Here is a common pattern that appears in dreams: an animal appears and terrifies the dream ego, then another animal appears and attacks the first animal; at this point the dreamer starts to feel pity and compassion for the first animal which only moments earlier she had found loathsome and terrifying. What are we to make of this pattern? What dynamics in the human psyche does it arise from?
Here’s an example, told to me recently by a 29 year old woman:
“It seems that I am having an affair with my own husband. He has another wife and I’m having an affair with him. He invites me on a business trip to the Caribbean. When we get there I meet his wife, she is a large overweight lady, very anxious. Then, in the bedroom where we are, I see a big spider emerging from a backpack. It jumps up onto the bed and comes towards me. I am paralyzed with fear! I want to do something; to catch it and put it in a jar before it can scurry off. Then a scorpion jumps up onto the bed. The scorpion and the spider confront each other. The spider puffs himself up for the fight. But the scorpion (who is smaller) attacks and kills the spider. I see the spider lying there, dead and stiff. Now I start to feel bad for the spider. I can identify with it now that it is dead…”
As we started working with the dream I asked the dreamer to be the spider (the “Be the Part” technique is usually the most direct way to explore a dream figure that the dream ego feels fear and loathing for). As she experienced an identification with the now-dead spider she felt strong compassion for it: “It’s the ugly part of me, my needy part, the unlovable part, the part that I want to keep in hiding. I try to contain it or put it outside but it keeps coming back.”
Next I had her be the scorpion: “It is mean, ruthless, violent, pure poison, violence for no reason, with no cause.”
Now we can start to see the dynamic that the dream is depicting–a provoking situation occurred with her husband which caused her to feel needy and jealous (this is represented in the dream as her husband being married to someone else and her being ‘demoted’ to the woman he has an affair with). She does not like feeling needy and jealous, these are qualities that she despises and disowns in herself. So she very quickly suppresses this part with another part of herself, a scorpion-like part. This happens almost instantly, like a reflexive response that she cannot control and is largely unconscious of. The scorpion part ‘kills’ her needy spider part by suppressing it and replacing it with another set of feelings and behaviors (anger, meanness, hurtfulness). These scorpion behaviors are poisonous to herself and to anyone she inflicts them on.
And why does she do this? Because she cannot tolerate feeling needy. She cannot accept the spider part of herself. This is a shadow dynamic– something appears that is a true part of self, but the ego cannot accept that it is a part of self. The shadow part approaches in hopes of being met, understood and accepted; but the ego responds with fear, hatred and suppression.
Is it really so bad to feel needy and jealous on occasion? On reflection the dreamer admitted that these are not such terrible qualities, but she still has a hard time accepting them in herself. This is the beginning of the ‘positive shadow shift’ that starts to happen in the dream– the dreamer starts to feel a compassionate identification with the spider after it has been attacked by the scorpion.
What is the dream asking her for? She realized that it is asking her to befriend the spider; to stop being so afraid of it; she must learn to tolerate and accept it presence. Translating to her waking life this would mean tolerating and accepting her neediness.
Now let’s consider the three levels of response to a dream– imaginal first, then ritual, then actual (ie: making an actual change in one’s waking life). Beginning with the imaginal, she could visualize letting the spider be near her, perhaps conversing with it, asking it what it wants. She did this and the positive shift continued and strengthened.
She could also consider a ritual response– putting up a picture of a spider perhaps, or wearing a spider pendant, carrying a plastic spider in her pocket, anything that would keep the spider symbol alive in her awareness.
And what about an actual response? In my experience it is often a good idea to encourage the dreamer to discuss this kind dream with her partner. Her husband has a big stake in how this spider/scorpion problem evolves since he would be the primary trigger of her needy and jealous state, and also the main victim of her scorpion energy.
I have noticed over the years that this type of shadow dream is often played out by two fighting animals, and they are very often animals from the insect and reptilian realms–spiders are the most common, but also snakes, scorpions, lizards, dinosaurs, alligators, cockroaches, bees and wasps, etc. Why? I suspect it is because the animals are ‘playing the part’ of strong primitive emotions that arise from the primordial and reptilian parts of the brain; emotions that the dreamer has trouble controlling and modulating. Rage, jealousy, sexual passion, hatred, envy, sadism, masochism, desire to kill, to hurt, to have revenge–these are difficult feelings to accept in ourselves, they are hard to own and hard to admit to. This is why so many of us banish them into our shadow. Once banished they have no other recourse but to come and ambush us in the form of uncontrollable emotions and behaviors, and to frighten us in our dreams. So the goal, as always with the shadow, is to catch yourself, overcome your fear and revulsion, meet the frightening figure, let it come inside, get to know it, and start to accept it as a part of you.