Becoming The Dream – A Gestalt Approach

By Hank O’Mahony.

“You are the maker of the dream …
Whatever you put into the dream must be what is in you.”
[Fritz Perls]

This quote from Perls, the founder of Gestalt psychotherapy, goes to the heart of dreams in Gestalt. Freud, who brought up the whole question of dreams enabled us to look at dreams. His concept is that a dream is a distorted representation of a secret incompatible wish that does not agree with the conscious attitude and is censored, or more correctly, distorted. This makes the dream unrecognized by the conscious mind but the wish still lives and shows itself.

This leaves us with a dream that is distorted, censored and not available to the conscious mind. But is this true? Can we safely say that a dream is that obscure? This is perfectly plausible since a dream is like a censored secret; otherwise we could understand it. Mostly we don’t understand our dreams, rarely will you come across dreams that are clear from beginning to end. Freud’s solution, to impose a definitive structure on the origin of dreams, restricts their meaning and controls the resulting understanding of our dreams.

Don’t Interpret

Fritz Perls states that: “In Gestalt therapy we don’t interpret dreams. We do something much more interesting with them. Instead of analyzing and furthcr cutting up the dream, we want to bring it back to life”. Life in Gestalt therapy is becoming authentic people who arc capable of experiencing and expressing their own emotions.

Avoidance

To understand dreams, we need to look at the structure of avoidance in Gestalt therapy. All of us have holes in our personality. These are blank spaces, areas of our life and our personality that we have disowned or are phobic about. “If I allow myself to experience this is will be nothing or I’ll cry for ever and ever” This is the impasse, the area in Gestalt therapy that is the dead area.

Let me illustrate: A person came to me with a nightmare. In the dream she was in an attic and saw a dark, musty, spider-webbed corner. She woke up frightened and very scared. I began by getting her to be the attic. This she could do as long as she didn’t have to face that dark corner. Then I said: “be the corner” She shrunk into herself and began to tremble, “I can’t” she said. She started to shake and tremble with terror. Whatever was in that corner was so terrifying she wouldn’t face it. By allowing her to experience and remain in her panic she began to face the corner of her attic. There in the corner was herself – molested! A part of herself she had been avoiding for years.

Most role playing is designed to use up our energy rather than face the impasse; to avoid the anxiety this produces. If we resist the temptation to go back to cliches and role playing, we use our energy to live with the anxiety of our disowned parts.

Freud once called the dream the “Via Regina”, the royal road to the unconscious. Perls states that it is the royal road to integration, of re-owning certain parts of our personalities. The unconscious is something very hard to know, but the dream is the most spontaneous reality we have. It comes without our intention. We don’t will it nor do we deliberately plan it. There is nothing absurd or distorted in a dream. We don’t experience it as absurd at the time – it is real and we feel it as a real experience. In our waking life there is always some control over our actions, either imposed by the environment or produced within ourselves. Not in a dream! we fly, change shape, are swallowed up and return whole. Now Perls’ contention and the theory of Gestalt is that all the elements of the dream are fragments of our personalities. We have to re-own these projected and fragmented parts of the personality and re-own the hidden potential that appears in the dream.

Produce a Drama

In Gestalt therapy the method of working dreams is to enable the client to produce a drama with the client playing all the parts, writing the script and dialogue, and then acting out the drama. The therapist’s job is not to interpret the dream or even point out to the client what is going on in the dream, rather it is to load the client to parts of the dream that they might be avoiding. This can be by projecting their own thoughts, words, emotions, etc., onto someone else in the dream. By becoming each one of the persons, things and even emotions and modes within the dream, one really becomes that thing! “Whatever it is in the dream become it”. The therapist encourages the client to feel, experience and even savour being each part of the dream.

Rather than going on about the theory, let us consider a few examples. Nora has just married for the second time after a number of years as a widow. She has just had this dream and wonders if she is dreaming about a disaster for a very  close friend. She scorns light and her breathing is shallow.

Therapist: Tell me the dream in the present tense.

Nora: I am walking into a kitchen, I think it’s my kitchen and I see two people arguing. He’s saying she doesn’t love him, that she’s too busy and is never available when he wants her. She looks at him, she seems very angry. She begins to speak but stops, turns around and walks away. “I now recognize the couple – they are very close friends of mine. Then I wake up feeling scared and breathing very badly. That’s it”.

Therapist: O.K. How is your breathing now?

Nora: Not good.

Therapist: I’d like you to allow yourself to breath. (Nora does this) Now I’d like you to be the man in the dream – describe yourself.

Nora: I’m tall, and straight. I’m wearing a dark suit.

Therapist: Now what do you have to say to Nora.

Nora: (as man) Don’t you see I love you, and I want you to be near me, and all this running around confuses me. What do you want? I’m afraid you’ll leave me.

Therapist: Now Nora what’s your answer?

Nora: I do love you (she seems to be excited) Oh my God! – it’s my own husband John – yes I do love you – but I have other things to do for myself.

Therapist: Say that again.

Nora: I do love you but I’ve other things to do for myself.

Therapist: Tell John what other things you have to do for yourself.

Nora: I’ve got to find out who I am. Sometimes I must go off by myself – to be alone. But I’m not leaving you. It’s just that I need to do both things. I don’t want to hurt you but I must do what I need to do – no, I’m going to look after me and my life too!

Nora looks very alive, and opens her eyes, she looks at the therapist and states: “I’ve been scared to admit this to John and even myself. We’ve only been married a short time and I feel his possessiveness. It’s too much for me. I’ve got to stand my own ground – for myself.

Therapist: I love you and there are other things I need to do for myself – by myself, can you say that to John?

Nora: (hesitantly) I love you and there . . .there, are other things – things I need to do for myself – by myself.

Therapist: I’d like to stop here?

Nora: Thank you.

Now in the dream, Nora had projected her worst fears about her new marriage and its future onto her friends. When asked to create a drama with herself as its centre, she immediately recognised that it was her own life and future that was at stake. That was the reason for her fear and anxiety. Confronting the issue now enabled her to clarify her own position. In doing that she got in touch with both poles of her marriage – her love for and desire to be with her husband and her need to be alone to discover herself.

Having re-owned the projection, Nora now can use her energy for herself and use her self knowledge to make real contact with her husband.

Recurring Dreams:

Client: I have this dream that keeps recurring, sometimes for weeks, then not happening for months, or years, but then it comes back again. In the dream I’m always hurrying.

Therapist: I’d like to stop you here. Now I’d like you to close your eyes and tell me one of the dreams in the present.

Client: Any one?, O.K. I’m in school, I’m heading off to take an exam. I’m in a hurry, a panic. I’m not sure where the exam is and I’m frightened that I won’t find the place (breathing is shallow)

Therapist: Take your time, breath deeply and continue the dream.

Client: I see the sign – EXAMINATION HALL – then I’m in the hall, and there are lots of people and I’m trying to find a desk, (again shallow breathing) I get to the desk and sit down. I look into my bag for my exam book and pens. I can’t find them. I’m frightened that I left them at home – but I finally get them. Everything gets quiet, and the papers are given out. When I get my paper my hands are trembling and I can feel the sweat running down my back, (his hands are trembling) I open the paper and it’s blank. I wake up shaking and crying and very, very frightened.

Therapist: O.K. I’d like you to be the exam paper, describe yourself.

Client: I’m white – off white and I’m square and there’s nothing written on me -I’m blank.

Therapist: Say that to Mike (client’s name)

Client: Mike – I’m off white – yellowish, square and I’m blank.

Therapist: Mike, I want you to be the Mike in the examination hall – what do you look like?

Client: I’m dressed very formally – a suit – a dark suit, white shirt and tie. I’m clean and smart.

Therapist: O.K. What do you want to say to the examination paper?

Client: You’re blank, what is a blank examination paper doing here? – what am I doing here? (here he seems excited, not depressed)

Therapist: Say that again, “what am I doing here”?

Client: What am I doing here? I don’t want to be here. I want to be……….. (he stops and begins to breath shallowly)

Therapist: Breath … I want you to imagine yourself wherever you would like to be. O.K. let yourself go. Where would you like to be?

Client: South Africa, (he begins to cry)

Therapist: Allow your sadness and breath.

Client: (crying softly) I’m in South Africa and am standing at my sister’s grave. I’ve never been here but this is her grave (beginning to cry more openly)

Therapist: Breathe, have a look in the grave, can you sec your sister?

Client: Yes!

Therapist: Is there anything you need to say to her?

Client: Mary, I’m sorry that I wasn’t here.

I’m going to stop the process here, suffice it to say that Mike went on to share his grief – the first time that he had really allowed himself to feel the loss of his sister. The resolution of the recurring dream for Mike, was very different from an interpretation of the dream itself. By itself I would be led to think Mike is always failing to live up to other peoples’ expectations. No matter what he did, in every dream the exam paper was blank and he would fail. However, by enabling him to produce his own interpretation, we find out that his blankness is an avoidance of doing something else. In avoiding his emotions, his sadness over his sister’s death, he made himself blank. Getting in touch with this made him realize that he really wanted to be somewhere else. His normal conforming attitude to life’s rules was an exercise in futility – he became blank. By allowing himself to stay blank, he understood his need, his emotional need to be somewhere else: grieving for his sister.

As a recurring dream, the message was the same. Whenever he avoided his own emotions, especially strong ones, he made himself blank. His unconscious self knows this is not healthy, so his dreams continue to produce the same message. He needs to experience being blank – not waking up scared of being blank.

By avoiding the blankness – or the repression of his emotions, he is stuck. The recurrence of the dream is meant to emphasise his stuckness. By using the Gestalt process of staying in the impasse, getting him to experience that impasse, he was able in the now to be blank.

Now, here is the essence of Gestalt. The therapist does not interpret the blankness, nor fill in the message. There is no message, just blankness.

Now comes the change – the Aha! experience. As Fritz Perls used to say “I don’t have to be here”, this is the implosion – the going away from the dead middle zone of non-contact with either the self or the environment. The movement towards self, away from fear of what might be – to what is.

“I’m in South Africa at my sister’s grave”. Here we are at an explosion of authentic behaviour – grief at his sister’s death.

In this work, the therapist’s job is to enable the client to move away from roles and cliches into the impasse. Then the work is to frustrate the client from avoiding the impasse – but to remain there, in the now, experiencing the anxiety this will produce. The healing human who stays with this impasse will produce the organically whole response – the activity that frees and fulfills the authentic needs of the individual.

References

Fritz Perls: Gestalt Therapy Verbatim

C.G. Jung: Analytical Psychology, its Theory & Practice.

Hank O’Mahony is co-founder of the Irish Gestalt Centre. He has run a number of Dream Workshops using Gestalt, and is currently researching a book on the Gestalt approach to dreams. He has been leading groups for 25 years and has 7 years experience training psychotherapists.