Analytic Tools

I’ve been writing about how I learned to analyze a waking dream and thought it time to share some analytic tools. I’ve developed a dream interpretation worksheet that has served me well over the past several years, compiled through my readings in depth psychology.  This analytic worksheet and an example of a dream interpretation can be found at the end of this article under “Resources” in a Microsoft Word document format.

When we analyze our dreams–even our so-called ‘waking dreams’–what we’re analyzing is images that have particular meaning to us as individuals. No one else will perceive the meanings we perceive. Robert A. Johnson explains that

Each person has a distinct psychological structure. It is only by living that inherent structure that one discovers what it means to be an individual. If we work at individuation, we begin to see the difference between the ideas and values that come out of our own selves and the social opinions that we absorb from the world around us (Inner Work, p. 12).

It thus behooves us to discover just what the images that appear in our sleeping and waking lives have to say to us.

I often write in first person singular about my adventures in individuation because this is, after all, my blog. Sometimes, though, I fret that when writing about myself I may throw the reader off the track of his or her own essential process. The reader may misinterpret, assuming that because I’m writing about my own experience that there’s nothing applicable to him or her.

“Am I giving the reader the tools he needs?” I wonder. The tools I use are as essential for you as they are for me. We need these tools; individuation is hard work. It’s specific work, work that “builds consciousness,” according to Johnson. Following are some basic steps we can take as we do the works of consciousness.

Analytic Steps

Identify the images. When we interpret dreams, waking or sleeping, we first identify the images or symbols in the dream. Let’s use the Dream Interpretation Example dream (below)  for our purposes. In this dream, we see images of (1) a wasted city, (2) a trapped person, (3) a girl, (4) lifts, and (5) mangy cats. Look into your dream or your waking experience and list the images you see. Imagine that you’re watching the dream or situation unfold at the cinema with the sound turned off. What do you see? What you see is the image. Make a list of those images.

Make direct associations. Now that you have a list of images, you can begin your analysis. Make direct associations to every image instead of a chain of associations. For example, using Peter’s dream from the Dream Interpretation Example, make associations to “a wasted city.” Your associations would differ from Peter’s associations–hence the idea of individuality. Peter associated feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and dismay to the wasted city, along with hard and hostile environments. Peter should go no farther than that. For instance, if Peter thinks, “wasted city… nuclear bomb… article I read in The Atlantic…. Atlantic City… gambling… I want to go to Las Vegas…,” he has gone too far. Peter should stay with the feelings of despair and the idea of a wasteland, rather than ending up in Las Vegas.

Connect each image to an inner dynamic. Now that you have an idea of what your associations are to each image, it’s time to identify parts of your inner life that have found expression through the dream images. Robert A. Johnson suggests that we go back to each image and ask ourselves, “What part of me is that? Where have I seen it functioning in my life lately? Where do I see that same trait in my personality? Who is it, inside me, who feels like that or behaves like that?” (Inner Work, p. 65). Keep in mind that even images you consider negative have valid, respectable places in your life. If it’s part of you, it’s respectable. As Johnson writes, “if you give it its place, and hear what it has to say, it will be revealed as a valuable part of your inner self” (Inner Work, p. 71).

Pay attention to the location of your dream. Where are you? If you’re in your own home, or a place you sense belongs to you, it’s probably the possession of your ego. But if you’re in your grandmother’s house, you may be in the home of the archetypal Great Mother. The physical situation in which we find ourselves in a dream usually provides an important clue to what the unconscious is trying to tell us.

Interpretation. Once you’ve identified the images in your dream (or situation), made direct associations, and theorized about how each image relates to an inner dynamic, it’s time to interpret the dream. It’s sometimes so difficult to bring unconscious meanings into consciousness that the worksheets I include here can be very practical. Using Peter’s dream as an example, Peter can go through each image and interpret the dream image by image and thus ‘prime the pump’ for further revelation. Since in Peter’s dream, a girl is trapped in an apartment in a building with broken lifts, in a wasteland, Peter could begin with this narrative:

I’ve built up an ego [building] for myself that’s hard, hostile, and doesn’t show hope. I radiate dismay and sadness wherever I go, just like my girlfriends and Susan said. My ego is as strong as concrete; nothing happens to change me, I never change; I’m full of despair.

Inside me is this girl—vulnerable, beautiful, loving, and full of hope. But she’s trapped inside me in the wasteland of my hard ego, the doorkeeper, the one who could fix the lift (he’s a guy after all). He isn’t providing the technology for her to escape, enter, exit, etc. It’s as if I’d rather keep her hostage inside myself than give her a way of escape. Maybe I’m afraid she’ll leave me like Susan and all the other women.

I know this is about my inner feminine because of the cats. Cats archetypally often mean the feminine. Since I have a particular aversion to mangy cats, I know that this means I have a similar aversion to my own inner feminine.

By the time Peter reaches the last line–“I have a similar aversion to my own inner feminine”–it would be no surprise if he was near tears. A correct interpretation is almost always accompanied by emotion, whether the feeling that the interpretation is right, or deeper feelings that move one to tears. Go with the energy. Follow where the energy and the emotion (affect) want to go.

Validate the Interpretation

Once you’ve interpreted the images, there are some general principles offered by Robert A. Johnson that can validate or confirm the interpretation. These are:

  1. Choose an interpretation that shows you something you didn’t know.
  2. Avoid the interpretation that inflates your ego or is self-congratulatory.
  3. Avoid interpretations that shift responsibility away from yourself.
  4. Learn to live with dreams over time.

Honor the Interpretation

Johnson suggests that we honor the message the unconscious gives us through dreams and waking images by performing some small ritual. When friends invite us for dinner at their home, for example, it’s customary to take a bottle of wine, flowers, or some other small token of our appreciation. Similarly, it’s appropriate to express gratitude and respect for those parts of ourselves that are persistent enough to keep communicating with us even when we consciously resist them. One way of honoring the dream is to “dream the dream on” through an active imagination. Another way is by doing an act that shows that we want to grow in the direction of the light given us by the dream.

We can use Peter’s dream as an example. Peter’s mother left his father (and Peter) when Peter was four years old. Peter’s dream causes him to return to his feelings of grief and loss as a four year old boy. What can Peter do to honor the truths the dream gave him? If Peter were a Christian or Buddhist, he might visit a church or temple and light a candle or some incense in honor of his four-year-old self. He might pray to the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of all mothers, and ask her to mother him. Or Peter may buy a glass cat figurine and put it on his desk, where he’ll see it every day and be reminded of his own inner feminine. He may choose to buy himself a toy similar to one he loved as a four-year-old boy. No matter what he does, if he does it consciously and with reverence, it will become a ritual to him and thus an act of honor. As many times as he needs to, Peter will be able to return to the time when he first performed the ritual and appropriate the energy and power this respect gave to a slumbering part of himself.


Dream Interpretation Example

Dream Interpretation Worksheet

10 responses to “Analytic Tools”

  1. Dream Interpretation Avatar

    I am soooo much into dream interpretation that I come close to call it a certain kind of wisdom! Thank you for shedding new light into the world of dream interpretation. I believe when dealing with dream interpretation, we should take into account the individual’s emotional concerns and preoccupations as well as their past and future.

  2. The Librarian in PURGATORY Avatar

    Yes but….

    The ego, consciousness (persona/identity) doesn’t dream, it is a dream, a perspective, is represented/conceptualized, symbolized within the dream. How am I, the representation/concept/symbol of me, carried into dreams? Does my Consciousness descend into the Unconscious or does the Unconscious rise up into Consciousness?

    Consciousness is its own minimum threshold, which it can’t transcend, unless the boundaries of consciousness are malleable, perhaps ridiculously so.

    How can we talk about different levels of consciousness, going down, if “I”, “I”, am not conscious? If “I” am not conscious than what/who is? Who is the “I” when “I” am asleep/not conscious because it is NOT conscious “I”? If a symbol, a concept, whence from, because it cannot be from MY “conscious” mind? Whose then?

    I understand the brainwave progression, but this does not answer the fundamental question, I who? (whom?)

    And we are now, if my logic is logical, and even if it’s not, firmly in the metaphysical, by way of the psychological—who or what is dreaming the me that I am dreaming?

    And the whole conscious/unconscious split/dichotomy is starting to look like an arbitrary distinction that has taken on the “scientific” rigidity of dogma. Just why have heaven and earth, mind and body, spirit and soul been split; who is to blame; and to what ends?

    As Metallica sang, “…the memory remains…”, but from whom, of whom, and for why?

  3. Cast Away Avatar
    Cast Away

    Anne, I am just starting to consider the people and elements contained in my dreams. Your questions and suggestions reaslly have helped me to begin the journey to an understanding of the information shown in my dreams.Thanks

  4. MommaRuth Avatar

    Thanks for the direction Eve. It helped me think about a dream I had recently! I didn’t get too far, but thinking about the symbolizim etc etc really gave me direction, and, of course, a lot to think about.

  5. Irene Avatar

    Eve, I took your worksheets home with me last week and spent hours writing out my waking dream. What a revelation. To every character I could relate a part of myself. The main issue seemed to revolve around shock and the inability to act, to loose one’s voice. To be a pawn in life without a voice. I could instantly feel where that connected to.

    Just one question – is the car as a symbol related to the ego, much like the city?

    1. Eve Avatar

      Irene, I’m glad you found those worksheets useful. I’m sure I’ll continue to expand them over time, but for now they help me to stay on task and organize information.

      The car may be related to the ego, or it may not be. It’s whatever is moving you from one place in the dream to another. What it is depends on you. If you’re in a car going from one place to another, what’s the place you’re going away from? Where to? Who are you with? It may be energy, it may be the actual means of movement.

      For instance, let’s say you’re in a car with your grandmother, going from your childhood home to the seaside. This is rather obvious, but it could mean that the means of getting from the past (childhood) influences to the influence of the unconscious (sea) is the Grand Mother; this image is ready to appear to you or might be courted to take you to the depths. The car in that dream would only signify movement.

      The car may also be your persona. If a person dreams of riding in a Mercedes, for instance, it might symbolize the hidden desire for outward prestige or status, one’s German heritage, or God knows what. Or of course it may function much the same way that the city symbol does, as the representation of the ego. It’s so subjective that it’s a question only you can try to decipher.

  6. The Librarian in Purgatory Avatar

    Yeah but no.

    I know that the dream first-person perspective is s’posed to be the ego. And that may be where we, by which I really mean, me, run into our (my) first problem.

    Jung had a very specific and defined idea when he used the word “ego”. I have to assume that RAJ did also, but having read damn near all his books, at least twice, I have some serious bones to pick with the dude, were he still stomping terra firma, good leg and all, which goes beyond the scope of this here and has nothing to do with the tome in question.

    And I’m not sure that I have the same understanding of ego that these cats did; and that should probably be amended to “personal understanding” or perhaps even “experience”, which is decidedly unscientific. For me, or maybe better, where I’m at, identity, persona, and ego, as regarding the/phenomenon within the psyche, are largely interchangeable. To try to be more specific, I’ll hyphenate words: ego-identity, which refers to the part of I that is primarily concerned with living, say, George Clooney’s life, or something resembling it, preferably MORE than. It would be the part/aspect of myself that I have identified with and as ME for the majority of my years and, I would add, is largely concerned with (external) security, stature, and safety…at all costs. At this point/level, I would say that the ego is, or has become, largely no different than the persona. The muddling has begun, in earnest.

    And while I understand that all three aspect- ego, identity, persona- are different/separate, they are conceptual (like the number three); they don’t exist but are real and have very real effects/affects.

    Some definitions:

    Ego. The central complex in the field of consciousness. (See also self.)

    The ego, the subject of consciousness, comes into existence as a complex quantity which is constituted partly by the inherited disposition (character constituents) and partly by unconsciously acquired impressions and their attendant phenomena [“Analytical Psychology and Education,” CW 17, par. 169.]

    “…academic psychoanalytic circles often define ego as the process of organizing the psyche, often referring to this organizing principle as the self, that which gives unity to the mind.”

    “When I speak about ego, I am not using the term in the psychological sense, which usually refers to what we could call a self-organizing function in the psyche. In an enlightenment context, the word ego refers to something else altogether. Ego is the deeply ingrained, compulsive need to remain separate and superior at all times, in all places, under all circumstances.”

    Persona. The “I,” usually ideal aspects of ourselves, that we present to the outside world.

    The persona is . . . a functional complex that comes into existence for reasons of adaptation or personal convenience. [Ibid., par. 801.]

    The persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.[“Concerning Rebirth,” CW 9i, par. 221.]

    It’s interesting to me that Jung has defined both the ego and the persona as complexes—I’m not arguing with him—but complexes are not and never will be the whole.

    And it’s in that regards, I guess, that my question stems from, because I have had dreams where the I/dreamer “seemed” to be decidedly not the ego/persona/identity and to be actually fighting against what I would consider my ego/persona/identity; and there have been times when I have dreamt as my ego/persona/identity and been under attack from other sources, sometimes quaternary in nature, and so who am I, the I that has but is not ego, persona, identity, to side with; which path is the one that will give me the greatest returns, not in safety and security, but in being my “being-ness”, who or whatever I am to the fullest of my extent—individuation, enlightenment, or a really good buzz (smile, laugh, it’s all chemical right?); whether (hopefully) I consciously realize that or not.

    It’s an insurgency of the mind and I have fought, in my dreams, on both sides, as Hector and Achilles.

    Someone has to be right(er)—a relative perspective beyond this post. I would hope to be righ(er) on the side of expansion. But if you are not sure which general you are fighting for, it becomes a difficult proposition.

    Does that make sense? You didn’t think this would be easy did you? Smile.

    1. Eve Avatar

      Librarian, I’m so sorry you had to wait on an approval on this comment and that I’ve been MIA all month. A post is forthcoming about that. Two or more links in a comment trigger an approval need, and I think I will change that to three or four or more, given the number of links I get from interesting readers.

      Yes, your comments and mullings make perfect sense. I’ll tell you what these analysts keep telling us and maybe we will muddle through it together.

      Yes, the ego and persona both are complexes. We’re deepening our understanding of complexes over these past two months, and one item of interest is that Jung very nearly decided to call his school of psychology “complex theory” or “complex psychology” rather than “analytic psychology.” The complex is what the Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “knot” over a situation or surrounding a situation. It always has emotion tied to it.

      The ego is not the self, nor is the persona the self. The ego has only two needs or desires: to survive, and to avoid suffering. Everything the ego does arises from those two needs. When the ego seeks to survive, it will either fight or flee, making fight and flight the two survival tools the ego possesses and perfects over a lifetime.

      The persona is nothing more than those dramatic masks of Greek drama: sometimes a happy face, sometimes a tragic one. Whatever helps the ego in its quest for survivability and comfort.

      The self is neither. You use the word “identity,” which I find interesting, because having had my billfold stolen, presenting the need to prove my “identity” to the TSA was quite thought provoking. Who am I? Good question. The self is more than ego, persona, or identity. It’s the totality, hence the symbol of self being the mandala or the quaternity.

      So you say that sometimes in dreams, the dreamer is not the ego but in fact stands opposed to the ego. Yes, that’s right: the Self appears in the dream too, or one who acts on behalf of the Self and may appear in a personified form, perhaps an archetype or other part of the person-alilty who is showing what is needed in consciousness.

      So far, what I have learned is that the path to go on is the one with the energy. The one with the “aha!” quality, the one that makes you put your nose to the ground and bay with excitement, the one that leaps joyfully in, or at least courageously in. That’s the path you go down the, one that makes you do THAT.

  7. The Librarian in Purgatory Avatar


    This seems a simple question, and I can’t believe that I’m the first to ask it, but what if you cannot determine the center “you” are dreaming from, that your psyche is communicating from? Or is that even a legitimate question? Is is possible to say, be withing a developmental transition, and not be sure if you are dreaming from an old, new, or transitional self?

    1. Eve Avatar

      This is such a good question. I remember going merrily about my way, analyzing dreams, when suddenly one particular dream confounded me because I realized I didn’t know which ‘me’ was the Self… the authentic or central self, the self that my psyche was communcating from, so to speak.

      Yes, it’s a legitimate question. I kinda think that only our inner censor says there are illegitimate ones. All of those selves–old, new, transitional, and other representations of the psyche at various stages of attempted communication and consciousness can appear in a dream. Then there are the collective symbols–usually groups of three or more same-gender people in the dream is the rule of thumb I’ve learned.

      I’ll quote Robert A. Johnson’s book, Inner Work, on this topic: “Jung observed that each of our psychological components is a distinct center of consciousness. We can think of them as structures within ourselves that make up our total psyche. We can see them as independent energy systems that combine in us, for they are autonomous: Each has its own consciousness, its own values, desires, and points of view. Each leads us in a different direction; each has a different strength or quality to contribute to our lives; and each has its own role in our total character” (p. 45).

      The Self is the central, unifying archeteype of the psyche. I’ve found it useful to be reminded of this time and again at my Jung seminars, for I think before now I thought of ‘self’ as something other than an archetype. I must have had the idea that all these parts of myself would somehow coalesce to form my ‘self.’ However, theoretically, what the self is in depth psychology is the unified soul or unified individual, the completed part that has relatedness and unity among all the different elements of the psyche, living cooperatively under the same roof so to speak.

      Johnson writes that “the self is the principle of integration. It is also the whole–the entire person. When a symbol of the self appears in a dream, it represents not only the totality of our being, but also our potential capacity for the highest consciousness–the awareness of unity in ourselves and in the cosmos” (p. 49).

      Some general rules of thumb are that the ego often is represented in dreams as the one doing the dreaming, the dreamer, the narrator, the one in the middle of the dream.

      The self often appears in symbols such as the mandala, the circle, the square, and the diamond; also in fours. If four or a quaternity is somehow given, there is unity.

      To share my personal experience, in recent history I have often had dreams with a variety of characters in them; for instance, two or three men and me; or myself, my mother, and my grandmother; or myself, my husband, my daughter, and my granddaughter. When I’ve dreamed these dreams, I’ve known that none of those were about the people in the dream or about my entire Self. The people I dreamed of represented what I associate to those people and what my psyche is working on inside. I will dream the same types of representations over and over again until I can bring the real issue to consciousness (which takes a long time, usually months).

      In contrast, in the past year I have had two dreams that I knew for sure were representations of my Self, the central me, the one archetype of wholeness. In one, I was wearing diamond earrings that were very clearly a circle divided into a quaternity, brilliant with the most glorious diamonds. I woke up immediately after with an unspeakable joy. I have so many discouraging dreams that I really needed to see that there was hope for me, so that dream was a gift.

      In a dream about six months before the diamond earrings dream, there were four people, two men and two women, in bed together (it was not a sexual dream). The bed was a quaternity; then there was the foursome. Two men and two women are representations of opposites–except in my dream the men were a couple and the women were a couple. This is also appropriate in terms of the psyche because our own selves will generally appear to us as same-gender, not our opposites. Ultimately they become hermaphrodite/intersex and there’s a sense of androgyny.

      Last year I also dreamed of a four-square castle, inside which were squares within squares for rooms.

      At the same time, I continue to dream very disjointed and disheartening dreams showing me just how unconscious parts of me are, which is to be expected. I think that dreams and visions of the central Self come as gifts from time to time to cheer us as we stumble and grope along the dark, lonely path on this inner quest Jung called individuation.

      Does that help?

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