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Working Creatively with Dreams

By Inger Nolan, M. Psych. Sc., Reg. Psychologist PSI

“Imagination is more important than knowledge” Albert Einstein

The paradoxical quality of Dreams and symbolic or creative activities has always fascinated me. Creativity appears to me as sparkles of light connected to something that is greater than we can grasp. I get a glimpse of genuine “truths” of my life, I am excited by the richness of creative activities and the satisfaction of seeing results. However, there is also a frustrating, elusive quality. The “meaning” of a dream, or a piece of art is multipleit cannot be fully captured.

In this article I would like to convey the richness I experience in working creatively with dreams. I view dreams as spontaneous manifestations of an innate ability to express conscious and unconscious wishes, fears, inner conflicts and hidden parts of ourselves in a symbolic way. Apart from dreams there are many human activities that are expressions of creative aspects of ourselves and that follow the principles of the unconscious rather than “ordinary” rationality: These include painting, drawing, sculpting, free association, visual imagery, ritual, improvised expressive drama, including movement, dance and voice work. All these activities are basic to human life and find expression in most cultures. They have a strong potential for integration, since creative activities engage areas within us that are often disavowed and split off.

From early infancy emotions are strongly connected to perception and learning, including the formation of a sense of self in relation to others. (Stern 1986) These early patterns of experiencing also remain part of our ways of being as adults, while more differentiated and specialised ways of functioning are also developed. Psychotherapy is concerned with finding pathways between emotions, desires, intellectual understanding, images, perceptions and the body.

In my work as a psychologist and psychotherapist over the last 20 years, I have drawn primarily from psychoanalytic theories. I also incorporate Gestalt methods, a systemic-constructivist perspective, body-oriented methods and art in my work. In my practice I work psychotherapeutically with individuals and groups. An essential part of this work is focusing on themes connecting past and present, working with transference as expressed in patterns of resistance, defences and regression. These different approaches all form part of my work with dreams.

In this article I will describe how I use creative techniques in working with dreams. I will also explore how creative processes relate to therapeutic change and I will discuss some non provocative ways of working towards a strength­ening of ego-functioning. I have altered the case examples for the purpose of confidentiality and I have asked the people concerned for permission to write about their work with me.

Creative Work Taps into Core Issues:

Creative work often leads directly to core issues such as bereavement, abuse, loneliness and existential pain. It can also evoke the joy of expanding and exploring inner resources and desires. To be able to work with dreams, imagery and art in a therapeutic way, I need to have adequate training, to have undergone my own therapy and to be in ongoing supervision. This active approach to psychotherapy involves the risk of the client becoming emotionally “flooded”, but it also gives an opportunity to face and work with these central issues. I trust and encourage peoples’ own ability to regulate the level of intensity in their work. Nevertheless, I have to be prepared to help people deal with their confusion, stuckness or feelings of being overexposed. To illustrate these points I will cite a case from my own practice:

Peter, a sensitive man of 49 years had a stable job as an accountant. He attended an ongoing art therapy group for two years. He had discovered that painting eased his chronic tensions. “It’s like crying”, he said, having been unable to cry since he was young. In the first meeting he panicked in front of the pieces of fine art (depicting people or landscapes) that he thought he had to produce. He spent the time rolling a piece of clay into a ball between his palms. He saved this piece of clay which represented safety for him. Peter sometimes had what he experienced as strange dreams related to strong fears: There were coloured geometric disconnected figures moving around slowly. In his work in the group he gradually allowed himself to paint or draw whatever seemed to come to the foreground for him. For over a year he painted geometric figures from his dreams. He did this with great interest, allowing himself to be very engaged and emotional in his way of painting. The composition (for example, proximity or barriers between figures on the paper) represented Peter’s inner world, parts of his personality. I supported Peter in finding his own “language” of colours, forms and his very personal process of creating. This work gave him a sense of stability and control, being less frightened of and alienated from his own creations. This led to a stage in the therapy in which Peter began to interact more with people in the group and the transference with me deepened. In the last meeting Peter worked on a flat disc of clay. He showed it to me, saying with a warm smile; “look here is the ball, it is not closed any more”. This symbolised Peter’s increased openness and trust towards me and the group, and towards people in his daily life.

There are some situations where I would not encourage deeper or more provoking work: For instance in the beginning of therapy or if I notice somebody has poor defences and boundaries or easily becomes too anxious. In these cases I concentrate on supporting inner resources and work on strengthening boundaries on a real and symbolic level. This may enable a person to feel safer in looking at hidden and conflictual parts of themselves at a later stage. An example of this is my work with Emma, in the beginning of an ongoing therapy group:

Emma, an emotionally vulnerable woman of 35, dreamed she was hiding inside a half collapsed brick wall. A lot of competent and efficient people were laughing and chatting on the other side of this wall. Emma was afraid they would notice her, drag her out and embarrass her. As she told the dream in a group, I was aware that Emma felt intimidated by the presence of other group members. I asked her, “If you look back on this dream now, what do you think would have helped you to feel safer?” She thought for a while and said, “Maybe I would use some of those bricks on the ground to make the wall higher.” I asked how high she would build the wall to feel more secure. As she smiled and showed with her hand she explained hesitantly; “If I build it too high, I can’t see them. I replied: ” Yes, then you can’t look at them; you would feel safer, but it wouldn’t be quite right.” Then she started to laugh: “I know, I can make holes in the wall so that I can look out but they cannot see me”.

I view this session with Emma as an integrative piece of work in an atmosphere where a sense of safety was building up. While talking about how to take control of the situation in the dream she was actually able to show herself in the group without feeling too exposed.

Examples of Creative Ways of Working with Dreams

The following are some of the ways I work creatively with dreams:


The client may enact the dream or part of it in a form of psychodrama. I help the ‘dreamer’ to assign roles to group members. The drama emerges, inspired by the sensitivity and creativity of the group. The dreamer can step back with my support and experience the dream from different perspectives.

Gestalt Role Play

A Gestalt approach to dreamwork is based on the notion that every object, detail, event or person in the dream represents owned and disowned parts of the dreamer. The dreamer tells the dream in the present tense. As therapist I help the dreamer to engage in dialogue where he or she role plays two elements from the dream to explore the inner conflict or polarity.

Body Oriented Work

I sometimes suggest the dreamer physically takes the body posture from a dream, in order to deepen his or her understanding of the dream. The session might then develop into a more intense body oriented work where I follow what seems to be important in the person’s process. Mary’s session following a nightmare illustrates this:

Mary was 53 and worked in an office. She had been in individual therapy with me for almost two years and had established a trust in me. The relationship between us was stable. One of her problems was that she felt choked and paralysed when people got angry – even when it was not directed towards her. She dreamt she was curling up behind some bushes. There were loud and hostile people on the other side of the bushes. She woke up paralysed with fear. When she told this dream she emphasised the awkward body position. I suggested she take the same position as in the dream, in order to explore further what it meant for her. As she curled up behind a chair in the therapy room, a vivid childhood memory suddenly appeared: Mary was silently witnessing a violent fight between her parents. Through focusing on the body in this way, Mary was able to re-experience the intense fear she felt in relation to her parents’ arguing. This work led to other important memories she had forgotten. Gradually she found a healthier way of breathing and reacting to frightening situations.

The Use of Active Imagery

After the dreamer has told the dream, I often invite and encourage ‘daydreaming’ in a relaxed state, starting with the last scene of the dream. This technique allows a controlled, temporary regression into an archaic and symbolic inner reality. In imagery I stay on a descriptive level focusing on what is ‘seen, heard and sensed’. The whole emotional drama is now transformed into symbols of concrete objects,actions,weather, colours, forms and textures. The work with Lisa is an example of how I let imagery follow upon telling a dream:

Lisa, 41, was a manageress in a small restaurant. She was a socially and emotionally stable woman on the surface but had problems with forming an intimate relationship. She wanted to explore a recent nightmare, from which she only remembered being enclosed within a high towerlike wall of solid granite. She woke up feeling uneasy, trying to find a way out. In the subsequent imagery work she started where the dream had finished. I focused on details she could see, touch or sense. Lisa was impatient at being closed in and continued to ‘run around’ inside this tower for a while, looking for an exit. After a while she seemed to be able to focus on what she actually had around her, inside the walls – there was soft grass, sunshine, her own bag. She decided to sit down and rest (she almost fell asleep in the session). Eventually, she said; “Well, this is a real shelter, isn’t it?” After another silence she said; “There is a part here I can climb over, it is not that high after all”. She climbed over and found herself refreshed in a nice landscape, before she returned to the present.

Following work with imagery it is important for me as a therapist to be guided by the process that emerges spontaneously form the images. This may, at times involve suspending trying to understand the dream and the imagery on an intellectual level.

Painting, Collage and Claywork

Some part of the dream that the dreamer finds particularly interesting can be explored in clay, paint or collage. I encourage the client to find colours to express the atmosphere in a dream, or to catch the interaction between elements in the dream with paint or clay. An illustration is the case of Billy:

Billy, a man in his 60’s, who had been in individual therapy for 6 months, wanted to use clay to explore a dream: He saw a lifeless, weak old man sitting on a chair in the middle of a street. A shadow suddenly appeared from a lane nearby, growing into a big bird. Billy was agitated and thrilled as he was forming the clay into claws, big wings and a pointed beak. The bird’s whole attention was focused on an old man’s face lying flat below, with hollow eyes and mouth. This session developed into working on Billy’s fear of dying, but was also connected to his tendency to ‘attack’ his own spontaneity. For the next few months in therapy he was struggling with the themes of dying and ‘killing spontaneity’. He often referred to this session as a breakthrough in his understanding of the victim part of himself as well as his more hidden, cruel side.

Dreams or imagery can be more colourful and vivid in their details than when expressed on paper or in clay. Moreover, there is often something new coming into a picture even if the intention is to represent the dream. Because of this, I encourage the painters or the dreamers to allow every new creation to be different. It is a new stage in the flow of this person’s experience and expression. Once a person tells a dream, the integrating process has already started, as is demonstrated in the following example.

Linda, a young woman of 24, in a once off weekend group, painted a big, gray, ‘horrible’ mist from a dream. While she was painting it, in the upper right hand corner of the paper she got an impulse to put in a red dot to the left in the picture. She enjoyed that and painted a few bright coloured matchstick men around this red dot and said: “They are playing. (Pause) This mist is really bugging me!” I asked “What is it about it that’s bugging you?” She replied: “It’s that I don’t know how big it is! It was kind of everywhere (in the dream) and I didn’t know where it would end.” I gave Linda a choice, whether to finish or to explore further how far the mist would go. She worked for another while on the matchstick men. After a few minutes she started to add paper after paper to the original one, attaching them with Sellotape and painting the mist until it covered several square yards on the floor. The mist was big, but eventually contours all the way around developed, forming a cloud. Linda was extremely satisfied, laughed and giggled as she showed it to the group.

I view the dot and the matchstick men as Linda’s successful attempt to gain courage in exploring aspects of the dark side of this dream and within herself. When I met Linda a few months later in another context she told me she had gained important insights through the work she had done that weekend.

Therapeutic Stance

The central factor in my way of working with dreams is to be present to the client and to be receptive in listening, to create an atmosphere of safety. This can be described in Winnicott’s (1971) terms, as ‘the potential space’ – an area between inner reality and the outer world where fantasy and reality meet.

In the therapeutic relationship the client can explore development and growth without too intense demands for closeness and interaction. Cultural and creative activities can be seen as examples of this ‘potential space’.

I am often struck by the uniqueness of people’s own understanding of their dreams, imagery and art. I let myself be guided by what the client says about them in order to understand their meaning. A road disappearing towards the horizon in a dream (or a picture) for one person could mean a frightening unsureness about the future, while for another person it is a romantic image, full of promises. The colour of black may mean power and action for one; while for another it could mean despair, weakness, a depressive “black hole”. For a third person, black is clarity, identity and being defined. The case of Peter described above, is an example of how this uniqueness can be approached.

In working with peoples’ dreams Invite them to tell the dream in the present tense. This makes it more vivid. I encourage the dreamer to give associations to the dream. I find it valuable to give comments in a non-intrusive way, like offering different ideas, without pressurising the client to accept them. Group participants can add interesting perspectives by giving personal responses. However, it is important to be aware that our reactions to another person’s dream or painting are coloured by our own personal perceptions.

Chaos and Standstill

People often associate creativity with art, new ideas, problem solving and productivity. However, we should also be aware that periods of standstill, a sense of chaos, and even despair are equally essential sides of creativity. A therapy session, a dream or project (such as writing an article) or a life situation can move from the stage of ideas, inspiration and increasing activity, to slowing down, losing track, self doubt, giving up and again getting ideas and so on. A deeper understanding and a sense of being anchored in reality often emerges from these less exciting, often unpleasant periods. As a therapist I support the client to accept these experiences, to contain them without giving solutions or pushing for results. In my example of Lisa above I show how that can be done in imagery. It is important to be aware of my own personal reactions (counter-transference). For example, if I tend to avoid feelings of despair, it would be more difficult for me to tolerate the client going through periods of depression in therapy.

In conclusion, dreams provide us with an innate, spontaneous forum to express conscious and unconscious wishes and to move towards psychological integration. Creative therapeutic work can be seen as an extension of this natural process. Within the more long term context of psychotherapy, people can improve their psychological flexibility in gaining access to different levels of functioning: “doing”, using the senses, experience emotions, using imagination and being able to reflect and make sense of their experience. The safety of the therapeutic setting, in particular the therapeutic relationship, is central to my work.

Recommended Reading

Dalley, T. (ed.) (1984) Art as Therapy. Lon: Tavistock Pub.

Milner, M. (1950) On Not Being Able to Paint Lon: Heinemann.

Stern, D. (1985) The Interpersonal World of the Infant. NY: Basic Books

Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality. NY: Basic Books

Inger Nolan has worked as a psychologist and psychotherapist for 19 years in Sweden and for four years in Ireland. She has a broad training and experience in the areas of psychoanalytical psychotherapy, developmental psychology, body psychotherapy, family therapy, art therapy, Gestalt therapy and child psychiatry. Inger is currently in practice as a psychotherapist, supervisor and teacher in the “Irish Institute for Integrated Psychotherapy” in Dublin.

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