I have this recurring nightmare. I’ve had it since high school.
I’m somebody who rarely is late or misses an appointment. I once forgot a lunch with a friend back in 2001. I don’t think I’ve done that since. I do not react well when I suffer from other people’s carelessness. I have never borrowed a book or other object without returning it.
UPDATE: After writing this blog post, I had a nightmare that I showed up to a bar mitzvah on Shabbos morning wearing old shorts and a ratty t-shirt and had to say stay outside and look stupid the whole time.
“I think those who have it tend to be professional and were successful students,” says Judy Willis, a neurologist and teacher who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., and who wrote about the dream in a 2009 Psychology Today blog post. “These are people who have demanded a high performance from themselves. The recurrence of the dream correlates with times of stress and pressure, when people feel they have a challenge to achieve.’’
Gemma Marangoni Ainslie, an Austin psychoanalyst, agrees. The final exam, she says, “is likely representative of an occasion when the dreamer feels he or she will be tested or measured, and the anxiety is about not measuring up. The dreamer’s task in ‘awake life’ is to translate the final exam to a situation he or she is facing that stirs up concerns about potential failure.”
But why school? Why don’t we dream about current pressures — grant proposals that are due, impending legal briefs or oral arguments, or newspaper deadlines?
“Emotional memories and impressions made during high-stress experiences are particularly strong, and are further strengthened each time they are recalled and become the place the brain goes when the emotion is evoked,” Willis wrote in an email. “Since each new stress in the current day is ‘new,’ there is not a strong memory circuit that would hook to it in a dream. But there is that strong neural network of previous, similar ‘achievement’ stress. Since tests are the highest stressors. . . [it] makes sense as the ‘go-to’ memory when stressed about something equally high stakes in the ‘now.’ ’’
Ainslie theorizes that most of us have these dreams “as an attempt to disguise what it’s really about,” she says. “The part of yourself that is distressed wants to disguise it, and the easiest way to disguise it is to move backwards.”
Ainslie says the school dream is a common one, although it’s not the only one that reflects anxiety. “Another common one is being in a car and not being able to put the brakes on,” she says. “This one isn’t about not measuring up. It’s about not being in control, a matter of not being the driver in your life.”
Alma Bond, a retired New York psychoanalyst and writer, describes the school dream as a response to “an unconscious memory of an experience for which we were totally unprepared,” adding that it’s possible “we unconsciously remember a time when we did fail some test or other, and are afraid we will repeat the failure.”