If anyone knew how often I dream about murder—more specifically, murdering someone—they’d surely question my moral code. Sometimes I play accomplice, other times I’m the sole killer. I’m usually on the lam or convincing my partner in crime that we should turn ourselves in. The specifics around the unthinkable act are consistently nonexistent, so how am I to know I’m on the run for something I, in fact, did? But the knot in my stomach indicates that I did something terrible. Even in my dreams I can’t catch a break: I’m laden with guilt for a crime I’ve never once considered in waking hours.
“It can mean that maybe you think you’ve gotten away with something that you shouldn't have,” says Antonio Zadra, professor in the department of psychology at the Université de Montréal and researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine. “It can be as silly as ‘I’m trying to watch my diet but I snuck in that chocolate bar last night and I shouldn't have.’ Or maybe at work you had a report to give and you cut corners and you got extra help on it and you feel guilty about that.”
Of course, dream analysis varies from person to person based on their experiences and memories, but the metaphors your brain creates while you’re asleep could signify intensified emotions based on real-life situations and feelings, Zadra tells me. Dreams that elicit guilt could just be just another way of our subconscious alerting us of the IRL regret we may not even be aware of.
Outside of dreams triggered by a traumatic event, there are ways to try and pinpoint the root of implicating nightmares. While this won't eliminate dreams that cause guilt or stress, there are ways to potentially decode some of what's going on in our brains at night.
Pay attention to how you feel during the day
This is where you can identify the real moment or fear that inspired the dream. In the instance of serving as accomplice to a crime, it’s important to think about the times you’ve acted in conjunction with someone else—and how you felt about it.
“Is there any way that you've supported someone in something that you actually feel wrong about?” says Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University. This real-life conflict against personal standards can result in dreams where one may be “feeling guilty about supporting something I should've stopped."
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If you’re trying to kick a habit like smoking and dream about lighting a cigarette and relapsing, the subconscious guilt you feel in sleep can turn to relief and act as motivator to maintain abstinence upon waking, Zadra explains.
The same can be said about fear of failing at school or work. In a 2013 study, students who dreamed about forgetting answers to an exam the night prior to the test actually performed better on the evaluation. This sort of nightmare can fuel positive action. “Having those dreams motivated them even harder,” Zadra says of test stress dreams. “It was a window into what could happen if they didn’t take these exams as seriously as they could.”
Additionally, if you happened to watch a true crime documentary, or are reading a murder mystery novel, those themes can seep into sleep, too.
Confront the players in your dream
If your dream includes a frustrating situation with a partner—like being stranded in a car stuck in the snow, Zadra mentions—it could signify tension between the two of you. “If I’m having some relationship difficulties with my spouse, that dream is also a really great metaphor for wanting to take the relationship somewhere and you can’t, you’re stuck,” Zadra says. “Or maybe you feel unjustly treated by your spouse.”
The stars of your subconscious can also help usher you towards an important personal realization. Barrett once counseled with a closeted gay man who had recurring dreams where he murdered an unknown person and felt a tremendous amount of guilt when trying to hide the body. His aunt appeared in one such dream and urged him to ignore the corpse. After several of these dreams, the man had come to terms with his sexuality: The presence of his aunt—who is gay—in the dream helped him feel secure in his identity. “He took her saying ‘Oh, I just ignore it’ as his impression that she was more comfortable with her sexuality,” Barrett explains.” The dream has represented how uncomfortable he was. He felt that dream changed something.”
It’s also important, again, to note how you feel, in this instance about these people in dreams. If recurring appearances by the same familiar face elicits guilt following your dreamland endeavors, it’s time to examine what about the real relationship might be unsettling.
Determine if you're actually feeling guilt
Sometimes, Barrett says, repulsion by your dream-self’s actions can be fueled by a few criteria: You’ve done a minor harmful act but it’s broken your personal moral code (like smoking when you’ve vowed to quit) and that’s why you feel guilty or you’re afraid of the social ramifications that come with getting found out. She suggests determining which camp you fall into: “you're feeling bad where you violated your own principals," or "anxious for societal disapproval if they find out.” Then, figure out if this is something that actually makes you feel ashamed, if the guilty act was a metaphor for a difficult emotion IRL, or if you were just afraid of the aftermath.
“A lot of the ‘I killed someone’ dreams, you’re not bothered by it morally but you’re afraid you’re going to get caught,” Barrett continues. “Certainly it doesn’t always have to be anger wanting to harm a person that’s being represented in the guilt dream. It [also] doesn’t have to be anything you’d necessarily really feel like you should be ashamed of by day but [your brain is] telling you that some part of yourself is feeling shame or guilt about this.”
So, yeah, murder is bad. But it’s comforting to know that just because I dreamed about it doesn’t mean I actually have some type of malicious intent hiding in my psyche.
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