Updated: Nov 27, 2021
Each night when I go to sleep, I look forward to my dreams. Dreams are often far more creative
then our conscious mind could ever conjure up. Dreams are entertaining, sometimes disquieting, rarely one hopes, frightening. Of more import, they give a person a connection with him or her's deepest self.
Dreams are notorious for being bizarre and seemingly senseless yet when approached in the right way, they point toward important aspects of our psychological being, aspects that though important, may be neglected in our conscious thoughts. Permit an example.
Years ago an astute patient came in reporting a dream and and an interpretation that he had come up with between counseling sessions. The heart of the dream consisted of the patient being seriously physically beaten. When the patient woke up he as curious about this dream as his life was for the most part harmonious, and he had little to do with violence in his waking life. He let his mind wander around the concept of being beaten and recalled that he had heard on the previous day's financial news that the stock marker had that day taken a beating. He then directed his attention to his own finances and uncovered that his credit balance was markedly out of control with a balance of some 30 thousand dollars. He credited the dream for waking him up to the realities of his debt and quickly arranged to pay off the loan.
Freud's, 'Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis' is a wonderful place to get an orientation to the classical method of dream interpretation. The approach beings with the idea of mental determinism. This concept holds that apparently random thoughts are hardly random. A significant amount of research leading to this theory was done by Carl Jung. In typical studies subjects were asked to rapidly report a string of words as they came to mind. It was shown that such strings of words, though seemingly random, tended to center around a central idea that was not necessarily in the subjects immediate awareness. The psychologists at the time called these more central thoughts complexes.
Next is the idea that a dream is composed of 'elements,' that is, discreet parts, often images, that together constitute the dream. In interpreting a dream patients are encouraged to center their thoughts on a particular element and let their thoughts wander around this element rather than trying to interpret the dream as a coherent narrative. Permit me to give an example.
Years ago a patient reported while in session a dream in which one of the salient elements was a fire hydrant. I invited the patient to center his thoughts on this image and see what came to mind. The emerging thoughts were as follows. First, he remembered that as a child on hot summer days firemen would sometimes come through the neighborhood and open up a hydrant to let the local children play in the water's spray. This led the patient to think of his childhood, friend, Ray, a neighbor who would often join the patient in their summer play.
The patient then expressed surprise at this memory and his thoughts suddenly took a different tack. He mentioned that the firm where he worked had recently hired a new manager whose first name was Ray. He gave a little chuckle as he noticed the dream directing his attention to this. The patient then went on for the rest of the session talking about problematic aspects of his job.
This brings up a third issue. Dreams often present the concerns of a patients in a disguised manner. The above patient's dream was hardly concerned with fire hydrants. The dream, once properly interpreted, drew the patients attention to a serious present day challenge at work.
In effectively working with a dream it is important to not treat the dream as a coherent narrative such as one would expect out of a book or movie. Rather, one isolates the remembered elements of a dream and lets the mind wanter around them. Such wanderings are like the collecting of pieces to a jig-saw puzzle. Once enough pieces are laid out on the table, it is then that one can begin to rationally step back and see how they fit together.
I can also be helpful to scan for thoughts for what Freud called a day residue; around the time of the dream have there been any significant life events that might have impacted on the dreamer's life. Dreams tend to be instigated by trends in life that we are not paying much attention to, an example. A patient on the eve of a dream noticed a Facebook ad that a friend had posted to sell a kayak. That evening she dreamt as follows: she was invited into the house of this friend who she had actually not seen in years. The house was notably exquisitely appointed with museum like beauty and style. The dreamer reported a day residue of having seen on social media the posting of a set of golf clubs that this old friend was wanting to sell. As the session unfolded and the patient's thoughts evolved, she became aware of feelings of inadequacy around disappointments she had experienced in her career relative to the overt professional success of her friend.
Freud's 'New Introductory Lectures,' have a number of helpful chapters for those interested in exploring dreams. The essence of Freud's observations on dreams is that we own the symbols of our dreams, it's only infrequently that a universal symbol has much utility in unravelling the meaning of a dream. We arrive at an understanding of the symbols in our dreams by letting our thoughts wander around the dream's different elements. We then try to assemble the ensuing thoughts, essentially a jig-saw puzzle, into some kind of meaning.
We should conclude with a few words of caution. Namely, that alongside the patient's desire to progress and acquire self knowledge there can be resistance in doing so; some aspects of oneself can be stressful to encounter. It can happen that a dream will suggest to the therapist qualities of the patient's psyche that the patient is not ready to hear. These observations can be filed away and dealt with at a time when doing so is constructive.
Also, dream interpretation is somewhat like panning for gold. One dips into the stream of the patients psyche, sifts the sand, and often will come up with nothing. Patience, however, will almost always be rewarded by eventually revealing something precious.