Working with Dragons
Close your eyes for a second and think of the word dragon.
What kind of image do you conjure up in your minds eye? What kind of feeling do you get? Do you think of a huge and terrifying creature? Is it evil and destructive?
Or maybe your dragon is magical, magnificent and benign.
But whatever kind of dragon springs to mind, the chances are on some level you’re being influenced by every image you’ve ever seen and every experience you’ve had relating to that one word dragon.
Because for most of us, dragons are a part of our psyche …
All around the world and going back hundreds of years at least there are myths and legends concerning fire-breathing dragons. They’re the stuff of fairy tales and in the western world we grew up hearing of monstrous beings that held whole cities to hostage and demanded the sacrifice of fair young maidens.
There’s also a common belief that unchartered territory on ancient maps used to be marked with the words here be dragons. Although this probably isn’t true (in fact the only known evidence of this is on just one map; the sixteenth century ‘Lenox Globe’), it nevertheless demonstrates that dragons have, for a very long time, symbolically represented the unknown, the exotic and the dangerous.
No-one knows for sure where the idea of these creatures originated but it probably didn’t come from a single source. In the West, dragons are traditionally thought of as evil and greedy and as creatures to be feared, conquered and slayed. In the East however they represent power, immortality, good luck and fortune. In films and books they’ve been portrayed as either of these two extremes or a mixture of the two.
For example there’s the formidable and greedy Smaug in ‘The Hobbit’, who jealously guards his hoards of stolen treasure and has no conscience at all when it comes to destroying whole communities. If such a creature was real imagine how terrifying it would be. Reptilian, cold hearted and instinctual, it takes what it wants with no regard for social niceties.
But on the other hand imagine how marvellous it would be to form a friendship with a mighty beast like those more co-operative dragons portrayed in films like Eragon and Dragonheart.
But whatever their temperament, there’s no doubt that dragons are not likely to be ignored. With very few exceptions they’re portrayed as powerful and awe inspiring. Yes, they might condescend to form a relationship with a human being but they still retain their wild and independent spirit.
As Dany is told in Game of Thrones,
‘They’re dragons Khaleesi. They can never be tamed, not even by their mother.’
Sometimes we speak of dragons as metaphors for mental barriers that stop us doing the things we want or need to do.
For example maybe you really need to get something finished (or even started), but no matter how hard you try to summon up the motivation, there’s always something that keeps you distracted. Maybe your dragon whispers in your ear about all the other really important things you need to do first. When I was writing my assignments for a course, it would suddenly become vitally important that I cleaned out the cupboard under the sink. Never mind that it had been left undisturbed for months (or was it even years?) with no ill consequences, at that moment I felt it simply had to be dealt with.
Maybe you really want to have better relationships in your life but there’s something stopping you let go of ill feelings? Maybe that something is one of your dragons? No matter how hard you try, the persistent creature always reminds you of those (often petty) disagreements and disappointments that may have happened years ago, creating a barrier between you and your loved ones that, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get past.
Maybe you never feel really satisfied with your life however much you earn or however great your achievements? Maybe your dragon whispers in your ear about how much more you could have or how much better someone else is doing.
There’s really no limit to the ways in which these inner dragons can sabotage our best intentions.
So what can we do about it? Well first of all we have to acknowledge that something’s going on, that it’s not just the way I am. Because it really doesn’t have to be, if you don’t want it to.
So the next time something ‘stops’ you doing something or ‘makes’ you act in a way you regret, take the time to consider what might be happening.
To start with begin to think of the troublesome something as being a separate entity from yourself. If you can do so, create a visual image of it in your mind’s eye. Close your eyes to do this if it helps. If you’re not good at visualising (and not everyone is, though you can always get better with practice), that’s ok, just have a feeling or knowledge of what the something is like.
It doesn’t have to be a dragon by the way, it could be anything. Just accept whatever comes to mind first. I’ve had clients imagine little old women, nasty old men, monsters, schoolteachers, devils … the list is endless. It could be someone from your past or even a character from a film you’ve seen. It doesn’t even have to be a living thing. It could be a brick wall that blocks your way or a tangled net that you can’t get out of. The important thing is that to your mind it represents the problem you’re thinking about.
Then ask it what its purpose is. (Better make sure there’s no-one about for this bit or you may find yourself getting carted away, or receiving some funny looks at the least).
Have a really open mind. You’ll probably find that the somethings original purpose was to be helpful but somehow along the way it all got out of hand.
For example, lets say that my problem with finishing assignments stems from a fear of failure. By avoiding the task I’m not exposing myself to that risk. This could have started during my schooldays when failing at a test caused humiliation and distress. So maybe my dragon decided to keep me safe by keeping me away from similar situations.
And maybe when someone is having problems resolving a relationship problem it could be that past disagreements with that person were so upsetting at the time that the dragon becomes over protective and tries to prevent a resolution in case it leads to more upsetting situations.
All done in good intent but no longer appropriate or helpful.
By communicating with our dragon (or other symbol) we can begin to re-educate our unconscious mind as to the way we would prefer to react and behave. A therapist who understands the way the unconscious mind works with symbolism and metaphor can help you to do this. Although it is possible to do this alone, having someone neutral to prompt you with the right questions can be really beneficial.
I’ve been communicating with one my own dragons lately as part of an exercise connected to a training group I’ve been attending.
The dragon I’m talking about has played a major role in my life. He represents a fear of rejection and he’s been with me in one way or another for as long as I can remember. He used to be a lot more fearsome than he is now. He’d dominate and deceive and he’d do and say anything to isolate me and keep me all to himself.
Back then if you’d asked me what he looks like I might have looked at you blankly and said ‘Dragon, what dragon?’ His deception was so complete you see, that I didn’t see him for what he was. He could camouflage himself so well that I thought the invisible cage he built around me was just the way the world was. Or at least the way that my world was.
But I’ve been thinking about him a lot these last few days and with all the benefit of hindsight I can build a picture that represents the influence he had upon me back then.
So I can tell you now, when he was at his peak he was larger than life with shades of red and gold and green in his leathery old scales. And if I’d been able to see him for what he was, I would have told you that his eyes were cunning and yellow and he could pierce you through to your very soul with his paranoid insights. His talons were sharp and long and they’d make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end whenever he scraped them on the ground before him. His voice was raspy and demanded my attention with all the force of an erupting volcano. There was no ignoring him in those days. To try would have just made him angry and more persistent.
But I’ve lived a lot of life since then and I’ve done lots of reading and learning. I’ve trained as a therapist and I’ve had therapy myself. I’ve spent an untold amount of time reflecting on life and given enough time, life has its own way of sorting things out. I’m fully aware of where he came from and why he manifested in my life. And I’m not saying that knowing that has made him go away, but it has allowed me to step back and see things for how they really are.
He still gets fidgety at times and then he taps me on the shoulder with his blunted talon and whispers his theories into my ear. But I can usually form a counter argument now and even on those days when he’s especially insistent I know he’ll give up and fall back to sleep before very long. Both of us have mellowed through the years and if you were to ask me what my dragon looks like now I’d have to say he’s changed a lot. He looks a lot less imposing and he sleeps a whole lot more. His scales are faded and dusty looking and his yellow eyes no longer hold the same hypnotic power.
So how would I go about slaying this old dragon of mine? Or more to the point do I really need to?
I’m used to him now and I can see him for what he is. Like an overly protective but loyal guard dog, he really only ever had my best interests at heart. And he’s no longer dangerous, (although a little caution is still to be advised). So it would seem cruel to slay him now, just as we’re beginning to understand each other. After all, his motives were only ever to keep me safe from harm.
So I think instead I’ll set him up with a nice cosy bed in the corner of my garden somewhere. I’ll let him come inside sometimes when the nights are really dark and cold and he can warm the house with his breath and my heart with tales of how far we’ve both come. And maybe in time, when we’ve fully accepted each other and learnt to work together, we can truly be partners and who knows where that may lead.
They say that knowledge is power and if that’s true (and I suspect it is), knowing yourself (and your dragons) is probably the most powerful thing you can ever achieve.