is also some research that suggests that the flow of a dream is a reflection of your subconsciousness trying to make sense of the random images flowing through. Have you ever woken up to the sound of a radio?  If there is a news broadcast playing, then elements of the news can filter into your sub-conscience before you are fully awake and create interesting and random dreams.  This is true for any external stimuli that might leak into your dream.

Interpreting Your Dreams

What’s important to note is that if you have repetitive, stressful or particularly vivid dreams that feel associated with work, you could be sending yourself an important message. Your challenge is to interpret what that message means for you.

One of the simplest ways of analysing your dreams is to start with what is happening around you. Your waking life will be full of clues about what’s causing the dreams, its generally something that has happened in the immediate past, the last day or week.  Our subconscious doesn’t usually store things for later review. Something in your immediate world has to act as a trigger.

The biggest indicator of what a dream means for you is how you feel in the dream. Although scary things may be happening all around you, if the dominant emotion you are feeling is NOT fear, then the dream’s intent isn’t to frighten, believe me, your subconscious knows what buttons to push to frighten you. If you’d like a little help interpreting dreams, check out Susan P. Cooper and Cheryl Therrien’s, “Dream Catchers“.

Have you ever had a nightmare about work?  Ever come to a realization or a solution based on a dream? What do you do to get rid of scary dreams?


0 responses to “What Do Work Nightmares Tell Us?

  • As Freud hints, every dream is about a wish fulfillment – the nightmare only comes from censoring oneself 🙂

  • You’re right, Debra, that your dreams are very personal. Only you can interpret what they mean. One of my recurring dreams over the years has been running to catch a train, or a bus and missing it. The anxiety is so real, that I’ve relieved when I wake up. I can actually feel my heart beating. Funny thing is, the dream has had different meanings for me depending on what’s going in my life at the time.

  • This reminds me of one of my craziest dreams. While in the field in Korea junk trucks follow the Marines around from training area to training area. The junk trucks were the Korean version of the roach coach (lunch trucks). One time I loaded up on coffee and moon pies before going to sleep. My birthday is also the week before St. Patricks day. My parents sent me a birthday card with leprechauns on it. I ended up dreaming about Asian leprechauns storming our position in mini tanks. It was so real.

    • Ok, I laughed, couldn’t help it. I could totally see it happening too, it would be scary even though it was crazy. Love the blending of the imagery. Talk about a job that could give you nightmares.

  • Interesting but you brought to my attention that lately, I just do not dream. Lately meaning the last several months. I wonder if that is weird? Nope. Maybe it’s because there are enough nightmares during the day that I share with millions of other people. I’m not going there in my comments.

    In general, I don’t actually recall any nightmares. Weird dreams would be the better label. And then I usually search online for the meaning.

  • Debra – I love interrupting dreams and I myself have had a few work nightmares. Sometimes it is because I am questioning my decision on my career. Thank you for the link to Sheryl and I collaboration. It means a lot to us. 🙂

    • It’s amazing what you can discover about yourself though your dreams. The mind is a pretty incredible instrument. I was happy to include the link, I’m looking forward to reading the book myself. 🙂

  • Since dreams are really an extension of yourself, I find that my dreams might take in something that happened during the day, but the dream maybe off the wall but I can where something had triggered the dream. I don’t know if I making an sense. When I dream, the next day, if I remember what I dreamed in the first place, I will ask myself where did that come from. When I see the correlation for some reason, it seems to resolve the issue and I no longer dwell on it. For me dreams are a release.

  • My problem was getting my conscious mind to turn off and banish work worries, so I could fall asleep and dream. My “anxiety” dream is not about work—at least the kind of work to which I think you’re referring. When I have a dream about “labor and delivery”, I know I’m anxious about something. Since I was last in labor and delivered our younger son 26 years ago, I’m not obviously not actively worrying about that topic, it’s a metaphor for whatever is bothering me at the moment.

    • Labour has got to be one of the toughest experiences most women go through, both mentally and physically, so I can get why your subconscious calls it up in your dreams if you’re facing something worrying or tough. It’s a good shortcut message, it must also put some things in perspective because few challenges are as worrying or difficult as child birth.

  • I have always believed that dreams are inspired by actual events and can provide insight into how well we’re managing.My problem has always been recognizing the metaphor! I used to dream that a bull kept cornering me in a pen and would lower his head to pierce me with his horns, though never the death blow. It took me a while to recognize the bull to be my ex-husband…yep.

    • Wow, that’s quite the revelation Jacqueline. I can understand why you had a hard time interpreting the dream. There are some things that are just really hard to face. Your subconscious certainly found a dramatic and unavoidable way of delivering the message.

  • Eleanor Bell says:
    October 23, 2013 @ 02:50 am

    My work nightmare was forgetting to get dressed before going to work. Then having to figure out where do I get clothes and hiding from co-workers. Don’t know what this means. Any ideas? Maybe that I was habitually poorly prepared? lolololol

    Several years ago I kept a dream journal. Right by the nightstand with pen. It is amazing the collection of dreams you accumulate. I should start doing that again.

    • Getting caught undressed is a surprisingly common theme. It’s got to be one our worst collective nightmares, it definitely epitomizes being unprepared, but for me it would also be about being vulnerable…it’s hard to be assertive when you’re naked. 🙂

      I like the idea of a dream journal, it so easy to forget dreams, but if you train yourself to use a journal you can capture the dream before it disappears.

  • I have had some really crazy dreams about one of the companies I worked for. It was an alternative newspaper and even after I left I would get weird dreams about going back to work their and living the nightmare all over again. In my dream I would think “why did I come back when I knew this is how it was going to be”. I have used Susan Cooper/ Cheryl Therrien’s Dream Catchers book to help interrupt my dreams.

    • I had no idea Susan and Cheryl had written that book (I’d seen a picture of a dream catcher on the site, but never sorted out what it was all about. I would have included a link to it. 🙂 It’s never too late, I’ll go back and add it in.

      I’ve had a few dreams where I found myself back in a job that I didn’t like. It’s almost as if you have to remind yourself why you needed to move on.

  • Great blog again! It reminded me of a work nightmare that I had years ago, when I worked for a cabinet minister’s wife for a short time. The woman was unreasonably demanding, abrasive and rude and I was young and trying to make a good impression. My nightmare had her as an evil dentist, trying to pull out my back teeth….I thought about that dream for the next 24 hours…then I quit working for the woman. I guess my subconscious was trying to tell me that she was hurting me. The dream still makes me laugh to this day.

  • In John Galsworthy’s book The Forsyth Saga an old man reflects that he is old enough to have noticed that in the middle of the night his mind is prone to make a problem out of nothing.

    When you sleep your mind is cleaning up and it’s not for nothing that we often wake up and know what to do with something that we had not yet sorted out in our mind. That happens to me a lot and I also wake up in the middle of the night and have new ideas.

    Interpreting dreams. Well, sometimes I have premonitions when I dream. But that only happens when I am 100% relaxed. Hence, maybe wrongly, I believe that dreams that have a meaning only happens when you are 100 % relaxed. And how often does that happen to us in our busy world?

    • I really like the idea that our mind is getting rid of the clutter and making room for those things we really need to focus on. Isn’t it nice when you wake up with a solution at your finger tips?

  • Hhhmmmm….the program assistant always had a rat-like appearance in my dreams….interesting! I guess I know what I really think of her.

  • I have had many nightmares about teaching after I resigned. I cannot tell you how many I had of moving and going back to it. I know that it was my mind’s way of telling my heart that I needed a change, and should return to teaching. For health reasons, I currently won’t, although I have paid my dues and am still a certified teacher. I think that’s why I like blogging – I can still teach others.

    Of course, now I have blogging nightmares. 😉

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