The Art of Dream Interpretation; A Practical Guide for Psychotherapists and Counsellors

by Paul Bradley

‘We discover new oceans when we lose sight of the shore’ (Anon)

A dream is always telling you something you do not know. Dreams bring to your attention vital information that you are not yet aware of. This information can play a key role in your clients therapeutic process in addition to been an invaluable resource that catalyses transformation. Each dream offers a unique expression of your clients psychological situation, giving you the therapist, a precise and objective statement about the psychological reality that is confronting your client. Working with your client on their dreams enables the person to reconnect to their own deep inner nature, to their inherent source of wisdom and guidance and to their untapped and often unknown creative potential.

‘Dreams that have not been interpreted are like letters that have not been opened’  (The Talmud)

This article has a number of aims, most notably to introduce psychotherapists and counsellors to the rich, creative resource that is available to them through dreams, to define some of the basic principles and guidelines for working with dreams in a therapeutic practice, to outline the key methodology of dream interpretation using some practical examplesand to highlight key points on dream types, themes and recurring images. As I write, I am very much aware of the depth of gratitude I owe to my clients and to those who consented to offer their dreams for the purpose of this article. They have made an immense contribution to my understanding of dreamwork and it has been both an honour and a privilege to have shared the intimacy of the therapeutic space and to bear witness to their transformation.

‘Take one step towards dreams and they will take two steps towards you’

Let us commence with a question that I am regularly asked by psychotherapists and counsellors; can I use dream interpretation coming from a Humanistic or Integrative approach? The answer is of course yes. Dream interpretation can be used by any therapist regardless of their training or therapeutic orientation. This question may have its roots in the past because traditionally, dreamwork was perceived as the task of the psychoanalyst. Consequently therapists from other disciplines may incorrectly perceive dreamwork as something that is beyond their competency. The truth is, dream interpretation like any other therapeutic skill, can be learned and is readily accessible to any therapist who has a willingness and a motivation to utilise it. In fact, when you start working with dreams they will speak your therapeutic language.

When I first commenced facilitating workshops for psychotherapists and counsellors on dream interpretation, I became aware that their dreams were already oriented to their therapeutic perspectives. This supports my conviction that the inner architect that produces dreams has a compelling urge for its work to be known and understood.

In the hands of an empathetic therapist a dream will reveal itself.

 ‘You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born’ 

                                                                                          (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Dream interpretation is both an art and a skill and there are a range of techniques and principles that are helpful to follow when you approach a dream. Other important requirements are feeling, sensitivity and intuition, qualities most therapists already possess.  An affinity for art, poetry, literature or music will also help. Effective dream interpretation is predicated on the therapists ability to engender a ‘felt’ experience in the client, ie the interpretation must resonate for the person at a deep level. The dream remains uninterpreted until this corresponding associative affect-response emerges from the dreamer. This essential requirement can be reached through the following methodology of dream interpretation known as the personal association and amplification technique which were developed by Carl Jung.

There are four steps in this approach; obtaining a clear understanding of the details in the dream, clarifying the personal associations, establishing the affect-response of the dreamer, popularly known as the AHA! Moment and integrating the dream, its meaning and its context into the persons life. One pointer that is helpful is to remember is that your client is the creator of their dream and on a deep level already understands what that dream means. What is required is to bring that answer to awareness.

The methodology

Every dream is made up of a series of images. Each image has a specific and personal meaning for the dreamer. To determine the personal meaning of the images you need to ask the dreamer a series of questions related to each image. These questions will then generate their personal associations to each image. Personal associations are any thoughts, ideas, feelings, memories or mental pictures that occur in their mind when they are focussing on the image in the dream. Begin by asking the person to think about the first image that appears in the dream. Then ask the dreamer questions related to the image. For example some of the questions might be;

  • · What thoughts come to mind when you think about this image?
  • · What feelings do you have around this image?
  • · Where have you seen this before?
  • · What does this image remind you of?

Next write down each association the dreamer makes to each image. Connect the personal associations with the image. Remember that the language of dreams is symbolic and rarely literal.Explore the clients feelings and emotional themes throughout the dream. Reach the affect-response stage. Relate the dream to the clients every day life situation. Integrate the dreams message.

A word of caution here, if no associations are forthcoming just use silence and simply be present. The associations are never too far away and may just need a little time to surface. Fritz Perls put it succintly when he wrote ‘Don’t push the river, it flows by itself.’ Asking specific questions relating to the images in the dream will uncover the clients personal associations. To advance the dream into a valid interpretation however requires the connection of the image with the correct personal association. Now we come to the critical point and once again to the key statement made earlier; Dream interpretation is a felt experience, it must generate an emotional response from the dreamer.

In making this right connection its similar to touching a ‘live wire’ something just clicks into place. This causes a reaction from the client, the Aha! moment, and this is usually when the meaning of the dream starts to becomes apparent. Often this is marked by a palpable shift in the clients awareness and the energy and psychological dynamic changes. The only reliable criterion by which you can determine this is through getting the dreamers assent. You must get that emotional reaction from the client. Not just a rational thought, observation or an engagement in intellectual discourse. It must come from an inner place with a noted affect response. Silence from the therapist at this point will deepen the experience thus allowing the ‘knowing’ to permeate fully into awareness. This depth response also acts as a catalyst, as a prime motivator that can inspire the client into taking the corrective action that is needed to integrate the dreams message and resolve the issue at hand.

‘Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art’

 (Leonardo da Vinci)

The client

Katie (names and personal details have been changed) is a 46 year old self-employed psychotherapist, trained in the UK, happily married with two children and living and working in Ireland. Katie has been working part-time as a psychotherapist and was supplementing her income with secretarial work. She has also recently passed an interview and has just been awarded a full-time psychotherapy position with a national organisation. Katie is having mixed feelings, has trouble sleeping and is experiencing anxiety dreams and occasional nightmares.

She finds herself in a dilemna and discloses ‘I don’t know what is wrong with me, I should be happy, I have been offered a well paid permanent job with no worries about finding clients, money concerns and all the other headaches that go with a private practice. She added ‘But why does it not feel right, why do I get the sense that I am missing something? A week later she returns with this dream;

Scene 1.

I am in the city and have lost my handbag. There are dogs barking and then suddenly I am being attacked by snakes, they are sliding all over the pavement.

Scene 2.

I am in the countryside, near where my childhood home was. I am on a bicycle.

Scene 3.

Now I am walking in a part of the countryside that feels familiar but I am not sure where. There are some old buildings in the distance. As I pass close by, some dogs emerge but they are happy and playful. I feel an urge to enter one of the buildings and something tells me to go in. As I enter I notice a mirror and I can see that I am wearing old clothes. Then it gets dark but I don’t feel distressed. I wait for a while before a light goes on. In the corner I notice a staircase leading down. In the next scene I am in the basement. I meet ‘Gina’ who is smiling at me. She has a child, a beautiful one year old baby boy, and she says please take care of him. As I take the baby in my arms, he looks at me and astonishingly for a child of his age, loudly proclaims ‘Let the work begin’!

Katie’s personal associations to the images in her dream?

In the first scene she is in the city, on a street close by to where the headquarters of the national organisation is located. She has lost her handbag which for her represents her most personal belongings. The handbag in the dream is one she usually carries to work. She can’t see the dogs so cannot relate anything to them however the snakes are very threatening. She feels highly agitated and afraid. In the second scene she is aware that she is riding her bike that she used to have as a teenager aged seventeen. Here she is cycling at leisure, feeling very much at ease with herself, under no pressure. In the third scene she doesn’t recognise the area of the countryside or the buildings but the location feels familiar. The dogs are very friendly and she feels safe around them. The old clothes are what she used to wear two years ago. ‘Gina’ is a well known successful local business woman. The baby boy doesn’t look like any child she knows but she feels a very deep connection to him. She is amazed at what he says to her.

What does this dream mean for Katie?

In the first scene, clearly there is something not right. Animals are instinctive creatures and in dreams usually signify the instincts. Whenever you see aggressive animals or animals that are sick or injured it’s likely to be an indication that the person is not in tune with their instincts and are going against their intuition. The appearance of snakes in dreams can often represent the flow of instinctual energy. Snake dreams often occur when there is a considerable distance between the logical rational mind and the deep instincts. So here is an indication that she is not in accordance with what her instincts are telling her. The location is very revealing because it is a street that leads to the organisations headquarters.

In the second scene, she feels very much at ease, happily cycling her bicycle.

For her the age of seventeen represents freedom.

In the last scene, the dogs are very friendly so this is a clear indication that in this place she is coming into alignment with her instincts. Old buildings in dreams usually indicate old parts or dimensions of the psyche signifying hidden or unexplored areas of the person’s potential. Katie feels the mirror is reflecting her self-image as a psychotherapist and readily admits she has some work to do on self-belief and validation. Waiting in the dark for her felt like the quiet moments she needs that helps her to connect with her intuition. Gina, while not a friend, is someone who she admires because she is a self-employed, successful businesswoman.

Summary

Editorial parameters limit a full description of the interpretative process involved in Katies’ dream. But a brief outline will reveal the most salient points.

Katies’ instincts are in revolt and her intuition is revealing that this full time position while very appealing is not for her. Scene two of the dream alerts her to the time in her life when she felt freedom and the self-propelling motion of the bicycle suggests she can once again recreate this in her life and ‘travel’ at her own pace. Scene three takes her into her untapped creative potential, highlighting her own’ inner Gina’, that dimension of her psyche that can help her establish her own business and be successful. But how is she going to achieve this? The key is the baby. Babies in dreams often signify creative potential, a new opportunity or enterprise. The child is a one year old and during this discussion the Aha! moment was initiated by one particular question; what began in your life one year ago? She replied that last year she was invited by an organisation to give a seminar for unmarried mothers in the town where she lived. She enjoyed this seminar immensely, had received great feedback and had ideas for a developing a full programme but at the time she didn’t take it any further. This discussion made her reavaluate her skills and abilities as a therapist.

The outcome

Katie bravely declined the job offer and set about re-focussing her efforts. She put together a programme for women and followed up some contacts. Within a month she was approached by two organisations to run group programmes for women. Katie is aware that while the full-time position would have given her security it would not have allowed her the scope to run her own programmes in her own way. She is thriving in her new role and her income is now steadily increasing. She is delighted with the freedom she has to develop her career at her own pace and is happily allowing her natural talents as a psychotherapist to emerge.

 ‘Find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life’  (Buddha)

Dream Types

‘The soul thinks in images’  (Aristotle). In this last section I will illustrate three different types of dreams and this categorisation may give you additional assistance in determining what psychological situation your client may be presenting. Compensation Dreams usually occurs when the conscious mind is taking a one-sided view or perspective of a life situation and consequently is missing the full picture. An example from Dave, a 35 year old computer programmer. His dream; ‘I see my boss stumbling along the road, he gets into his car and is driving erratically’

What emerged from this dream was that the client looked up to his employer and had an idealised and somewhat inflated opinion of him. In a recent development at work, Dave’s important input had been disregarded which led to a lost contract and subsequent loss of income. This dream helped Dave to review his work situation and to place a much needed higher value and appreciation on his own abilities. In compensation dreams, look for dream themes that take the opposite view of the predominant conscious perspective.

Archetypal Dreams are the ‘big’ dreams and they tend to occur at important phases of life. They have an urgency and significance that is not present in other dreams and their memory can last for months or even years. Frequently composed of figures, objects and experiences not encountered in ordinary life situations, in these dreams you will find strange or unusual beings, mythical creatures and out of this world places. Archetypal dreams can have a cosmic quality to them, such as changes in the bodies’ proportions, movement at tremendous speed or over enormous distances. Whenever you encounter vivid, bizarre or extraordinary images you have an archetypal dream on your hands. Archetypal dreams often appear at a period preceding a very significant life change. From a therapeutic perspective archetypal dreams are very important because they are usually concerned with the fate or destiny of the individual. Establishing explanations for these dreams may present a specialised task for their predictions function at a spiritual or metaphysical level. When handled correctly however, they are extremely beneficial and are of immense personal value to your client.

Prognosis through dreams

Dreams can provide you with diagnostic and prognostic evidence and in this context can offer you invaluable information to deep psychological or impending conditions.

A 57 year old man suffering from schizophrenia presents this dream; ‘I see my house and my back garden engulfed in a tidal wave.’ For this client his dreams have a very helpful predictive quality. He has learned that whenever he has not kept to his medication regime, his dreams will subsequently create dramatic images around water themes which are warning him of an impending psychosis.

Some clients can produce dreams that can appear dramatic or fascinating. On further investigation the client may also consciously give the impression that all is well. If you come across dream themes such as the sea flooding the land, graves opening up, mutilations or severe, bleak or hopeless situations these may be indicative of unstable psychological states. What the therapist needs to look for here are extreme polarizations between the dream images and the conscious position. This is often revealed through the emotional atmosphere or the lack of reaction the client has to the dream images. This type of prognosis can be extremely useful in the very early stages of therapy for it can indicate to the therapist that the client may be consciously very weak or severely wounded in development. Supportive measures can then be initiated to consolidate ego stability and strength.

Dream Themes

In compiling a list of dream themes I am aware of the misleading ‘cookbook’ approach taken by many authors on dream interpretation. All dream images are contextual. The same image may mean different things in different dreams, and certainly so when it is dreamed by someone else. The examples given here should be taken as guidelines only, offering clues or pointers that may be useful in certain contexts. Please note, there are numerous dream themes but I am presenting these five because of the frequency that they are occuring in recent dream workshops.

Death or Dying Themes. Death in dreams very rarely points to actual death. On a small scale it signifies that something is in the process of ending. At the other end of the spectrum it may be indicative of deep-rooted psychological change.

Clothing represents the persona or self-image of the individual and how they present themselves to society. This type of dream imagery can present very useful information that can help to clarify issues around self-esteem and self-validation.

Colours  frequently turn up in archetypal dreams. Once again the persons associations to colour plays a pivotal role however a good guide can be found in the Chakra system. Each chakra has a corresponding colour and knowledge of the chakra system can be of value here.

Pregnancy / Babies. As displayed in the example these are auspicious symbols and are often indicative of unrealised creative abilities. Babies in dreams can represent giving birth to some new endeavor. Try to establish the age of the baby ie a one year old child can signify something that began around one year ago in the dreamers life. This type of dream is particularly useful for determining career moves and progression. Pay special attention to the ‘precocious child’ motif. This signifies that the potential is at a considerable stage of advancement.

Cars or Vehicles. We use cars to get from A to B and in dreams they may indicate a person’s issues around direction. Look for where the dreamer is seated in the car, the driver’s seat suggests control whereas the passenger seat or back seat may denote difficulties in taking charge or issues around disempowerment or passivity. Cars in this context offer a rich source of information.

 ‘Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about’ (Rumi)

Conclusion

Dreams are there to help us. Using dreams in therapy is a highly practical way of accessing material that is inspirational, relevant and immediate to your clients current needs. Fritz Perls said dreams are ‘the path to integration’. Freud declared the dream as the ‘royal road that illuminates the knowledge of the unconscious.’ Jung described dreams ‘as a hidden door to the inner recesses of the soul.’Which ever road, path or door you decide to take, dream interpretation constitutes an invaluable therapeutic resource that may prove to be ‘the richest jewel in the treasure-house of psychological experience’.

Paul Bradley is a psychotherapist in private practice in Co. Kildare.

References

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