Your Daydreams Reveal Your Secret, Unmet Needs

Sep 6, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

As we continue our series on daydreams together, this week’s reflection begins with a response I received from one of our Souls and Hearts members. Let me share (with her permission) part of what she wrote:

One minute I’m in our dining room, listening to my husband deliver another drawn-out lecture, and the next minute – I’m at his funeral…Wearing black, sitting in the front pew, the fragrant bouquets are abundant…Listening to the consoling notes of the Ave Maria…watching the priest incenses his casket… BAM! I’m back at the dinner table, with the parental lecture nearly at its familiar ending. What just happened? Where was I? I slipped away into the realm of a familiar daydream, one I feel particularly guilty about. What is wrong with me, Dr. Peter? This seems so morbid and checked out. I am embarrassed to admit that this daydream in various forms pops us with some regularity although I do fight against letting it play out in my imagination. It seems so awful and even sinful to fantasize about becoming a widow. Thank you for any clarity you can provide. –“Lisa”

For many Catholics, a primary concern about daydreams, including this example, revolves around avoiding sin, and/or avoiding anything that may lead to sin. Daydreams are often considered a nuisance and dismissed outright in an unending game of whack-a-mole to bop them back into the unconscious. Among devout Catholics, active suppression of daydreams is common, which is understandable for many reasons.

In many cases, there may also be an avoidance (though perhaps unacknowledged) of looking at the deeper underlying messages presented in daydreams as signals from our internal system, our parts.

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.–Blaise Pascal

We actively suppress ideas, memories, daydreams, and thoughts which remind us of difficult, painful, morbid things. This type of suppression is likely the work of manager parts in their in well-meaning efforts to keep us on the straight and narrow path, or to keep us working productively, or for some other good intention.

As we discussed four weeks ago in Catholics Discussing the Downsides of Daydreams, there are moral issues that can come up with daydreaming. Sins within oneself. Sins of thought. Sins that only God and nobody else can see. Embracing a desire for someone to die is a sin (see a good discussion of the moral issues from a Catholic perspective here).

Of course, we want to avoid internal sins and bring them to confession when necessary. With insights from Catholics Discussing the Upsides of Daydreaming, we also understand there are positive aspects to daydreaming.

Random or meaningful?

If one assumes that daydreams are just random neuronal activity – they come up spontaneously, out of nowhere, they are not important, and should be ignored after being interrupted when noticed – a virtual gold mine for one’s human formation work could be lost.

But before we can tap into a daydream’s potential for human growth and formation, we must make an important decision: we must decide to accept our daydreams.

Acceptance before understanding

Accepting daydreams doesn’t mean endorsing their content, or pursuing their (perhaps disordered) desires – see the Interior Integration for Catholics episode 66 for a discussion of the different between accepting and endorsing. But accepting that you have daydreams, and accepting the content of your daydreams, even if that content is distressing at times, is healthier than suppressing them. Why?

Because we have to accept that our daydreams exist before we take the next step, which is to understand what daydreams are trying to tell us about our unmet needs. So many Catholic expend so much effort, and waste so much energy in denying, suppressing and avoiding realities within their internal systems.

As David Henry Thoreau stated, We shall see but little if we require to understand what we see. How few things can a man measure with the tape of his understanding. So let’s not require that we understand our daydreams immediately – let’s accept them as real within us first. Even if the content is morbid, or violent, or sexually charged, let us acknowledge the reality that we experienced those daydreams within ourselves.

The saints model this type of acceptance in acknowledging their internal realities. They know the depths of their disorder within – they know their need for redemption. Can you imagine a saint praying in this way: My dear Lord, thank you for allowing me to rise to the heights of optimal human functioning – thank you for the human perfection you have granted me, thank you for the flawless order and perfect harmony within me, never a wrong note from my internal orchestra, never a thought or desire out of place. Thank you for sparing me the awful side effects of being human. Of course not.

Rather, saints teach us the value of true self knowledge, as St. Teresa of Avila wrote: My good works, however wretched and imperfect, have been made better and perfected by Him Who is my Lord: He has rendered them meritorious. As to my evil deeds and my sins, He hid them at once. The eyes of those who saw them, He made even blind; and He has blotted them out of their memory.

Blaise Pascal, in his Pensées explains that Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our own wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair. Knowing Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, strikes the balance because He shows us God’s perfection and our own human wretchedness.

Unmet needs in our parts energize our daydreams

Our September 6, 2022 reflection, The Top 10 Needs That Fuel Modern-Day Idol Worship, shared five primary attachment needs and five primary integrity needs that we all have. Today I’d like to elaborate on how our internal parts with unmet needs may employ daydreaming as a way to signal distress or to communicate their unmet needs. As an indirect message from within, a daydream could potentially hold a lost key to unlocking some important internal mystery.

By examining your daydreams, you can find clues that point back to underlying, unmet, and even unacknowledged needs, needs that are in your unconscious. In today’s reflection, and in future reflections I will show you some ways to connect with your underlying unmet needs, and more importantly, ways to connect with your parts who carry the burdens of those unmet needs.

Different parts in our internal systems are focused on meeting different needs. Parts that are focused on meeting the very same need may have totally different ways and means to get those needs met, resulting in vastly differing agendas.

Attachment needs

Brown and Elliott (2016) in their review of the attachment literature distilled five primary conditions for secure attachment, for securely bonding in relationships. They emphasize the importance of the subjective experience – that the person not only has an intellectual sense of the need being met, but also a felt sense of that need being met.

I argue that in order to feel safe and secure, each part in our internal system must have a felt sense that these attachment needs are met. These attachment needs are so important, so vital for our well-being on so many levels. Let’s review the list:

  1. Safety: A felt sense of safety and protection in relationship
  2. Recognition: Feeling seen, heard, known, and understood
  3. Reassurance: Feeling comforted, soothed, and reassured
  4. Delight: Feeling cherished, treasured, delighted in by the other
  5. Love: Feeling the other has your best interests at heart, holds a position of benevolence and beneficence toward you

Integrity needs

In addition to the five attachment needs, I maintain that each person experiences five integrity needs – the needs for having a secure identity, an integrated and ordered sense of self. These integrity needs are related in a variety of ways to the attachment needs. Let’s review the five integrity needs:

  1. Survival: My need to exist and to survive
  2. Importance: My need to matter in the world, to be significant
  3. Agency: My need for autonomy, to be able to exert influence on others and to make at least a small difference the world
  4. Goodness: My need to be good in my essence, in my person, to experience a sense of ontological goodness, not just that my actions are functionally useful
  5. Mission: My need for mission, purpose, and a vision to guide my life

Each one of our internal parts is focused, to varying degrees, on each of these integrity and attachment needs. Some parts may have a laser focus on one or two of the integrity or attachment needs, neglecting the others.

The less integrated your various parts are within your internal system, the less any given part is aware of the needs borne by other parts within the system.

Typology of daydreams, and the typical needs that drive each category of daydreams

Zedelius and colleagues (2020) in their study identified six major themes in daydreams, which I have listed below in red. Somer (2002), in his pioneering work on maladaptive daydreaming included sexual daydreams, and included the five categories in blue. I saw some gaps in their lists, and with a little help from ChatGPT, I added the six categories in green. I also noted which of the five attachment needs and which of the five integrity needs might be commonly expressed through each category of daydream. This is far from an exhaustive list, and it is primarily to illustrate possibilities and promote hypothesis generation, not to be use for direct mapping of daydreams onto underlying needs.

  1. Planning daydreams – focused on considering the future and preparing for demands, solving problems. Planning daydreams might be driven by the integrity needs for survival, agency, and mission, or by attachment needs for safety. An example is a manager part who daydreams about all the details of the funeral and hospitality for family in order to proactively ward off a deep sense of unresolved grief about the recent death of a beloved spouse.
  2. Pleasant daydreams – enjoying pleasant thoughts associated with warm and happy feelings. These might be motivated by parts who want to feel delighted in by God or by others. Pleasant daydreams might also be a way to avoid a sense of helplessness brought on by an unmet need for agency.
  3. Personally meaningful daydreams – centered on topics of great importance or value. Parts focused on mission and personal goodness may bring up these kinds of daydreams.
  4. Unaware/unintentional daydreams – these are spontaneous and happen without much awareness or active consent. Evaluating the specific content of these daydreams is important to understand their function for parts.
  5. Fantastical daydreams – imagining the supernatural, the bizarre, the unlikely or impossible, engaging in unrealistic fantasies. Often, parts heavily invested in the integrity needs of survival, importance, and goodness can engage in these daydreams. If the need for personal agency is frustrated, a part might retreat into seeking pseudo-agency in daydreams
  6. Sexual daydreams – Many daydreams with sexual themes are not primarily about sex, but rather about a seeking for some attachment or integrity need to be met. For example, a part that desperately needs recognition might use sexual fantasy to convey those needs to be seen, heard, known, and loved. Other needs frequently driving sexual daydreams include reassurance, delight, and love. Some sexual daydreams might be motivated by the need to feel something, anything, in order to reaffirm that one is still alive, still existing, which would reflect the need for survival.
  7. Violent daydreams – daydreams of conflict and aggression might reflect parts’ needs for safety, importance, agency, and/or recognition.
  8. Power and control daydreams – fantasies of dominance and control are often driven by fear of being dominated or controlled, and thus reflect needs for agency, importance, and survival and possibly recognition.
  9. Idealized self daydreams – often involving heroism, adventure, and sometimes vainglory very often reflect unmet needs for agency and goodness, and sometimes survival, recognition, and delight, especially if they are laced with images of the approval of others.
  10. Captivity daydreams – motivations vary more widely than one might think for captivity daydreams, including importance (I’m wanted enough to be imprisoned and kept by someone else) to agency (I have to get out).
  11. Rescue/escape daydreams – These daydreams include the need for safety, recognition, reassurance, and sometimes survival.
  12. Revisiting or reworking the past daydreams – These are often very much about agency and sometimes about goodness, often focusing on a “do-over” or rehearsing alternative actions in case the same situation arises again in the future, among other potential motivations.
  13. Revenge daydreamsoften including vigilante justice, or “setting things right.” These often are motivated by parts with concerns about safety and survival and sometimes about agency.
  14. Success daydreams – these daydreams focus on achievement and accomplishment, and may be driven by attachment needs for recognition, reassurance, and delight, or sometimes by integrity needs for importance and goodness, especially if there are themes of “winning” involved.
  15. Relational daydreams – these include romantic daydreams that are not primarily sexual, and can include imagining marriage, having children, etc. These can be impelled by parts with any of the five attachments needs, but also could include integrity needs of importance, goodness, or mission.
  16. Creative and artistic daydreams – often cited by artists as sources of creative inspiration, these daydreams can be motivated by importance, agency, and mission, and sometimes by delight.
  17. Spiritual daydreams — Some researchers include spiritual and mystical fantasies in this fantastical category (revealing a bias). Parts seeking relational connection with God, Mary and the saints might impel daydreams of a spiritual nature. Other parts seeking a sense of goodness might daydream about spiritual perfection in a much more self-absorbed way.

Not all daydreams are motivated by unmet needs

It is good to mention here that not all daydreams are motivated by parts’ unmet needs. Your innermost self can guide daydreams. Also, daydreams might be motivated from outside you, as an inspiration of grace, and there is the possibility of demonic influences and temptations on daydreams as well.

And just a reminder that even if a daydream starts off without the approval of your intellect and the consent of your will, your innermost self still has the power to sanction that daydream, fostering and encouraging it, or to disavow the daydream – what you do with the daydream determines its moral quality. Catholic philosopher Deitrich von Hildebrand’s discussion of sanctioning and disavowing internal experiences was highlighted in the weekly reflection from September 21, 2022, titled The Deepest Human Formation Work a Catholic Can Do.

Lisa’s” ‘Morbid’ dinner daydream offers helpful insight into her unmet needs

A thank you to “Lisa” for her offer for me to use her daydream as an example. To be clear, I don’t know what the daydream means – that would require some exploration. Also, I’m speculating here, not offering any clinical diagnosis or assessment. But I’m curious about the imagery of her daydream, and how she would classify it according to the seventeen types we listed. Was it a daydream of escape from a difficult marriage? If so, then perhaps parts of her might be looking for recognition, — to be seen, heard, known, and understood, as a separate person, not just the object of her husband’s anger. Did the daydream include an element of revenge? Did it include a spiritual aspect, such as wishing her husband was in heaven? Was the daydream not really about her husband, but rather about her deceased father, who lectured in the same way but whom parts of “Lisa” miss and yearn for with intense, unresolved grief?

As I will discuss in future reflections in this series, the parts generally know why they are motivating a daydream. And if you can connect with them in a way that feels safe both to them and to your manager and firefighter parts, those daydreaming parts will tell you their stories. More on that later.

Your turn

I am very grateful for this opportunity to shed light on this topic of daydreaming and how our daydreams can hold clues to our internal systems and our parts’ unmet needs.

Here’s a little homework for you: as you go about your week, make a note of your daydreams, try to take an inventory of what’s going on in them. If the content is in fact sinful, there is no need to re-vivify the daydream or fall into temptation around it, but rather to just acknowledge the content in an objective way.

In a future reflection, we will also explore the role of the inmost self in daydreaming. So having an idea of what your daydreams are about, and what themes recur in your daydreams will be helpful as we move forward into greater understanding of our internal systems with the beginning we have made today, in accepting that our daydreams are real, and that they hold some valuable clues for our interior integration and human formation.

Interior Integration for Catholics episode on narcissism

IIC episode 120, titled Understanding Narcissism More Deeply with IFS explains how to conceptualize narcissistic “personalities” and narcissistic reactions through the lens of Internal Family Systems.  Looking at narcissism through the lens of subsystems and parts is an entirely new paradigm that makes it easier to accept the reality the unmet attachment and integrity needs that fuel narcissistic positions and behaviors.  Through four case vignettes (from Lynette, Rafael, Thomas and Juanita), I illustrate how both covert and overt narcissism look and function from a parts and systems perspective.

If you like the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, please leave a review for us on Apple podcasts

Be With the Word for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dr. Gerry and I invite you to broaden your vision in this week’s 42-minute episode, Three Principles of Exercising Real Love in which discuss the principles we need to embrace to exercise real love as well as the common psychological barriers most of us experience. You can listen to the Mass readings here.

Submit a question

Like “Lisa,” if you have a question you would like me to address in these weekly reflections, email it to me at crisis@soulsandhearts.com or leave me a voicemail at 317.567.9594. I so enjoy hearing from my readers about how these reflections land with them. Remember that I can’t provide you clinical advice, but we can address the themes and the material in these weekly reflections.

Pray for us

These weekly reflections are all fueled by prayer. Please pray for the entire Souls and Hearts community and please pray for me individually, that we all be faithful to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that we follow the will of God faithfully and humbly, the will of God that St. Faustina described as “love and mercy itself.”

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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