Have you ever had a dream with a threatening figure that behaved like a hired hit man? Most dream figures seem to possess some quality of compassion and humanity, especially if you make the effort to find out who they are and what they want. But occasionally we come across a figure that acts like a cold-blooded mercenary who is ‘just following orders’, as if heartlessly programmed to execute some cruel agenda. What does this mean? Here’s an example, the dream of a 51 year old man named Daniel:
“I’m being stalked mercilessly by a man. He’s relentless. He keeps tracking me down. I’m terrified of this man. He’s going to kill me. I try to run and hide, and I have been able to outwit and evade him many different times, but he always finds me again. At one point I become aware that he has a printout of my DNA and he is using that to track me. How can I hope to evade him if he can track my DNA?! I am sitting listening to a medical lecture when I become aware that he is sitting beside me…”
This stalker figure would appear to represent something very dangerous and potentially harmful to Daniel, but we have to be certain of this before we take any decisive imaginal action. I asked Daniel to re-enter the dream at the point where he realizes the stalker is right beside him: “Catch yourself…freeze the action… become aware that you can do something new…what would you like to do?” Daniel replied that his first impulse was to try to kill the man, but then he stopped himself. “But what if he turned out to be innocent, and I had just killed an innocent person? This is one of my worst fears!”
Now we are at an impasse. We cannot proceed past this point until we know with more certainty what the stalker figure represents. Is this stalker a part of Daniel (a shadow figure)? Is it an external figure, playing the part of someone in his life who is potentially dangerous? Or is it a mixture of inner and outer (an introject)? Our core technique of working imaginally within the dreamscape has to be put on hold until we find out the answer.
At this juncture I felt that we needed to go to one of our back-up techniques–Be the Part. I asked Daniel to switch places with the stalker, to be him for a moment. Once he was in role, I asked him: Stalker Man, why are you pursuing Daniel? Here is his reply:“It’s just my job. My assignment is to track him down and kill him. I’m an operative, and I just follow orders.” I asked why is it taking so long to catch and kill Daniel. “I’m toying with him. I enjoy seeing him frightened, trying to get away. Also, I have to admit he has outsmarted me a few times. I respect him for that. But he’ll never really get away.”
It is clear from this interview of the stalker figure that there is nothing good about him. He is not a shadow figure who will start to show his positive side once he has been met and welcomed. He clearly intends to harm, he is cold-blooded, mercenary and sadistic, and is potentially very dangerous for Daniel. In my experience when a threatening dream figure says something like: “I’m just doing my job” or “I’m just following orders” you are dealing with an introject– a negative thought pattern that was forced into the dreamer’s psyche long ago and now lives out it own autonomous life, tormenting the subject with its old programmed content. Many people describe such introjects as: ‘my critical voice’, ‘my negative self-talk’, ‘my inner critic’ etc.; as if they feel ‘stalked’ by repetitive self-harming thought patterns.
Daniel was still hesitant to imagine killing the stalker, fearing that he might be making a horrible mistake. I asked him to bring a powerful dog ally into the scene (Daniel is a dog lover) to sniff over the stalker and assess whether there was anything good in him. This did not work, leading Daniel to note: “ Maybe I don’t trust my instincts when it comes to this kind of thing.” But then he thought of something that would work– a robot with a powerful scanning apparatus that could read a person’s true nature. The robot scanned the stalker, pronounced him 100% evil, and immediately vaporized him into a puff of smoke! In our post-imaginal check in I asked Daniel if he had any regrets or second thoughts about killing the stalker. “No, none. Only relief!”
I have been asked a number of times: “Is it not risky to imagine actually killing a dream figure?” In doing so might we be violating some profound natural law of the psyche? It is a good question, and an important one. My experience has shown me that there can indeed be elements in the human psyche that exist only to create fear, suffering, and limitation. Such elements can be imaginally killed or banished without any negative repercussion. What exactly is Daniel ridding himself of by doing the piece of dreamwork described above? He is ridding himself (or more accurately, he is beginning the process of ridding himself) of a part of himself that wants him to live in fear, and to feel that he will never be free of this fear no matter what he does. Such a thing need not be considered a ‘true’ part of self. It brings nothing valuable to him, not even the hard teachings of toughness, resilience, adaptation and survival. He will be much better off without this dark presence troubling his psyche.
Because such parts have no interest in belonging to the community of the whole psyche I call them ‘rogue’ parts. They have broken away from the herd, or never belonged to it in the first place. Typically they have an agenda that is remarkably simple and repetitive in its cruelty; furthermore they seem to have no tendency to learn, change, self-reflect, or heal. Their one-dimensional cruelty often appears as the dream motif of ‘just following orders’; it is as if they have no humanity and no conscience, they are simply doing what they do. My advice is that if you find yourself dealing with such a dream figure don’t spend too much time and energy negotiating with it or trying to placate it. Consider doing what Daniel did–vaporize it into a puff of smoke! Just be sure that you then check in with your inner knowing to see if your imaginal action feels right. If it feels as if you have made a mistake you can always reverse the process and bring the figure back to life. But in most of these cases I predict you will feel a version of what Daniel felt–the relief of being freed from a tormentor.