One way to work with your dreams
Rather famously -or infamously, depending on your point of view - Sigmund Freud declared that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious mind. Certainly, our dreams often mystify and intrigue us, given that they ‘speak’ in an imagistic language quite different to our waking lives. For those so inclined, their bizarreness acts as an invitation to use them for the purposes of self-exploration.
The therapy world is quite divided on the therapeutic value of dream exploration. For example, psychodynamic therapists ‘decode’ dreams for the purposes of supposedly uncovering insights into our hidden motivations and desires; human givens therapists, on the other hand, offer a compelling theory about why dreams are meant to be forgotten and they contend that there is no great value in exploring them.
My view, as a pluralistic counsellor, is that the virtues of dream exploration depends on the client, as some clients benefit from exploring and making sense of dreams; unsurprisingly, others do not see any point in looking at their night-time imaginings.
If working with your dreams is something that interests you, I provide below a technique culled from Gestalt therapy that clients have found helpful in making sense of them. One of the virtues of this technique is that you do not need anybody to interpret your dreams; you define for yourself your own unique meanings.
- Write down a recent dream or a dream that has recurred in your life. Try to be as cinematic in your presentation as possible: write down the dream as though it were a film scene and strive to be concrete about what you experienced through your senses.
- Now, take each part of the dream (human and non-human) and in turn pretend that you are that part. More specifically, say ‘I’ to that part and then write down what that part would say if it had a voice and it was delivering a monologue. For example, if there was a motorway in the dream, you could pretend that the motorway was talking and write down what it might say.
- Once you have acted out each part, you can start to do a dialogue with certain parts. For example, you might have the motorway dialogue with the night sky; or the old man talk to the chair.
- After writing in your journal your monologues and dialogues, you might want to write down any general insights you have gleaned from the exercise. For example, the motorway might have said, ‘I feel that people just drive all over me and never take any notice of me’ and this might indicate that part of you - the part represented (symbolized) by the motorway - feels ignored and used by others.
The rationale behind the method
This method might seem as bizarre as the dream itself. I have written below a concise explanation of how Gestalt theory defines the value of this exercise and how it accounts for any potential benefits from this method. Please note that this method - and its accompanying theory - are not true in any absolutist sense (no theory possesses such qualities); it is simply a way of explaining why some people gain insights from it.
- If we assume that our waking, conscious awareness consists of those parts of ourselves that we have accepted and ‘owned’ (in the lingo of Gestalt therapy, we have ‘integrated’ into our identity), then dreams portray an alternate autobiography, namely those parts of ourselves that we are conflicted about and have disowned.
- Providing that we assume that the dream represents different parts of the disowned self, then every element of the dream, human and non-human, represents an ‘I’ that is in conflict with the other parts.
- By letting each part have its say as a monologue, we can therefore learn about parts of ourselves that we have disowned. Indeed, by saying ‘I’ to those parts and letting them have their ‘say’, we are re-identifying with them and allowing what they represent to become part of our active emotional repertoire (for example, by letting that raging storm in our dream have its ‘say’, we can get back in touch with that aggressive energy that can help us become more active).
- Furthermore, the dialogues between different parts can help resolve personality conflicts. As each side responds to the other side, their respective positions can become less stark and ways of moving forward can become apparent (for example, after the leaning tree (the submissive part) talks to the raging wind (the domineering part), there may be a resolution that is based on the idea to take more direct action in one’s life but to do it with sensitivity towards others).
This is a powerful technique and, as much as it can provide powerful insights, it can also release powerful emotional material. Only continue with it if you feel safe.