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Why Do We Have Taboo Dreams?

The immorality of dreaming can be a psychological gift.

Key points

  • Dreams of immoral activities, although disturbing, can bring valuable insights.
  • These dreams prompt a more honest awareness of the depths of our own psyches.
  • As metaphors, the dreams use dramatic images to express vital meanings for our waking lives.
Kelly Bulkeley
Kelly Bulkeley

Throughout history and right into the present day, people have rejected dreaming because of its tendency to portray shockingly immoral activities. Dreams with taboo behaviors can be extremely vivid and realistic, leading people to ask upon awakening, am I really like that? Is that who I truly am, deep down inside? Or, are these bizarre fantasies simply a sign that dreams are merely nonsense from the degraded, animalistic part of our minds?

If you have had a dream of immoral activities, there are other ways to look at it besides guilty resignation and rationalist denial. For instance, perhaps the dream was shocking precisely because it was trying to gain your attention. It was a crude effort, perhaps. But effective, yes? If you can move beyond the initial shock, you may see how this dream has opened a new connection between the conscious and unconscious parts of your mind, offering an unexpected opportunity for self-discovery and psychological integration.

Typical Dream Taboos

The disturbing contents are frequently sexual in nature. The dreamers find themselves having sex with someone they should not be having sex with, or having sex in an improper place, or position, or combination; it could be anything that violates the sexual morality of your waking life community. These dreams can be intensified by the capacity of the dreaming mind to arouse tremendous amounts of erotic energy, so much that a physical climax may occur during the dream. It’s no surprise that, upon awakening, people will often feel acute confusion about what just happened and what it means.

There are many sins besides lust, and all of them appear in one form or another in our dreams. Some of the taboo-violating dreams that most trouble people involve wrathful anger leading to violence. For instance, someone who has never been in physical fight in their whole life might have a dream of viciously attacking and killing innocent people. In other taboo-violating dreams, the immorality stems from selfish acts of theft, vandalism, and deception, with callous disregard for the feelings of other people. The same basic questions arise upon awakening: What does it mean that I just did that in a dream?

Literal and Metaphorical Interpretations

You can take two basic approaches to the interpretation of a dream with immoral activities. One, you can view it as a literal expression of something that directly relates to your waking life. Two, you can see it as a metaphorical expression of something that indirectly relates to your waking life. Of course, your dream could be some combination of these, or something else entirely. But let’s consider these two possibilities more closely.

In a literal approach, the taboo behaviors can be seen as accurately reflecting something real and important within the dreamer’s psyche. It might be painful and humbling to behold, but the value of such dreams is their brutal honesty, casting the harsh light of critical awareness on the darkest corners of our psyches. Humans are complex beings; as Walt Whitman said, we “contain multitudes.” Perhaps your dream is creating a space for the expression of primal instincts that are potentially dangerous but also potentially wise and inspiring, too. To be clear, a literal approach to these dreams does not mean they should be automatically enacted in waking life. That would be a foolish and overly concrete response. Rather, you can consider your taboo dreams as an internal resource for cultivating greater self-awareness and integrated consciousness.

The metaphorical approach looks at the taboo behavior as an indirect reflection of something else besides the immoral act itself. A dream of committing a murder, for example, might be a metaphorical expression of a concern about how aggressive you should be with a situation at work—are you willing to “kill” to get what you want? Or, a dream of having an adulterous affair might express a fear about leaving your current residence and moving to another city—are you really going to leave your old “love” and start a new romance? In the metaphorical approach, the immoral activity is something vivid and tangible that gestures toward something elusive and intangible. The taboo grabs your attention in order to dramatize an important concern in your waking life, a concern that’s vital to your development.

This is one of the biggest reasons why taboo dreams are so valuable for psychological insight and growth: the more shocking the metaphor is, the more powerful are the unconscious energies emerging within the dream, and thus the more you can learn from interpreting the dream's multiple meanings.

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