Ending Family Nightmares

Waking Your Family up out of Dreamlike Drama

(Chapter VII from Dillard, J., (2009) Ending Nightmares for Good, revised for Dreaming Healthy Families)


How We Stay Stuck in Our Familial Roles


Do you ever wonder why you hurt the ones you love the most?  All families are locked in a socially scripted dreamlike drama. If you are a parent, you are stuck in the role of parent, whether you like it or not, and your children are stuck in the role of child, whether they like it or not. It’s safe to assume that your children dislike being stuck in their role as children just as much as you dislike being stuck in your role as perpetual parent. Both of you do it because you think you have to, that you have no other realistic or workable choice. If you stop acting like a parent your children won’t respect you; if your child stops acting like who you want them to be, they will get punished. As someone’s child, you know how difficult it is to be seen by your parents (and your siblings, if you have any) for who you have become, instead of the comfortable image of who they decided you were when you were as a kid.   These roles create drama in and of themselves because they are inauthentic. The core beingness of a person is not any role, although it expresses itself through the roles of child, parent, student, worker, friend, computer user and TV watcher, cook, driver, shopper, and so forth. Such roles are merely artifices or tools that we use to live life and structure relationships. They have no reality in and of themselves. That means that most fundamentally they are delusions and convenient artificial social structures. What would your family be like if it could break out of those false, limiting, and misleading social perceptual frameworks? Dreaming Healthy Families is designed to help us to create relationships with the ones we love that are not predicated by these artificial and superficial roles, yet continues to respect and use roles when they are useful or necessary.

How Our Addiction to Our Identity Destroys Relationships


The largely unconscious assumptions intrinsic to the family and culture that you were born into create drama that has very little to do with who you really are. Those assumptions tend to ignore and deny your many untapped potentials in favor of reinforcing group cohesion. Social-cultural assumptions are entirely arbitrary, in that if you were born into a different family in a different culture, you would speak a different language, have different religious observances, different attitudes toward money, and different tastes in food and clothes. In short, you would be a very different person from who you know yourself to be. While there is very little room to debate or doubt this fundamental reality, we do our very best to deny it by imagining some predestination or fate or divine will for our lives. It was our “karma” to be born into the family and circumstances in which we grew up and now find ourselves. Really? We ignore the arbitrariness of our socially and culturally based identity and pretend that somehow who we are would very much remain the same, even if we grew up under very different circumstances.  However, that is a comfortable rationalization and self-delusion. It’s just not true.  You and I would be very different people, with different world views, ways of thinking, beliefs, conscience, and preferences. But beneath all that is something that is solid, authentic, and essentially, uniquely you. If you find it, you have peace in any storm. If you don’t find it, you can spend decades of your life searching for it in vain, mostly learning who you are not.

We know just how malleable our sense of self is from Zimbardo’s famous Prison experiment in 1971 at Stanford, demonstrating that “normal” people can,  in just a few hours, be made to abuse and even torture other people and Milgram’s shock experiments, that showed that two thirds of all people will shock you to death if someone in authority tells them it is for a good cause. We have the example of Patricia Hearst being quickly turned into a gun-toting robber by the SLA and of average people committing mass suicide at Jonestown.  We have likable, very normal George W. Bush executing people as governor of Texas and ordering the torture of people and constitutional scholar, and friendly, charismatic Barack Obama ordering drone assassinations on Tuesday mornings and then going upstairs and hugging his kids.  Our roles define who we are much more than we think, want, or believe.

The thought that we may not be who we think we are or have the degree of control over our lives that we are convinced we have, can be extremely threatening to our sense of self; we cling to our uniqueness, to the irrational belief that somehow we are “different” or “special” and would “never do that.”  We tell ourselves that those people were crazy or brainwashed or weak, anything to reassure ourselves that we would never be like them. We do much the same when we fly into a rage or say and do things that we later regret. We think, “It wasn’t me!”  We say, “I didn’t know what I was doing!”

We enmesh ourselves in addictions that promise escape from our own interior contradictions. We conveniently forget that we regularly and normally do all sorts of abusive things to ourselves and others in our dreams. We threaten, confuse, fight with, persecute, and victimize other dream characters, and therefore, ourselves.  Who is that persecuting nightmare monster if not ourselves? The only way we can avoid the awful implications for our sense of self is to claim that our dreaming self is “not us.”   We must be temporarily insane. Are we temporarily insane when we yell at, lie to, or threaten those we love?   In retrospect, perhaps. Then we, like Nazis at Nuremburg, say that who we were in those waking events is somehow not real and we were in something more like a dream state. Home owners, mortgage officers, bankers, investors, traders, and politicians alike were all complicit in the collapse of the world economy in 2008, but none were at fault. We were all “victims” of a cultural dream, delusion, and nightmare in which we mechanically but willingly carried out our social roles for personal, group, and financial reasons. That same scenario was repeated in 2020, when everyone could predict societal collapse, but few, if any, were not complicit in it. Yet at such times, when common sense, reality, and our sense of who we are is stretched to the breaking point, at the moment, who we are what we think and feel, and what we do, is real, even in a dream. It was not a dream. It was who we chose to be. This is critical, because our dreams kill us. Sleepwalking kills us. Being asleep at the wheel of life kills us. Worse, we end up hurting those we love the most.

How Our Need for Control and Our Roles Keep Us Stuck in Delusion

Most basically, the problem has to do with two factors. The first is our fixation on our waking sense of who we are. Our world orbits around our sense of self. We create internal conflicts and problems for ourselves when we disown other legitimate parts of ourselves that we need to be whole and authentic. Whoever you think that you are right now is real. All your other roles and possible selves are less real and dreamlike. As you read these words the exercising you or cooking you or driving you are all less real, When you are driving, the reading you is less real and more dreamlike.  If you are in an argument, the confrontational you is more real and the peaceful, disattached you is less real and more dreamlike. Our normal, adjusted sense of self is disassociated into innumerable comfortable, habitual roles, each of which is real and powerful enough when its moment comes to shine, center stage, in the drama of our lives. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld did not see themselves as torturers, but they were torturers enough when the floodlights of history lit up that particular facet of their personalities. At night our dreams often put our various life roles together in the same time and space, pointing out the inconsistencies that we are blind to in our waking lives, because when we are awake, we typically inhabit our roles successively, in contexts in which we have come to feel that they are appropriate. In our dreams, our persecuting roles are made to confront our victim roles; our successful roles are made to clash with our identification with failure; our roles as parent and caregiver are forced to face and deal with our roles of child and dependent. The inconsistencies among these roles become threateningly real, and to deal with the cognitive dissonance, we shut out our dreams.

A second factor is our addiction to the Drama Triangle and its three core roles of persecutor, victim, and rescuer, not only in our relationships with others but in our own minds, This is a distillation of all those other daily roles discussed above, since in most of them, most of the time, we are in one or another of the three fundamental roles of the Drama Triangle. For example, as long as you take the role of rescuer and tell your children how to think and what they can do and not do, they will at some point begin to resent you or fear you. Therefore they will start to see you as a persecutor and attempt to avoid you or minimize your ability to tell them what to do. They will begin to experience themselves as victims of your rules. They are powerless. You have all the power. They are helpless; they can’t do anything right unless you say it is right. They will attempt to rescue themselves through not listening to you or procrastinating about doing their homework or chores, or by asserting their autonomy through resisting your authority. It is their way of saying, “I’m not a victim!”  Unfortunately, what they are doing is simply perpetuating the Drama Triangle by rescuing themselves and persecuting you. They then feel guilty or irresponsible in addition to having to deal with your frustration and anger at their avoidance. Now you feel victimized by them. You experience them playing the role of persecutor.

When we play any of the three roles in the Drama Triangle you will eventually find ourselves playing all three. If you experience yourself as victimized, then you are busy rescuing yourself from those feelings and persecuting yourself for having them. There is no peace of mind within the context of the Drama Triangle. If you experience the roles of the Drama Triangle in your waking relationships you are  also experiencing them in your dreams, whether or not you remember them. That means that while we are dreaming, whether we remember our dreams or not, to the extent that we are acting out the Drama Triangle, we are programming ourselves to feel anxious and powerless in our waking life. The Drama Triangle is more than a dream; it’s a repetitive nightmare. If you are in any of these roles they are being sustained by others in those roles, most likely those that are closest to you and that you love the most. In other words, your children and significant other are trapped in the Drama Triangle too.

Integral Deep Listening in a Family

Imagine you are a young child sitting in the family room with your parents, brother, and sister. Your mother is talking about three life issues that are daily challenges or concerns for her: a lump in her left breast, disagreements with your father over whether to put money into college savings for you kids or whether to pay off high interest credit debt, and how to deal with you when you watch TV instead of doing your homework. Many people will tell you that the first two issues are hardly appropriate for parents to share with their children. Why?

Now your mom shares a dream that she had. It could have been from last night or last week, or when she was six. It doesn’t matter, but it happens to have been from last week. You listen to her dream with curiosity.   Now you watch and listen as your mother chooses a character from the dream to interview. It’s a rabbit. You, your father, and your siblings now take turns asking your mother, as she pretends to be this rabbit, questions from the interviewing questionnaire, available at IntegralDeepListening.Com.

“Rabbit, what’s happening in this dream? What are you and the other characters doing?” “Rabbit, how do you feel?”  “What do you like and dislike about yourself?”  “What aspects of Mom do you most closely personify, rabbit?”  “Would you change this dream? If so, how?” “If you were in charge of Mom’s waking life, would you change it? If so, how?” “How would deal with her waking life issues?” “Rabbit, how would you score yourself, zero to ten, for confidence, empathy, wisdom, acceptance, inner peace, and witnessing?” “Rabbit, are there times in Mom’s waking life when you would recommend that she imagine that she is you?”

Some days additional characters in a dream are interviewed, but today one seems to do the job. Your mother seems pleased and satisfied with what she has heard. She is agreeing to apply one or two of the rabbit’s recommendations that make sense to her. It had encouraged her to get her lump checked by a doctor soon. It also recommended that she and your father go to a financial consultant and set up an overall financial plan that they could both agree on and live with. Finally, the rabbit encouraged your mother to help you to decide when and for how long you should watch TV, taking into account homework, grades, family chores, and the needs of other family members.

Now you are watching your mother ask you, your dad, and your brother and sister for help in acting on these recommendations. A week goes by and you are looking forward to hearing what your mother will say. She reports back on her progress: she went to her doctor and got an “all clear” on the lump, and got some good advice on dietary changes that would reduce the likelihood of getting lumps in the future.   She and your dad have made an appointment with a financial planning consultant.  During the past week she sat down with you and helped you decide what you needed to have accomplished in order to get to watch TV. You aren’t sure if you like this plan because you just started it, but at least you are glad you got asked about it instead of just having some rule laid down like used to happen all the time.

Now you listen as your father gets to bring up three issues. This time you interview a feeling of anger that he has, because he was passed over at work for a raise. He thinks it’s unfair. The feeling is red, and the red color condenses into the shape of an icicle. You’re excited, because next week is finally going to be your turn!  You never know what crazy characters are going to come up, and even better, everybody listens to your questions and what you have to say when it’s your turn. Everyone gets an opportunity to contribute, and no one has the final word. Everyone feels respected for whatever they choose to contribute.  Perhaps most importantly, you are learning a no drama way of problem solving that brings your family much closer together.

What Children Learn

As this child, participating on an ongoing basis in this process with your family, it’s natural. It’s not unusual. It’s the way you grow up. You assume it’s something that families do.   What sort of family culture do you suppose is being created? What values do you imagine yourself learning as you grow up?  Here are some possibilities.

You learn that listening to yourself is important. Without deeply listening to other points of view within yourself you cannot be sure that your plans match those that want to emerge from within you. Most people are eagles that grow up in chicken yards; they spend their lives scratching and pecking without knowing that they were born to soar. They have never learned to look in the mirror of their own consciousness.

You learn that it’s important to ask a lot of questions. That way you not only have better information on which to base decisions but it keeps you from jumping to conclusions that are wrong. You have learned that many of your most certain conclusions can be mistaken. This is because there have been many times when you or your sister or brother have told dreams and you were sure you knew what they were about and what your brother or sister should do. But every time you found out that you were wrong, that the information that came out of the interview was very different but made sense to your mother or brother, even if it didn’t to you. It was practical, and everybody could put the recommendations to work and report back to each other on how it was working. When it didn’t work you had fun confronting the rabbit or icicle or whatever, demanding to know why it gave “bad” advice.

You also learn that parents are people before they are parents. As a child you know you need to respect and obey your parents, and as people your parents and you can show that you respect each other by really listening to what the other is saying, and show you are hearing, even if you don’t agree. You know that the people in your family are more than just the roles of parent, child, worker, carpooler, student, sibling, and dog poop scooper. You learn that there are more important things for a parent to do than to be a good parent, and that includes being a whole person. You learn that there are more important things for a child to do than to be a good son or daughter, and that includes being a whole person.

You learn that marriage is not only about love and caring. It is also about partners helping each other be true to themselves. You learn that maintaining and building your inner peace is more important than any relationship, even marriage. This is because without your inner peace you will not make good decisions or act in authentically loving ways toward yourself and others.

You learn that when you listen to a bunch of these dream characters, or personifications of life issues that are important to you, like the icicle, that patterns of agreement, of common recommendations emerge, that point toward what is real and authentic for you and what IDL calls your “life compass.”

You learn that families are about doing a lot more than just obeying parents; they are about sacred beings learning to support each other in listening to their own emerging potentials and supporting each other in their expression every day.

You learn that there is more to you than your waking personality. You discover that you can access parts of yourself that are very wise. You come to understand that your waking self is often too limited to be depended on to always make good decisions. It needs the opinions of wise people and it needs the opinions of wise emerging potentials that know you better than anyone ever could, in addition to your own common sense.

You learn that it is natural to use in your daily life what your dream characters recommend that you do to improve your life. When people tease you because you listen to what an iguana tells you, you wonder how they can be so foolish or afraid of listening to themselves when it is not only easy and fun, but makes life so much easier.

You learn that your family and real friends can and will support you in finding and following your own path in life.

You learn that when you ask personifications of your life issues and dream characters for their advice you make better decisions than when you insist on doing things your own way.

Likely Consequences

As this young child, what might be the consequences for you of holding these values as you grow up and live your life?

These principles could be expected to generalize into who you are at school, how you treat your friends, how you react to cruelty, impatience, or anger in others, how you go about solving problems that arise, and how you think about yourself. You watch your parents and your siblings honestly share their issues and take responsibility for them. This encourages you to do the same.   Because no one in your family is blaming anyone else for their problems, you don’t either. Instead of worrying, you grow up experiencing your parents and family members focusing on solutions. Instead of feeling like you have to pretend that you are more confident than you are, you see your parents giving themselves permission to admit their limitations and fears and ask for help, even from you. Because your parents are honest and open, you are too. Relationships that are both intimate and honest are natural and easy for you.

Deep Listening to your inner support community shows you how to wear your roles of child, gender, race, nationality, and group as if they are clothes that you take on and off. They aren’t really who you are, so you aren’t afraid of losing them. If people don’t like one of your roles, you don’t take it personally, because it’s not who you really are. For example, you ask tons of questions at school. You know it annoys some of the other students and even some of your teachers. However, you know you’re at school to learn, and if something isn’t clear to you and  you don’t ask, whose problem is that? If you ask and other people are annoyed, whose problem is that?  If someone makes fun of your father, you don’t take it personally, because you know that most of what people say is about them; it’s not about you. If someone makes fun of you because you tell them you and your family talk to ostriches, clouds, and bricks, you will understand that they just don’t play the same healthy games that your family does, and if they did they would probably like it. They just don’t understand! When you flunk a math test, instead of thinking that you are a failure you talk to the different friends you have made of feathers, trees, and toilet brushes. You ask their help in problem solving what you need to do differently. Maybe they help you find one that likes math and can do it well.   You make friends with those emerging potentials with helpful aptitudes and attitudes and ask them for their assistance as you work on learning math. If there is a death in your family, you are very sad. You also know, from past experience with your family life issue and dream interviewing group, that dead people can show up in dreams. You also know that emerging potentials can’t die because they are never born. As a result, you can miss those who die but still feel connected to them, deep down inside.

The most important thing most people need to feel is that they are being listened to by others. Agreement is much less important. We want to feel heard. When you practice IDL in Dreaming Healthy Families, you not only give that gift to another person, you give it to yourself.  You feel listened to by your own self instead of simply talking to yourself and not listening, as most of us do routinely in our own minds. Dreaming Healthy Families can be used by entire families as an approach to healing inappropriate rules and roles, cultivating integrally-based relationships rather than those based on social approval and sanction, and to support transformation of family relationships to higher and broader levels of functioning. This includes more quality time, if not a greater quantity of time. It also includes more honesty and intimacy in communication. Safety and security needs can be respected, addressed, and fulfilled.

What would a family that came together once a week and took turns interviewing dream characters and life issues look like? Imagine a world in which children watch their parents and older siblings

  • identify life issues,
  • listen to each other’s dreams,
  • interview emerging potentials about how to address their life issues,
  • receive practical recommendations for how to proceed,
  • ask their family members, including young children, for help in applying the help they receive for resolving their life issues.

What values would this child grow up assuming?

  • listening to ourselves is most important;
  • applying daily what we hear in practical and concrete ways is natural;
  • those around us can and will support us in this process;
  • confidence, security, self-esteem, control, and power come from alignment with the agenda of unique, personal emerging potentials that do not die, not from social conformity;
  • growing in a balanced, whole way is much more effective than pushing what we want on ourselves.

If enough families in a school community began practicing this process, what would be the long term consequences for the school?

  • These principles can be expected to generalize to many areas of life, including  learning, work, problem resolution, and leadership.
  • Kids would grow up in a cultural context of transpersonal perspectives that emphasize values like respect, reciprocity, empathy, wisdom, acceptance, inner peace, and witnessing.  This would largely compensate for and defuse the natural narcissism and short-sightedness of immaturity.
  • Problem identification and treatment would largely be proactive rather than crisis-oriented. Problems would be identified sooner and solutions more easily found because an effective support system is already in place, starting with the child’s family.  This would largely reduce the need for massive social financial, physical and mental health support systems.
  • The creativity of students increases as they access innovative interior perspectives on the issues that concern them. Consequently, their interest in learning should increase, along with their sense of satisfaction with their lives.
  • With the reduction of inner resistance and access to transformative aspects of self the personal development of students should not only be much smoother, but quicker.
  • Children will feel less alone and isolated growing up. They are less likely to feel that no one could or would understand their problems. Consequently, they would be more likely to talk about them.
  • The goals that children set their hearts on are less likely to be self-centered and driven by the desire for acceptance, fame, or power. They are less likely to waste years in the fantasy that they will be a rock star or reach the major leagues. Their goals are more likely to reflect the agenda of a consensus of their own interviewed emerging potentials.  As a result, they are more likely to succeed in life, because they are more realistic, have less internal resistance and conflict, and more internal support for their life direction.
  • The speech and actions of children in school would be more likely to occur from a place of inner consensus rather than superficial, impulsive selfishness.
  • Students would be more likely to feel that all humans are family members, because as they treat them so they are treating those aspect of themselves that they represent.  Consequently, they would be more likely to feel supported by other students and teachers and to give their support in turn.

Such changes become possible when the cultures of families reflect the cultural priorities of a majority of emerging potentials of each member of the family. The internal cultural, or intracultural values of family members become the cultural values of the individuals that make up the family.  The cultural values of families create the cultural values of school, sport, and work. The cultural values of school, sport, and work create the cultural values of an entire society. Four hundred years before Jesus, Confucius said it best:

If there be righteousness in the heart,

there will be beauty in the character.

If there be beauty in the character,

there will be harmony in the home.

If there be harmony in the home,

there will be order in the nation.

If there be order in the nation,

there will be peace in the world.

For more information, contact Joseph.Dillard@gmail.com.

While IDL does not accept advertising or sponsored postings, we gratefully accept donations of your time, expertise, or financial support.

For more information, contact joseph.dillard@gmail.com. While IDL does not accept advertising or sponsored postings, we gratefully accept donations of your time, expertise, or financial support.