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Dreams in therapy


One of the most common questions I get asked as a psychotherapist is “will you be interested in my dreams?” I wanted to take this opportunity to outline some of the theoretical strengths and weaknesses in dream work in therapy.

  • Case studies are the main sources of information; they have not been methodologically controlled.
  • They are so different from waking experience that they were seen as not being valid material for cognitive research.
  • They are so personal and subjective that you can’t apply scientific methods to the study of dreams.
  • It is inconvenient and expensive to collect data.
  • Nightmares don’t occur in lab conditions.

However, some therapists believe:

  • We can ‘incorporate our dream material into our waking lives both to increase our self awareness and to extend our creativity.’ (Cushway and Sewell, 1992)
  • Everybody dreams
  • There are five stages of dreaming. Dreams during REM are more vivid and easier to remember.
  • About 25% of adult sleep is in REM – it decreases as we get older
  • Most REM sleep is near morning.
  • Dreams occur in real time
  • If deprived of REM sleep, people will make it up if given the opportunity
  • There’s no consensus about why we dream:

o   The brainstem generates random impulses that the cortex tries to make sense of

o   Memory re-organisation and the collection of unwanted memories

Information processing


Ancient Civilisations
  • Two methods of interpretation

o   The whole dream as a symbol for another context

o   Each symbol was looked up in a dream book

  • Egyptians believed dreams were messages from the gods.
  • Native Americans had dream friends
  • Many other cultures practised dream incubation – people would ask for a message from the gods to be sent in a dream as an answer to a problem or illness.

20th Century

  • Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) marks a turning point in dreamwork
  • Jung and Perls both contributed to dream study
  • The concept of Lucid Dreaming has been recently explored as a therapeutic tool.


  • Dreams were neurotic symptoms and wish fulfilments rooted in infantile sexuality and repressed by the superego
  • The latent content is disguised to protect our anxiety if we wake
  • Dreams are therefore a safety valve and the guardians of sleep
  • Dreamwork translates the latent from the manifest through free association of each element. It undoes the work of the censor and unscrambles the code.
  • His theories were seminal


  • There’s little evidence that dreams are repressed wishes (animals/foetuses etc)
  • Some dreams are sexual or aggressive and people sleep through them
  • The symbols may be reductionist, especially the sexual element
  • They change according to culture, circumstance etc
  • The opposite of Freud’s protection theory may be true – a function of sleep may be to allow dreaming
  • The patriarchal nature of Freudian thinking may lead to women’s dreams being misunderstood.


  • Jung extended Freud’s thoughts.
  • Dreams have a teleological function
  • He thought dreams were normal and creative, not a disturbance.
  • Their purpose is to restore psychological homeostasis and individuation.
  • He was more focused on the current experience of the dreamer and about the issues of existence
  • Each aspect of the dream shows something personal about the dreamer
  • Dreams were an ucs drive to health; the cs can be involved
  • Encouraged the exploration of symbols as personal and transcendent, not formulaic
  • Focused on manifest content: symbols had power of their own and could reveal rather than hide thoughts/wishes
  • ‘the dream is its own interpretation’ and ‘dreams are the direct expression of the unconscious’ (CW 7)
  • Less interpretation. Amplification and imagination are more therapeutic.
  • Didn’t use free association but wanted to focus on the story of the dream/s
  • Used myths and legends to find significant symbols – they showed a layer of the mind common to the whole universe: the collective ucs
  • Archetypes are symbols that show the common and pervasive interests of mankind.
  • Dreams are creative and helpful rather than shameful
  • They compensate, using symbols, for the limitations of consciousness – we can ask ‘what conscious attitude does it compensate?’ (CW 7)


  • Not enough emphasis on body or sexuality
  • allusions may be too high-brow for most people

disguised, – recovered through free association.


  • Developed Jung’s dream theories
  • Focused on here and now rather than Freudian ucs
  • Felt dreams were the ‘royal road to integration.’
  • Existential message rather than wishful thinking
  • Dreams help resolve unfinished business
  • Each object is a projected part of ourselves – we need to re-own them  (cf Jung’s idea of repressed parts of personality as dream objects)
  • Re-tell dream in 1st person; present tense; speak as each object and create a dialogue; may integrate by having dialogue between topdog and underdog.
  • The repressed parts are brought into awareness by acting out characters/objects – turning ‘it into I’


  • It may be difficult to act out all the parts in a dream
  • It may distract the client from the story

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