Working with Dreams in Therapy

It was nothing, really. Just people and things I see every day. — a frequent client statement.

At the start of therapy, I encourage clients to bring any dream material they remember. Discussion of dream contents stimulates the imaginations of therapist and client and evokes creative thinking about healing.

People often report unpleasant dreams early in therapy, which can discourage them from wanting to do dreamwork. They may have had similar or repetitive unpleasant dreams for years. Jung discovered that as people go progressively deeper in exploring unconscious contents, the layer they encounter on the surface is shadow material—those aspects of themselves they reject or ignore. For instance, a dreamer may be chased by a gang of threatening people in a dark street. When faced, the gang members may represent insights or attitudes that have been pressing for consciousness but have been resisted by the dreamer. Pushing such contents below awareness tends to add to their power and threatening nature.

You’ve probably seen books about dream interpretation or symbolism. These can be helpful, but if followed rigidly can miss the point entirely. For example, saying that a body of water in a dream represents the unconscious will be off base if you miss the dreamer’s personal memories of a lake where she spent her teenage summers. Associations to that lake are more likely to be meaningful than the “cookbook” interpretation alone.

Dream details lead to associations that may bring emotions to the surface or stimulate important memories. If you see a familiar person in your dream, I may ask you about him. Is he someone you once knew? A current friend? What do you think of him? Are there things about him you find admirable, peculiar or irritating? You may dream about people you know because they portray an attitude you’re bringing to your current life situation. In this sense, that person in your dream is a part of you being presented in dream language.

The skilled interpretation of dreams can assist therapeutic work by delving into the multiple layers of meaning found in a dream. Although some of that meaning may be inaccessible to conscious realization at this time, the meanings on the surface may be apparent enough to promote growth.

Dream Interpretation

The layers of meaning in dreams offer a sense of the richness of dream experience for self-realization. These layers begin on the surface with material that is closest to consciousness. Emotions or thoughts that haven’t been given enough attention may be at this near-surface level. Even at this level, dreams offer us a chance to change a one-sided attitude.

At this layer one may already see transference material. Transference is the dreamer’s attachment to the therapist and reflects both healthy and distorted attachments to other important figures who influenced formation of the dreamer’s psychological self. When a therapist interprets transference material with tact and sensitivity, this can help the dreamer realize attachment conflicts in the here-and-now of the therapy experience and promote healing.

A phenomenon that is close to the surface and connected with a layer below it is what Freud described as wish fulfillment. Here, a person may dream of loving interaction with an estranged spouse, for instance.

The next deepest layer reveals aspects of the dreamer’s personal unconscious. There are many technical terms to describe functioning at this layer. For simplicity’s sake, consider interactions between your urges and your conscience. Or consider the difficulty of making an important decision about a relationship, where you’re torn between two alternatives. Touching upon such situations may bring forgotten memories to the surface and offer opportunities for healing.

Consider a boy, for instance, who had a harsh, authoritarian father. The boy vowed never to be like his father, deciding instead to be the model of calm fairness when differing with others. In situations that closely resemble the drama with his father, the father complex is unconsciously triggered into action. Thus, confrontation with a submissive and ineffectual employee or a harsh, authoritarian boss can induce the boy, now man, to replay conflicts of dominance or submission. Each pole represents an extreme, and one identifies with either pole when the trigger is activated. When activation is intense, it is linked to age-old instincts.