My dreams can really throw me sometimes. I'll wake up feeling incredibly guilty and wondering, "Why on earth did I cheat on my taxes/steal that train/kidnap that baby/let the aliens onto the spaceship? I'm such an idiot!" It'll take a few moments for me to realize that I'm not actually headed for life in prison (or death by aliens, as the case may be).
I've recently had some success with figuring out that I'm dreaming before I reach the disorienting waking-up point. When things start straying from normality, I try to remember to ask myself (1) whether this seems like something I'd be likely to do and (2) whether I can remember the events that led me to this point, or whether the memory instead seems to start in media res. If I decide that I'm probably dreaming, I test my theory by attempting to wake myself up. Of course, while this approach helps with the unnecessary guilt, it's more disruptive of my sleep. Last week, I woke myself up twice in the middle in the same night because my dreams were so implausible: I kept dreaming that I was un-self-consciously flirting with random guys, and I knew that couldn't possibly be right. Sure enough, I always woke up when I questioned the plausibility of this scenario. (I told my friend this, and she thought it was both hilarious and very sad. She's probably right.)
And sometimes my subconsious gets tricky on me. I recently had a dream that I somehow got mixed up with a Chinese spy ring. I went on the run, while the Chinese agents tried to track me down and kill me before I could spill their secrets. And then I suddenly realized, "Wait a minute, this all seems like somewhat unlikely." Sure enough, I immediately woke up. I then ate breakfast and went to work, where I told my co-worker about my dream and how glad I was that I wasn't actually being chased by Chinese spies in real life. Just then, my cell phone starting ringing. When I opened it, Chinese characters appeared on the screen, and I heard a voice saying, "Ni hao" over and over again (probably because those are the only Chinese words my subconscious could come up with). For a minute, I thought, "Oh no! That wasn't a dream after all! I need to contact MI-5!" (Hey, I watch more British spy shows than American ones.) But then I realized again that this scenario was just not plausible, so I attempted to wake myself up for the second time. It worked, and this time things stayed normal after I woke up. At least, so far they've seemed normal. If I start hankering to steal another train, though, I'm going to try to wake up again.
P.S. Diligent followers of this blog may note that this is not the first time I've had a dream within a dream (but not the marriage kind) in which I dreamed that I told my co-worker about a dream, only to discover that it had really happened. Apparently my subconscious thinks this is funny. I disagree.