Recently I saw a fine movie, “Bride Flight” from the Netherlands, directed by Ben Sombogaart. It is about three young women just after World War II, who get on a plane headed for New Zealand to meet their soon to be husbands and start their lives. Now that the horror of the War is over, each of the women has a dream of what life will be like. The movie is about how life actually turns out. The men are far from the idealized beings the women imagined and their lives are not at all as beautiful as they pictured. In the end, their lives are not so bad either. That reality doesn’t live up to our dreams is tragic, but it is also what life is made of. For all of us, seeking to fulfill our dreams is a big part of life. But another big part is coming to value the approximation that we actually achieve.
How does this relate to psychotherapy? Much of the work of therapy is to come to acceptance of reality on its terms. That may seem like a worthy goal, but the truth is more nuanced. Our dreams are real. That is, they play a very real role in our lives. They are the North Stars that guide us through our world. They are the source of much of the energy that drives us to achieve. When we question them or label them as unrealistic, we are also threatening something that is vital to our functioning, to our identity, and to our emotional equilibrium.
For me as a therapist, this is not simple. When I participate in bringing dreams under question, I worry about destroying something vital. What needs to happen is a transformation, not a negation of the dream. The dream needs to stay intact, but to be brought into line with what is really possible. But that is problematic, too. Yes there are wishes and dreams that are simply beyond possibility, but what about the ones where “they said it couldn’t be done” and the dreamer went on to do it anyway? Who am I to judge what is possible?
Let’s look at some of the ways dreams can cause problems. My thinking is that dreams really take wings around age five, when children are first able to picture a distant future, a “someday” when anything is possible. At that point, they develop plans to become special in some way so that they will eventually “live happily forever after.” These five-year-old dreams are built to fulfill wishes and also to solve our most troublesome problems. For example, growing up in a shamefully dysfunctional family is very painful for a child. The young mind conjures up a future that will undo the pain and shame of an ugly childhood. These plans are more grand than adult reality and never take into account the limitations and troubles that usually crop up along the way.
The emotional work that accompanies maturation is trimming down that ideal to fit with actual reality. This may happen without our noticing, but still involves a series of acts of acceptance. My favorite example is the young boy who joins a Little League baseball team at around eight. He has been watching baseball for some time already on television, and vicariously experiences the thrill of Derek Jeter hitting the ball into the stands beyond center field. When he steps up to the plate in his own game, he swings the bat expecting a home run. What actually happens is that the ball dribbles towards the second baseman who misses the catch and our young boy is safe on first. The crowd (of parents) cheers and he goes through the emotions of coping with his failure to hit the home run while reluctantly accepting the pleasure of being on base.
Perhaps more often for girls, the dream may take the form of an ideal mate. Then, acceptance means making peace with the limitations and messiness of a real human partner. Many repetitions of these small losses, a bit of dream given up for a bit of reality, lead gradually to reshaping of the dreams in sync with what must be and paving the way to a contented journey through life.
That is the way it should go, but often what happens is different. Especially where the dream is driven by problems and pain early in life, the drive to achieve is especially strong. Furthermore, the dream is likely to have some aspect that is not acceptable to the conscience. For example the child might feel ashamed of parents who fight so loudly that all the neighbors hear. That child will harbor rage against the parents and dream of being so successful as to shame them for their dysfunction. Not surprisingly, being enraged with one’s parents doesn’t sit well with the conscience. Does this mean that the ambition to be successful will be relinquished? No. Those feelings of anger and wishes for revenge go underground along with guilt for having them. What remains in awareness is only the healthy drive to succeed.
The problem is that success is now linked with guilt. The conscience operates out of awareness, behind the scenes to make sure that the ambition of success is not fulfilled. This is what creates the classic situation described by Paul Simon in words that I can not plagiarize but can paraphrase, “The closer you come to your destination, the more likely you are to slip and slide away from achievement.” This is the kind of problem Freud was talking about when he described the Oedipus complex, where the strongest desires meet the most powerful superego prohibition and consume the individual in the process.
That is one kind of problem associated with dreams. Another is that relinquishing the dream is just too painful. A lifetime of desire to overcome a shameful past and to one-up those responsible for it is not easy to let go of. Even if the conscience is ready to accept such goals, failure can feel so terrible that it is unthinkable. I have worked with people in this situation, and what happens is that the mind finds infinite ways to avoid having to admit defeat. Somehow the failed marriage will be turned into a success. Somehow the business that is not working out will be made profitable. Just as a young mind faced with failure will find a way to deny it, adults, too, are capable of denying to the point where they are unable to make effective decisions. The wise dictum heard these days in the business community is “fail quickly.” Acknowledging failure and cutting one’s losses without dragging things out is more effective, but emotionally much harder.
Positive psychology says we shouldn’t dwell on the losses, but look at the good side. This is exactly the goal of all kinds of therapy, but here we are talking about losses so close to our heart and soul that they can’t be whitewashed away. Grieving over losses, even the loss of an ideal that cannot be accomplished, is a painful operation that takes not only a sympathetic ear, but time as well.
One way to avoid having to do the grieving is bitter, pseudo-acceptance. “OK You win, I’m a failure.” But this only means that the dream has gone further underground. Another is self-flagellation. I call this “sacrificing oneself on the alter of perfection,” meaning that by mercilessly punishing oneself, the effect is to reinforce allegiance to the ideal. A third way of denying reality is to harbor a secret pathway for fulfilling the plan, a thought that maybe, just maybe, I could overcome the odds and reach the goal. The mind has many tricks for avoiding the pain of acceptance.
Attacking the bearer of bad tidings is yet another way to deny reality. Anger at the therapist or some other person or entity is not uncommon in this situation. It may seem that the world is maliciously intent on destroying a beautiful dream. This is tough enough on those around, but the worst is that underneath the anger is an expectation that someone outside could, if they wished, fix the past, making painful acceptance unnecessary. This can lead to years of waiting for rescue when no rescue is likely or even possible.
While the dream is hanging in the balance, the level of stress can be extreme. The worst stress for humans is when we feel we must do something that we can’t do. The most stressful jobs are the ones where we are expected to do what can’t be done.
When must and can’t are juxtaposed, the result is intense distress, pitting our powerful human will against an unyielding reality. When failure is not an option—that is, we are not willing to let go of the dream—then the distress of feeling we have to do the impossible is nearly unbearable. Something has to give.
For a therapist, bearing witness to this drama is not easy. We are in the position of supporting acceptance of a mediocre reality that is infinitely far from the dream. We want our patient/client to feel good about the possible, but no one in the midst of grief is going to acknowledge that the situation is “not so bad” or that things “could be worse.” In the end, we have little choice but to sit patiently through the storm, hoping that the comfort of an empathic listener can help make the losses bearable. We need to remind ourselves that our goal remains to preserve and nurture the dream, but in a more robust form.
Chapter 7 in my new book, How We Heal and Grow: The Power of Facing Your Feelings is devoted to five-year-old dreams and quests.