What would it mean if you had a dream of being pursued by a shark? As usual there is no one single answer. Don’t bother running to the dream dictionary to look up shark dreams; it may help you make a connection, but it might also lead you far away from the real meaning of the dream. You need to do some orienting and connecting work first to get a sense of the psychodynamics at play in the dream. Here’s a good example. A recently pregnant woman told me the following dream:
“I’m at my parents’ lake. It’s dusk, getting dark, and I’m with my boyfriend. We’re swimming a bit and then walking on the rocks by the shore. We see a shark following us. We realized it was actually after us! It was very scary. At one point I grab another shark out of the water and rip it into shreds to scare off the first shark; as if to say “this is what will happen to you if you keep bothering us.” But it didn’t affect him at all, he just kept coming towards us. I run towards the house. I almost make it to safety, but I feel the shark right behind me, and I wake up…”
I was struck by the setting of the dream–at her parents’ lake; a lake where she had often played and swam as a child, and a body of water that certainly did not contain any sharks. As a very general rule–if a dream depicts a problem and situates it in a childhood setting, we can deduce we are dealing with something problematic that originated in that time and place of the dreamer’s life and has persisted until the present. I asked her why the dream may have been situated there…
“Usually my parents’ lake is a happy place for me. But…even to this day I am sometimes afraid of sharks when I swim in the lake, because my Mom told my brother and I when we were very little that there were freshwater sharks in our lake, so that we wouldn’t go play in the lake when she wasn’t around and drown. It was a scare tactic. But I still think of it when I’m swimming out pretty deep in the lake, and I am still scared, even though rationally I know there can’t be a shark in there.”
Now, as she filled in this background information, it seemed that we were dealing with an introject–a psychological construct (a fear, a belief, a value) that was inculcated into the dreamer’s mind earlier in life and is now being identified as foreign and untrue. I asked her if we could use this as our working hypothesis– this dream shark was a personification of the shark-fear that her mother had instilled in her as a child. She felt that this was resonant and true. And she added: “I think my husband is there in the dream because we’re pregnant now, and it’s time to confront that memory. I don’t want it anymore.” (This made sense to me; I have noticed that there is often a kind of “psychic housecleaning” that occurs when a woman is pregnant or wants to get pregnant, as if she want to purge herself of old baggage and transgenerational taints before she brings a new life into the world.)
I asked her if she wanted to confront the shark fear right now. She said yes, so I asked her to go back into the dream, to re-enter the feeling of running from the shark in fear, but then–to catch herself, to realize that this is something that can now be confronted, and to turn and face the shark. She did this very readily, and immediately the frightening aspect of the shark changed…“I’m facing the shark now. He’s taking on the persona of a British chap, with an accent, walking upright on his fins. He’s saying that he’s a figment of my imagination, a part of me, and I don’t need to be afraid of him any more.”
I asked: is he a positive part of you, or just an old fear that you don’t need to have any more? I framed this question because wanted to make sure that we are on the right track psychodynamically. Specifically I want to make sure that the shark is not appearing as a shadow figure (a true part of self that is disowned, unknown or repressed, and is now approaching the dream ego seeking acceptance and integration). The shark does display two key attributes of shadow figures–it frightens and pursues the dream ego, and it shifts into something more positive once confronted.
So we need to step carefully at this watershed point because our dreamwork would head in completely different directions depending on which fork of the road we take; whether we treat the shark as a shadow figure (where the goal is to meet and integrate) or an introject (where the goal is to remove something foreign and untrue from the psyche). Don’t be too concerned about choosing the wrong path; if you set out in the wrong direction things will probably just get muddled and bogged down but it will not cause serious harm. It’s like trying to get from Paris to London by heading south–after a while it just doesn’t feel right. So you regroup and change directions.
Her answer to the watershed question was clear and unambiguous: “I don’t think he feels positive. I think he’s just the old fear of having sharks chase me. He’s representing my own imagination. It’s not serving me any good.” Now I felt we could confidently continue along the path of working with the shark as an introject. I asked her if she would like to test whether this imaginal exercise had indeed changed the power of shark-fear introject in her psyche; would she like to venture back into the lake with the “friendly” shark and swim with him? “Alright. That’s a bit scary, but I’ll try it…. I’m in the deep water now….He’s physically vanished but I can feel his spirit. Now that I’m in the water his voice is almost protecting me. I feel now that I can fully relax in the water with no part of my mind on the alert. Now the water can be a truly healing place for me.”
I asked her to hold onto this wonderful feeling of full relaxation in the water with no trace of fear, and to re-visit it in her imagination a few more times over the next few days. This will give the new post-introject feeling state a chance to be solidified and anchored in her feeling body. Then, the next time she has an opportunity to swim in a freshwater lake, she can test it again and continue the imaginal work if more needs to be done.
The shark is not, in my experience, frequently chosen to play the part of an introject in dreams. More commonly the role will be taken by a parasite, a worm, a burrowing insect, a string of pus or mucus, a microchip implant– something that has been embedded into the dreamer’s body and has lived inside him or her for some time. The dreamer characteristically feels a sense of horror and revulsion and desperately tries to pull out the hideous thing, reflecting the urgency of the psyche’s desire to rid itself of the foreign psychological content as soon as possible.
This shark is what I would call a “half-out introject”. She has already removed the foreign construct from her psyche in the sense that she no longer believes it to be true in her rational thinking mind, yet the old “irrational” fear can still pursue her whenever she swims in deep fresh water. So she still needed to do some work with the introject to ensure that the shark was expelled and transformed once and for all.
And what about the dreamer’s act of bravado in tearing up another shark in an attempt to intimidate the pursuing shark? This probably refers to some unsuccessful attempt the dreamer made in the past to overcome her fear of sharks, possibly the use of an affirmation technique ( eg: saying to herself: “I will have absolutely NO fear of sharks when I enter the water”). Affirmations attempt to change the feeling body through opposition and bravado. In my experience dreamwork is usually more effective than affirmation when dealing with embodied fears because it presents an accurate and current scenario which the dreamer can use to practice facing his or her fears (rather than simply affirming that the fears do not exist). I think there is a great kernel of wisdom in the old adage about “facing our fears”.
There are many kinds of introjects; the one featured in this dream is a fear introject– a discreet and specific unit of thought and association that the dreamer’s mother intentionally instilled into her daughter’s brain for a specific reason. This was probably well-intentioned but it created long-term negative consequences for the dreamer. Other types of introjects are inculcated for other specific reasons, most commonly to promote desired behaviors and inhibit undesired behaviors in children.
The nature of the human brain and the way it works makes it very susceptible to being introjected in this way, it is one of our primary modes of “learning” for better or worse. To cite another shark example from popular culture–how many people took in a shark-fear introject from watching the movie “Jaws”? Many viewers left the theatre with their brains quite literally altered. They now carried a fear circuit that had not been there before; a new fear had been spliced into them which, in many cases, would be active for a whole lifetime.
The good news is that introjects can be weakened and removed. And, as is so often the case, it is usually an intense dream which sets the stage for us to identify and take the needed action.