Monday, February 23, 2009

For Therapists: Enhancing Insight and Understanding of a Dream

Helping a client develop insight and understanding into a dream can be creative for the therapist, an opportunity to offer more input.

STEP ONE: Ask the client for an initial interpretation.
  • Respect the client’s point of view.
  • Assess how eager the client is to learn more about the dream, the level of desire for understanding the dream content. The client may be more interested in a concrete understanding of the dream or a more abstract or symbolic understanding. The therapist may already have a sense of the client’s personality and what level of understanding is desired or needed.
  • Listen for what part of the dream the client leaves out.
  • Notice whether the client is satisfied with this level of interpretation with their understanding or if they want more.
  • “Anything else this dream could mean?”
  • “What else could this dream be about?”
STEP TWO: Explore the dream more deeply. When helping a client interpret a dream, there are three levels of meaning that could be addressed, depending on the client’s level of interest.
  1. CONCRETE: the dream is interpreted as an experience unto itself. The therapist helps the client look at the dream as if it were something the client had lived through. A good question at this stage would be, “How did you feel about yourself in the dream?”
  2. WAKING LIFE: how does the dream related to waking life events, including thoughts and feelings about the present, past and future.
  3. INNER PERSONALITY DYNAMICS: This is an especially effective way of looking at a dream in which there is a lot of conflict, or with a dream that has images that seem disowned, bizarre, out of the ordinary, or symbolic. Inner parts interpretations can be further divided into three categories:
  • Parts of self interpretation consists of helping the client look at some or all of the images in the dream as parts of him or herself. Carl Jung believed that each image in a dream represented a part of the self. Gestalt dream work is similar, as is the two-chair exercise mentioned in my Dream Exploration post.
  • Childhood conflicts interpretation involves looking at how the dream shows various conflict originating in childhood but present in everyday life. Examples are the client's attempt to establish an identity separate from his or her parents, interpersonal styles learned in childhood that are maladaptive, or deep-seated personality conflicts, most of which originated in relationship to early attachment figures and were perpetuated through interpersonal interactions.
  • Existential-spiritual interpretation. The therapist can ask the client what the dream
    reflects about his or her relationship with a higher power or the meaning of life. Look for themes of isolation, freedom, and death anxiety.

Studies show that clients value the therapist’s thoughts and reactions to their dreams. If the therapist remains attuned to the clients feelings and comfort level, the therapist can reflect, “I wonder if the dream might mean….”

As always, the therapist needs to remain attuned to his or her own motivations for the words spoken to a client. If the therapist hears any disagreement from the client, or feeling of being misunderstood, the therapist should ask for the client’s reactions to the therapist’s thoughts. The therapist needs to keep in mind that any communication on his or her part should help the client say more or lead naturally to an action in response to the dream. To further help the client, the therapist can ask the client to summarize the learnings, themes, and meanings gleaned from this stage of the dream work.

from Clara Hill's book Dream Work in Therapy (2003).


Merelyme said...

This is wonderful stuff. I absolutely do believe in talking about dreams in therapy. My last therapist refused to discuss dreams or even my past! I fired him. I should look for another therapist. just seems so many of them are...nuts.

Laura said...


Good for you for firing him! Yes, there are quite a few of us out there who qualify for the diagnosis "nutty." Don't let that discourage you from finding a good one!