Dream Work

I’ve been having vivid dreams for weeks now, and doing a great deal of dream work as a result. Because I’m personally immersed in unraveling my own dreams, I thought it might be useful to write another article about how to work with your own dream content.

To begin, let’s recall the idea analytical psychology poses about the contents of the psyche. If we imagine ruthpalmer02 by you.the psyche as a bus full of characters, we could say that the ego is the bus driver, getting everything he needs to direct the bus from his conscious mind. His unconscious is in the back seats of the bus, full of complexes and archetypal images that are usually unruly and even out of control. But as long as the ego has control of the bus, the ego believes that all is well. He doesn’t want to look into the rearview mirror or be reminded that he may not be in control at all. So he maintains a firm grip on the steering wheel (the conscious mind) and barrels merrily down the road.

The problem is that the ego is not in control. The ego merely thinks he or she is in control. The personal unconscious reminds the ego day and night that the ego is definitely not in control, whether through dreams, through sudden and emotional reactions and outbursts, through slips of the tongue, through strange or unusual reactions that arise unbidden; through discontentment, through depressions, through “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today,” and through all other manner of uncontrollable urges and reactions, the personal unconscious reminds us that we, the conscious Ego, are definitely not in control.

And so a battle for control ensues. These characters riding in the back of the bus really just want to work together and get along with the ego. Unfortunately, the ego often cannot tolerate sharing power. And so we dream.

Ego Trip

An interesting and useful exercise for anyone doubting the power of the Ego will take only five minutes and is likely to have surprising results. The Ego maintains a stubborn and tenacious grip on control at all times-so much so that our unconscious is forced to communicate its distress and balancing signals while the Ego is unconscious! To demonstrate how much control the Ego needs, get a timer and try this exercise:

Set the timer for five minutes. Assume a comfortable position. If you’re experienced with meditation or guided imagery, prepare yourself as you would normally: take several deep, slow, long breaths. Relax your body. Close your eyes and focus your mind’s eye on an object or image. If nothing comes to mind, simply ruthpalmer01 by you.focus on your own breathing. Try to hold the image or your concentration on your breath. At the same time, keep out any other thoughts or images that come up. Continue with this exercise until the timer calls the time.

Unless you are a very aware meditator, you will most likely have experienced a great deal of “noise” from the ego and the conscious mind. Rather than being able to maintain one image in the mind for five minutes, much self-talk and chatter probably occurred, such as, “I’ve done this before, how boring,” or “What’s the point?” or “Did I leave the coffee pot turned on?” Your mind probably left the station and drove away, even after you told the driver to sit quietly in his or her seat and concentrate on one simple image. Perhaps you blocked the first one or two interruptions, but allowed the fifth and sixth to distract you.

The ego is always in a “doing” mode rather than simply being. The unconscious is willing to simply “be,” but not so with the ego. If the ego were to surrender her control, then the ego would have no function, as far as the ego knows. The ego is compulsively task oriented, and when we become so, too, then it can be said that we are ego-driven.

The ego does everything it can do to maintain and preserve our sense of individuality and uniqueness, and “it achieves this goal by separation, by eliminating any- and everything that could infringe on our ‘differentness’” (Elsom Eldridge and Chandler D. Brown, Perchance to Dream, 5).

Types of Dreams

Most dreams are of a compensatory type. Compensation is the natural balancing function of the psyche, so ruthpalmer04 by you.the dream compensates for the ego’s stance. Let’s say that the ego is ultra-responsible, duty-bound, and even Boy Scoutish in conscious life. This sort of a person is likely to dream about out-of-control situations or symbols, perhaps of bums or winos, whores or reprobates. The shadow self, represented by a same-sex figure in the dream, is likely to be quite different from the conscious, ego-driven individual.

There are several different types of compensation possible in the form of dreams. In the dream, the psyche may take the following stances:

  1. The conscious attitude is one-sided, so the dream provides or suggests the opposite position.
  2. The conscious attitude is correct, so the dream affirms this position.
  3. The conscious attitude is in the middle, and the dream coincides with this.

There are also at least two different types of dreams: compensatory dreams and prospective dreams. The compensatory dream balances out the ideas of the conscious, ego-driven mind. The Boy Scout leader who ruthpalmer08 by you.dreams of bank robbers; the bank robber who dreams of Boy Scouts; the middle-aged stuck woman dreaming of babies; all these are examples of possibly compensatory dreams.

In the compensatory dream, the unconscious is considered relative to consciousness, adding to the conscious situation all those elements from the previous day or week which remain subliminal because of repression, or because they were too weak to reach consciousness. This compensation is purposive because it allows for a self-regulation of the psyche.

The prospective function, on the other hand, is an anticipation in the unconscious of future conscious achievements. In a prospective dream, the unconscious offers a map of sorts to the conscious, ego-driven mind. Rather than predict the future in a prophetic way, prospective dreams offer more of a weather report: they are an anticipatory combination of probabilities which may coincide with the actual behavior of things, but “need not necessarily agree in every detail” (Jung, Collected Works 8:492-3). It is generally regarded as an error when an individual mis-uses a prospective dream as an objective predictor of the future. The rule of thumb with prospective dreams is to go gently, friend.

How to Interpret a Dream

Dream work is instructive and rewarding if undertaken diligently. One should keep a dream journal and write down the dream immediately upon awakening. I’ve found few more exciting relationships than the one I’ve ruthpalmer09 by you.developed with my own psyche. Going to sleep at night is like spelunking—exciting, mysterious, dangerous, and demanding.

Because dream content is symbolic and has been hidden from the ego, one must take great care with dream elements. I don’t recommend interpreting the dreams of other people, or even attempting it, until a person has learned a great deal about dream work and theory, myth, and symbolic communication. Begin with your own dreams and, after some months or even a year or two of doing your own work, you should find yourself able to help others.

There are two basic approaches when working with dreams: the objective interpretive stance and the subjective interpretive stance. The difference between these approaches speaks to how we react to the dream. In an objective approach, the dream is viewed as making a direct commentary on an external world issue, such as how you deal with a colleague at work or how you treat your children. The subjective stance, on the other hand, relies on the idea that all the parts of the dream are parts of your self. It is probably best to always begin with an objective interpretation and to only proceed with a subjective interpretation when an objective one is inappropriate.

In an objective interpretation, the dream is a direct comment on a real-world experience. The dream ruthpalmer10 by you.comments on an interpsychic issue, meaning an issue between you and another person or several other people. Intrapsychic means within you. A key idea for an objective approach is that if the laws of physics hold within the dream and known people, places, or events are the components of the dream, you may well consider taking an objective stance to the dream interpretation. In an objective dream, everything in the dream is as it would be in the real world: people in the dream look and behave as they might in real life. One doesn’t walk through walls, see fairies or dragons, and dead relatives don’t appear. The dream is like a short documentary film, a realistic or direct report on the way you’re handling issues external to you.

If an objective interpretation doesn’t work, the dreamer must move on to trying a subjective interpretation. In a subjective interpretation of a dream, all aspects of the dream are aspects of the dreamer’s personality or psyche. The dream’s “you” is the dream Ego; a female figure may be the Anima (for a male dreamer) or the Shadow (for a female dreamer); a male figure may be the Animus (for a female dreamer) or the Shadow (for a male dreamer). This sort of dream is a comment on the relationships within one’s own psyche. It is an intrapsychic comment.

There is a possible third interpretive stance of dream interpretation: a comment on the transference relationship in a therapeutic relationship. If you’re not in therapy with an analyst or other therapist, it’s not likely that your dream would reflect a transference relationship. However, it might be possible in the case of enmeshment or another relationship during which one person transfers his or her unrecognized and unworked-on “stuff” to another, stronger, person.

Working on an objective dream

  1. Write the dream down. Read the dream slowly out loud once or twice. Slow down, take a deep breath, center yourself, and advise the dreamer to do the same, because you’re about to bring unconscious material into the conscious. Remind yourself that you know nothing about dreams, so you have no preconceived ideas; you are simply going to hear the dream as though you’ve never heard one before.
  2. What is the dream affect? Ask the dreamer to describe how he felt in the dream; you (analyst) also look at your feelings as you listened to the dream.
  3. Look at the affect on waking. What is the dreamer’s feeling on waking after the dream and writing it down, and how do they feel now about the dream?
  4. Find the conscious attitude that the dream is responding to. We have a conscious attitude, and the psyche responds by commenting on it. It’s crucial to know what the conscious attitude was of the dreamer just prior to having the dream. We would ask, what have you been dealing with over the past few days? What’s been bothering you? What have you been thinking about? What feelings have you had that relate to the situation(s)?
  5. Develop the personal associations to the content of the dream. Ask the dreamer to list three or four things that come to mind when listing the various objects or material in the dream.

This material gives us the basic skeleton for interpreting the dream objectively. Because knowledge about archetypes and symbols is important to the subjective interpretation of dreams, I’ll approach that subject at another time.

In dreaming, the clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
~ Shakespeare, The Tempest (III, ii).

Suggested Reading

Betts, John. Jungian Dream Interpretation.

Hall, James A. Jungian Dream Interpretation: A Handbook of Theory and Practice.

Jung, C. G. Collected Works, General Aspects on Dream Psychology, Vol. 8.


Mattoon, M. A. (1978). Understanding Dreams. Spring Publications, Dallas TX.

Whitmont & Pereira (1989). Dreams: A Portal to the Source.

More on the Psyche: The Seed So Full of Meaning

9 responses to “Dream Work”

  1. Irene Avatar

    I’m so glad you are writing about dreams again. All of this – the psyche and how it communicates – does make life so exciting and magical. Thanks for sharing this information, Eve, in making those kinds of distinctions between dream types. My note book (and book list) is getting added to all the time!

    You know, just this morning, I was working with a dream, and through imaginative dialogue, for the first time, was told the name of a man in it who helped me (I comment on this after reading what David wrote). It makes complete sense to me that different aspects of ourselves exist in this way (consciously or not) and can be worked with, and I marvel at the variations of these that exist amongst us all. This really is great inspiration and I am intrigued with David’s experiences.

    I look forward to your next installment on the intrapsychic. I often have dreams that are rather weird, and am always looking for information on symbols to help me with them.

  2. henitsirk Avatar

    Eh, I have no idea what box that book is in! It’s a guide to the work of the Flower Essence Society in California. They took Dr. Bach’s processes and concepts and applied them to more flowers, particularly North American flowers. When I find it, I’ll let you know.

  3. davidrochester Avatar

    I will definitely read that book — thank you for the recommendation!

  4. Eve Avatar

    David, I think it’s unlikely that very many people’s fragmented selves will ever unite completely, so you’re in good company. ;o)

    If you’ve never read Jung’s late-life autobiography, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” I recommend that you read it. Jung was considered crazy by some (still is, I imagine) because he too had names for parts of his psyche. That is, they had names for themselves and confided themselves to him. His most well-known persona was Philemon, but there were others also. He and modern-day Jungians recommend that, whenever archetypal contents personify, we go ahead and get to know them. Most have names or titles that they give us.

    This is the nutty part about analytic psychology (Jungians) that the psychoanalytic types (Freudians) disavow. And it’s also what I like about the Jungians. Yep, it’s kind of nutty. But human beings as a whole are kind of nutty and fantastic, mystical and magical and so full of depth. Why not plumb them (the depths, I mean)? And who cares if they have names. The better to know you with, my dear.

  5. Eve Avatar

    Heni, wow, birth trauma. It is one–the first narcissistic wound. We all have it and it’s what made Jung write that we are “all orphans.” We all are, and we have to re-work that later in life (or maybe forever).

    What did you find among your essences? I’m curious what would help.

  6. davidrochester Avatar

    I’m aware that DID is a controversial diagnosis, and I also think that it’s an easy one to run away with, so to speak … I’m a bit of an odd case in that I have been highly aware of having it, ever since I was a kid, and had many extremely frustrating experiences of trying to explain it to therapists who either had no clue what I was talking about, or who didn’t believe I could possibly have it due to my being so aware of it. My experience of it is that it consists of highly personified affect states, and that the personification both isolates those states in ways that make internal communication difficult, and throw them into relief in a way that most people do not experience. I keep trying to explain it to people in this way: You have exactly the same states of mind that I have; the only difference is that your states of mind don’t have their own names. 🙂 Which is something of an oversimplification, but far more accessible, I think, than the way DID is usually explained … although of course this oversimplification doesn’t go into how memory and affect access are messed around with, but as a general explanation, I think it’s a better one than the sensationalized idea most people have of what DID is.

    My sense is that most people ignore or gloss over their internal contradictions and multifacetedness because those things are too hard to deal with; people want to be consistent, and they want to think they know who they actually are. My experience of having DID is, more than anything, an experience of not having the comfortable illusion that I will ever actually know who I am, though with a great deal of work, it may be possible to predict who I’ll be under certain combinations of circumstances.

    My greatest challenge has been in figuring out how to integrate my strongest alter, whom I have always perceived as having his own life, and his own physical reality, in another country, and dropping in to sort of run my life when I need him to, perhaps for his own amusement; I really don’t know what he’s getting out of it, except of course that I know he’s a personified part of my own personality and doesn’t really have a different life, but what I know to be true, and my experience of it, are vastly different things, — and of course he is in his own body in another country because he was highly dangerous to me when I was a child, and having him in my body would probably have resulted in terrible consequences; children in impossible situations often survive by becoming invisible, and this alter is a highly visible persona.

    Between the two of us, we are often able to arrange and manage the rest of the committee (as I now think of them) but at this point it is difficult for me to imagine being able to reliably manage him, though I am hoping that I may be able to convince both of us that we occupy the same space, and so he won’t be quite so far away sometimes when I need him, and perhaps his occupation of my psyche will not be quite so markedly noticeable. It’s never been the sort of occupation that causes me to lose time or memory, but it is sufficiently strong that people can tell when I’ve switched; my eyes change color, among other things (which is just so strange, but completely true). It is tremendously difficult for me not to think of this alter as being another person, and it is also difficult for other people who know me not to think of him that way, because he is, in his own way, a complete character, with his own strengths, weaknesses, faults, likes, dislikes, on and on. I think it’s threatening for people to see evidence that the human psyche is really that complex … it’s destabilizing to someone who considers him or herself to be stable. I’m not sure I’m articulating this very well, but — it’s almost as if … if my mother admits that this very different person is still really her son, then what does that say about her, and who she might be if she started looking at herself more closely?

    So — my feeling is that it’s unlikely that my fragmented ego will ever unite completely, though I am hoping to be elected permanent chairman of the board. We’ve done quite well, since we started trauma therapy, with learning how to align the collective and address concerns, in various situations, and the overall functioning has improved , but it’s still an incredibly strange way to live.

  7. henitsirk Avatar

    I’ve been thinking about dreams lately, because my son has been feverish and has had a recurring nightmare about something big filling up his room so that he can’t get out. (Interesting to note that his father told me that when he is feverish he dreams of big things too.)

    I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I had the thought last night that perhaps he is processing his birth trauma, another time where he couldn’t get out and was in a quite full space. I need to unpack my flower essence book to see if there is something to help with that.

  8. Eve Avatar

    David, how very interesting. You may already know that Jung’s forte in his formative years as an analyst was working with patients who had identity disorders, such as schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. He didn’t believe that the actual identity of a person could contain more than one identity. Rather, he believed that the individual’s personality had become fragmented due to trauma. He treated people with the most severe psychoses by taking them seriously and engaging whatever ‘identity’ presented itself.

    Many depth psychologists don’t believe in DID, which is becoming a more common and even popular diagnosis. Currently, I see it very much the way it’s presented in your dreams: various aspects of the unintegrated psyche vying for control and power, and the Ego simply not getting into control as it ought. This, I think, happens when the Ego must be sacrificed in early childhood in order for the person to survive. In effect, the person is then challenged to become his or her own loving parent, to develop an ego later in life, and to marshall all of his or her energy into uniting the psyche.

    The non-traumatized adult with an intact ego, on the other hand, generally has too much ego power and needs to respect the unconscious. The person with DID has just the opposite problem. But each must achieve balance and integration and become whole. The work isn’t finished until all those disparate parts are working together under one gatekeeper, the ego.

    You’ve probably read or heard these ideas before; but I’m interested in knowing what you think about them. Do you see your fragmented parts every coming together as a team, or do you think the ones that helped you survive grew too strong for one central ‘gatekeeper’ (ego) to manage?

  9. davidrochester Avatar

    This was so very informative — I printed it off for future reference, and although I have done my share of reading about dream interpretation, I do hope you will continue to discuss it here, as I always find your particular viewpoints to be ones that project clearly into my particular mind.

    As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I blog about my dreams quite often; I am usually impressed by their exceptional narrative quality, even when the surface narrative has little or nothing to do with what they may mean to me … their coherence is interesting to me, as all of the memorable ones have clearly defined story arcs.

    My own dreams are interesting to me for another reason as well; as I occasionally discuss on my blog, I have dissociative identity disorder, and the various parts of my brain have very distinct ways of dreaming. One aspect of this that fascinates me is the ways in which my different selves interpret the same recurring themes, such as my oft-repeated quasi-nightmare about driving a car whose brakes suddenly cease to work. The meaning of this dream isn’t too hard to figure out, but depending on which alter’s POV I’m dreaming from, the outcome is quite different. One of them desperately weaves through traffic, trying not to kill people, and sometimes ends up driving off a bridge. Another occasionally finds himself as the passenger in the car, and has to grab the steering wheel to avert disaster. Still another simply throws the car into park, and then walks away from it. It’s a more complex phenomenon than simple dream theme-variation … I always know which persona is having the dream, and each of them has a different relationship to the same set of internal symbols.

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