Tips For Adulthood: Five Telltale Dreams of Adulthood

dreamsEvery Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Well, as long as everybody’s now talking about sleep as the next feminist issue, I thought I’d tap into what actually happens when most of us sleep: we dream.

Not all of us, I suppose. An old boyfriend of mine used to maintain that he dreamt mostly in images:  i.e., he’d be standing out in the middle of a field or perched atop a mountain. “Huh?” I thought. “You mean you don’t dream that someone’s chasing you around your kitchen table with a knife?”

Not only are my dreams hopelessly plot-driven and transparent, they are also recurrent. There are four or five dreams that I must have at least once a month, and every time, I wake up bathed in sweat. But once I began to reflect upon these dreams and analyze them more closely, I realized that they are all – in one way or another – telltale dreams of adulthood.

On the off-chance that you’ve had them – or similar recurrent dreams – I present them here so that we can all get a better handle on our collective demons:

1. Test Anxiety – I frequently dream that I’m back in High School – invariably in a Math class. I learn that there’s a test that very day, but I freak out because I haven’t been attending the class regularly or doing the homework. According to this list of top ten recurring dreams, dreams about “preparedness” are very common and signify – ding! – that you feel “lost or unprepared about something in your life.” Since I recently posted on why not being able to conceptualize  a “forever house” may be a sign that I still haven’t grown up, I think I’d have to say: Bingo.

2. Haven’t Learned The Lines – In a similar vein, I often dream that I’ve been cast for a part in a play but haven’t learned the lines. I did quite a bit of theatre as a child and there is a visceral, gut-level dread that comes with not knowing your lines. The odd thing about both this dream and #1 is that I’ve never been unprepared for a test in my life or failed to learn a set of lines I was given. Despite that, I clearly live my life fearing that I won’t one day be prepared for something. (This reminds me of a friend here in London who always shows up 5 minutes early to appointments because he’s afraid he’ll be late.) The moral of the story? Mastery doesn’t negate anxiety.

3. The Elevator Dream – No, this isn’t about being trapped in an elevator. It’s about getting in an elevator, pushing the button for a certain floor, and then having the elevator start moving in all sorts of directions, veering wildly from right to left, up and down…even diagonally. (And, yes, I have read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and The Great Glass Elevator.) I think that this is fundamentally a dream about goal-directedness, which strikes me as an apt thing for someone with a kaleidoscope career to worry about.

4. Naked in The Office – This is also apparently a very common dream and is thought to suggest a fear of public exposure. Since I blog about my personal life several times a week, I’m going to over-rule the experts and say that this is really a dream about legitimacy. When you work at home – as I do – you are wracked with worry that by not having the requisite water cooler, business card or Friday bagel brunch, you are somehow less legitimate as a professional. And *that* is the exposure which you fear will be revealed – that you’re really, deep down, a phony.

5. Childhood – I often dream that I’m back in my childhood, witnessing something that upsets me but which I am unable to stop because I am too small or too young or too afraid. I think this is fundamentally a dream about powerlessness, which is of course a central theme of adulthood.

Oh dear. I fear I’ve (once again) revealed a tad too much about my psyche. No matter. According to this study, dreams aren’t really about your psyche. They’re just exercise for your brain.

Phew. Boy, do I feel healthy now.

How about you? What are your recurrent dreams?


For those who are interested, yesterday I posted on about the on-going sexual scandal-cum-political crisis engulfing Northern Ireland.

Image: Photo by Илья Мельниченко on Unsplash

  • Reply squirrelthoughts

    January 13, 2010, 5:11 pm

    I have a recurrent dream similar to your ‘test anxiety’ one. Except in mine, I’m back in college, during finals week, and I suddenly realize there’s a class I registered for, but somehow forgot about, and didn’t go to the entire semester. I always dream this when I have a big assignment deadline at work, and it always jerks me awake and it takes me a minute or two to realize it was only a dream.

    As a nearly lifelong insomniac, my sleep is the first thing affected when I’m stressed about something. Quite unfortunate.

  • Reply Lynn C

    January 13, 2010, 6:10 pm

    I have three common recurring dreams; the first is being lost or unprepared for a class… (I know there’s a test, but I don’t know how to get to the classroom, for instance…)

    The other two, you didn’t mention: I dream, rather regularly, about my teeth falling out. This totally creeps me out!

    My other regular dream is needing to use the bathroom and being unable to because of 1) filthy restroom conditions. 2) can’t find a working toilet 3) large dinosaurs between me and the bathroom (yes! really!)

  • Reply Cate

    January 14, 2010, 5:58 am

    I can relate to several of your recurring dreams. I am always wondering what they mean so really enjoyed your post.

    The most common recurring dream I have seems to be similiar maybe to a couple of the ones you mention. I have to get in touch with someone or have an emergency and need to call 911. When I get to the phone, the numbers are messed up or there are no numbers or the phone is not working in some way or another and I can not dial out. I usually wake up in a panic of sorts. I’m so relieved when I realize it was only a dream. A few times I have gotten up and checked the phone even though I know it will be working right and all the numbers are there.

    It makes for a good laugh at myself. :-)

  • Reply Meg at Demanding Joy

    January 15, 2010, 2:53 am

    This is a fun topic – thanks for writing it! I used to have ‘naked at the office’ a lot. It got to the point where I had to wear sweatpants to bed to keep from feeling like I was at work without pants.

    Lately though, I have recurring dreams about being separated from my children and not being able to get back to them. Really awful. I will sometimes take a shot of NyQuil in order to get some dreamless sleep.

  • Reply Andrea

    January 15, 2010, 3:39 am

    My recurring dream is similar to Lynn C’s. I dream that I have to pee and there is no bathroom, or if there is it is filthy, or most often in the middle of a room… It is very distressing! Lately, my dream-self eventually uses the toilet anyway. Not sure what that means…

  • Reply delialloyd

    January 15, 2010, 6:41 am

    wow! so interesting to learn what others fear…but good to know that you eventually make it to the toilet!

  • Reply Lisa N.

    March 25, 2024, 3:30 pm

    The dream about being unprepared is very common for me, but I can’t relate it to what’s gonig on in my life. The dream can take many forms (unprepared for a test, for a presentation, for a flight), but it’s always the same feeling. But I also often have a dream others have mentioned – I have to use the toilet but can’t find one, or it’s filthy, or somehow unacceptable (like a toilet seat on an armchair!). I don’t know what that means or how it relates to something in waking life. I usually wake up without finding an acceptable toilet. A very uncomfortable dream is that something horrible is happening (my dog has been hit by a car and been cut in half; weird rats are running into the room; others just as weird), but no one else is taking any notice or responding to my desperate cries for help. The kind of nightmare that wakes me up (fortunately not often) is that someone is chasing me and I’m screaming for help, but can’t get the sound out. I wake up making a kind of squeaky sound. Again, with most of these dreams, I don’t know how they relate to what I’m going through at the time.

    • Reply Delia Lloyd

      March 25, 2024, 5:09 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Lisa. I also have the chasing dream. In my case, I do know why (!) but it might be worth talking to someone about it because it suggests an underlying fear…perhaps? The toilet scene one intrigues me! Haven’t heard that one before! I frequently dream that I’m losing a tooth, which is also apparently a common one.

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