Psychologist Dr Ian Wallace Explains Why We Dream About Work
The workplace is where we spend most of our lives and is also the place where we are most likely to encounter conflict and tension.
The ‘always-on’ culture has caused the majority (55%) of Brits to have dreams about work and a quarter (28%) have nightmares about their job at least once per week. The research has discovered that we’re more likely to dream about work (34%) than we are about relationships (31%) or wealth (18%), with a fifth (21%) even dreaming about being in a relationship with a colleague. Totaljobs, the leading online jobs board, has commissioned research to discover the extent of the always on culture and revealed it has become so difficult it to switch off that more than a third (37%) of Brits even dream about work while they’re on holiday. We caught up with psychologist and dream expert, Dr. Ian Wallace to discuss why work features so heavily in our dreamscapes.
Why are dreams so telling about our state of mind?
A dream is how you naturally make sense of all the information and experiences that you unconsciously absorb every day. This individual sense-making process provides you with meaningful insights into specific challenges that you are encountering in your day-to-day life. Your dreams are not just some random occurrence, they are actually a deliberate process that you use to draw on your past experience and help you understand how that can enable you make the most of future opportunities. Dreams don’t just happen to you, you happen to the dream and create everything that you experience in it.
What benefit is there to analysing your own dreams?
The reason why we dream is to continually update our sense of self, so that we can understand who we actually are, what we really need and what we truly believe in our waking lives. The word dream has two meanings in our language. As well as describing the phenomena that we all create every night, it also means our deepest hopes and greatest aspirations in waking life. When we unconsciously create our dreams at night, we are engaging with the same processes that we use to imagine our ambitions in our day-to-day reality, by forming images of how our future might look. The imagery that you create in your dreams reflects how you see your self-image in waking life and helps you to imagine the person that you have the power to become.
When did you interest in dreams first come about and when did you realise you wanted to take it further?
Ever since I was a small child, I have been utterly fascinated by dreams. One of my earliest memories is having a dream about a steam train hurtling through the Scottish countryside. I was startled by the dream and, woken by my noisy commotion, my Dad came to comfort me and get me back to sleep. The next day, he took me down to stand on a bridge over the railway line and, as he held my hand, I marvelled at my dreams turning into reality, as they thundered past on the tracks below. My dad was a coal miner not a psychologist, but had an instinctive understanding of unseen patterns, and how to delve more deeply into the rich seams of possibilities. The encouragement and guidance of my parents set me on the track to exploring my dreams and what their stories might mean. The more I studied my dreams, the more intrigued I became by the dreams of other people. Rather than just forensically deconstructing their dreams, I became fascinated by the dreamers who were actually doing the dreaming.
Why are Brits more likely to dream about work and work colleagues than their partners, money or health?
The reason that Brits are more likely to dream about work and work colleagues rather than their partners, money or health is because they often feel that they have less direct control over their work and work colleagues than in other areas of their lives. In their relationships with their partners, they have the opportunity to have a powerful voice in negotiating and shaping their relationships. They can also make personal choices around money issues and have the opportunity to take full ownership of their health issues. Even when people appear to have more autonomy in their working lives, such as in the gig economy, they may still feel that they have ultimately no say in controlling or shaping larger outcomes. This division between public and private life often forms the impression that the working environment, and work colleagues, are imposing external control and strict compliance, rather than presenting opportunities for learning and development. The perceived need to comply can cause fundamental interpersonal tensions and conflicts, which will then result in emotional tensions and conflicts. The natural way for people to resolve these tensions is through their unconscious creation of dream narratives.
Why are work dreams so common?
The workplace is where we spend most of our lives and is also the place where we are most likely to encounter conflict and tension. As one of the fundamental functions of dreaming is the resolution of emotional tension, we routinely use the workplace as a setting for the resolution of those tensions. In waking life, we also tend to present a professional persona in the workplace, which may cause us tension with who we really feel we are underneath. This means that we use the workplace as a setting for resolving the tensions between who we are expected to be professionally and who we truly are personally. At an unconscious level, we use the work that we do in waking life to reflect our deeper purpose. The work dreams that we all create are often drawing attention to understanding our real purpose in waking life and the choices that we have in engaging with that purpose to make it as fulfilling and valuable as possible.
What are the most common dream themes people have about work and why?
Winning the Lottery
This is not a premonition (unfortunately!), it indicates that you have a surprising opportunity to demonstrate the great value of your talents and your professional gifts, however insignificant they may seem to you at the moment.
Being In a Relationship with a Colleague
All the characters that you create in a dream are fundamentally reflections of your own individual characteristics. A dream of being in a relationship with a colleague suggests that you now have the opportunity to develop the personal quality that you associate most with them.
Meeting My Favourite Celebrity
This dream is shining the spotlight on your hidden talents and encouraging you to develop your unrealised abilities. Although many celebrities appear to have an enviable life, they usually have had to work hard to develop their talents.
Quitting My Job
This signals an opportunity to connect with your deeper purpose rather than just giving up on it. Instead of always feeling that you have to spend all your time looking after other people, take the time to fulfil some of your own deeper needs.
Telling My Colleagues What I Really Think About Them
This candid dream is encouraging you to recognise your own talents and the opportunities that you have to improve them by being really honest with yourself. As you do so, you will proudly exhibit the capabilities that you often keep concealed in case other people criticise you.
Spy or Secret Agent
This dream is encouraging you to reveal some of the hidden talents and knowledge that you usually tend to conceal from your colleagues. You may feel shy about revealing your true feelings about a situation because you feel it may blow your professional cover in some way.
It can be easy to dismiss your talents and experience as being a little consequence but this dream reflects an opportunity for you to recognise the increasing value of your abilities. Doing so will naturally raise your levels of self-confidence and your capacity to deliver valuable work.
Rather than waiting for other people to acknowledge your talents, this dream is indicating an opportunity for self-promotion to others. By confidently making other people more aware of your emerging talents, you can successfully progress your wider ambitions.
Taking Over the Business
This dream reflects an opportunity to become more independent in your working life by making the choices that are best for you. As you do so, you will begin to take charge of your own purpose rather than always looking to other people to make successful outcomes happen for you.
Killing My Boss
Instead of feeling that your career is stuck in a dead-end situation, this dream reflects a great opportunity to transform a restrictive behavioural pattern that no longer serves you. As you do so, you will move into a new professional phase where you can continue your growth and development.
Why are Brits more likely to dream about quitting than getting a promotion or a pay rise?
Brits are more likely to dream about quitting than getting a promotion or a pay rise because it reflects a fundamental human need for autonomy. Quitting a job is a decisive, autonomous act, which enables a person to move on from a situation that they no longer find fulfilling or purposeful. This is an act of self-affirmation and self-empowerment, whereas waiting for a promotion or pay rise is a passive act, often relying on the apparent whims or poor decisions of those who are nominally in charge. Staying in a job in the hope of a promotion or pay rise is often self-defeating and is usually played out in the dream scenario where your partner appears to be having an affair. In reality, in waking life, this is simply reflecting the work situation where you are betraying your own talents and losing faith in your own abilities because they are not being recognised by the management who have the capacity to promote you or pay more.
Why is it common for people to dream about having relationships with their colleagues even if they aren’t attracted to them?
Dreams don’t happen to you, you happen to the dream and create everything that you experience in it, including all the characters. You use the characters that you create in your dreams to represent aspects of your own personal characteristics. As you learn and develop your professional skills, you usually begin to become unconsciously aware of personal characteristics that will prove valuable for you in the workplace. As you work through scenarios for developing the skills in your dreams, you use your work colleagues to symbolise these characteristics. So, for example, if you have the opportunity to develop your confidence in the workplace, you will often dream of a colleague who always appears confident to you. If you have the opportunity to develop your emotional empathy, you will use a colleague who always seems in tune with their emotions and everyone else’s. The more intimate that you are with your colleague in your dream, then the more intimately aware that you are becoming of this particular characteristic for you in your working life.
Given what you do for a living- do you invest a lot of time in analysing your own dreams?
We all dream for about two hours per night, even though we may not remember all of those dreams. We spend a twelfth of our life dreaming. On waking in the morning, I take the time to spend between five and 10 minutes just lying still and quiet, and scrolling back through the stories that I have been creating my dreams. I pick out the highlights from the stories and then set the intention to work with them during the day, particularly if they are revealing opportunities for increasing my levels of awareness, or resolving conflict and tensions, particularly at an emotional level. As well as working with the imagery from my night-time dreams, I also continue to work with the linguistic imagery used by myself and others during the day.
What is next for you?
What is next for me is continuing to help people become more aware of how they can use their dreams to understand more about themselves and increase their levels of well-being. Much of this work involves dispelling the many misconceptions and superstitions about dreams and instead, provide a 21st century awareness how to work with dreams and use them healthily and practically.
As well as being recognised for my work with dreams, I am also an award-winning business psychologist, recently voted the most innovative business psychologist in the UK. As a result of this, I am currently expanding my organisational psychology business, Human Associates. One of our current projects is building an app that will enable you to have a conversation with your future self. This will have huge benefits in the workplace, as it will enable people to consistently feel better and do more. As they do so, they will naturally become more creative and innovative, and so feel far more fulfilled and valuable. You can find out more at http://human.how