Interpreting Dreams in Therapy

Dreams can be assertive, frightening, inspiring, or frustrating. They could be interpreted as positive or negative manifestations of our daily routines, deep desires or fears from our unconscious, or prophetic messages (if one believes in spiritual revelations).

Woman sleeping peacefully on a couch

Kendra Cherry reported that research has demonstrated that we all dream several times for an average of two hours in a good night’s sleep. However, we tend to retain only 5% or less of those dreams as our brains sort out essential and non-essential information during our sleep – a process called memory consolidation. In an interview with Discover Magazine, Raphael Vallat, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkley, said that those who often remember more vividly their dreams tend to be anxious yet creative people (like artists). In contrast, those who have a fleeting memory of their dreams or can’t remember them at all tend to be more pragmatic (like engineers).

People sometimes come to therapy with either a vivid or fleeting memory of their dreams, or both, expecting their therapist to decipher the encoded message embedded in them.

Are therapists supposed to do that?

As a psychodynamic therapist trained in the Jungian tradition – which focuses more on the root of the psychological distress than on its symptomatology – I believe that therapists should help clients figure out what their dreams could be about. It’s a legitimate concern.

Sigmund Freud believed that dreams are manifestations of both some aspects of our daily lives and underlying repressed drives (thoughts, fears, desires) from our unconscious. Carl Jung expanded Freud’s theory of dreams proposing that the human psyche is a self-regulating system that seeks balance as any other physical organism does through compensation. Dreams then have a compensatory function by helping maintain a healthy balance between the conscious and the unconscious. Furthermore, Jung believed that dreams also have a prospective function. That is, a projection of emotional growth toward our ultimate goal as humans: our full development or individuation and a meaningful connection with our souls’ primal energy.

Often, clients search online for each element’s meaning in their dreams and come to therapy seeking help deciphering how all that applies to them. Indeed, some things and behaviors have a universally accepted meaning in dreams. Death, for example, although perceived as something fearful and negative, is associated with dramatic change – a new beginning. A stormy sea represents emotional chaos. Babies are associated with newness. A house represents the inner psyche. Snakes have positive associations (healing, regeneration, growth) as well as negative associations (danger, fear, betrayal). A snake may also symbolize sexuality and fertility.

Denise’s case

Denise told her therapist about her dream. “I was surrounded by snakes. I couldn’t move or scream. I felt terrified.” After providing more details about her frightening dream, Denise asked her therapist about the meaning of all that. She felt that her occasional depressive mood was right at the door, ready to take over her psyche again. Her therapist knew Denise well thanks to a trusting therapeutic relationship of several months. At an early age, Denise’s parents sent her to live with her grandparents in a rural area. She was a sensitive child who felt the separation from her parents and siblings deeply. Denise was terrified of the small snakes she sometimes encountered in the field and nearby forest. Growing up, she realized that her occasional encounters with snakes coincided with the times she felt down because of some trouble, problem, or conflict she couldn’t deal with or resolve. That’s what also happened when a neighbor sexually abused her.

Aware of Denise’s childhood adverse experiences, the therapist helped her connect the stalking snakes with her overwhelming problems. The therapist also reminded her of another dream she had with snakes. She was cutting a snake’s body into small pieces that look like Sushi. She dreamt this dream when she overcame her deep depression after her husband died and thrived on taking care of her five children while dealing with several overwhelming problems.

As a child, Denise associated her fear of snakes with her adverse experiences because of her inability to deal with problems and defend herself. Her therapist helped her realized that now, as an adult, she has enough power and control to deal effectively with her circumstances. The snakes in her dream weren’t anticipating betrayal or prophesying danger. They represented the overwhelming tasks, conflicts, and problems typical of a new school year aggravated by technological challenges due to the current pandemic. And Denise used to feel inadequate about technology. Today, however, she supports her family working with technology and is taking advanced classes to get a better job.

The benefits of dreaming

Freud believed that dreams are "the royal road to the unconscious." Jung believed that dreams help maintain a healthy balance between the conscious and the unconscious. Expanding on the work of these two giants of psychoanalysis, Matthew Walker proposes in his book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, that it isn’t time per se what heals all wounds, but the time we spend in deep dream sleep. Deep sleep dreaming is like “overnight therapy,” says Walker. It helps process upsetting memories in a calmer environment free of anxiety and stress hormones. A good eight-hour sleep then is critical to maintaining a balanced physical and emotional health.

Dream interpretation is a legitimate concern of clients, and therapists can help them realized possible connections between their dreams and their daily lives and underlying drives. It may enrich the therapeutic relationship and even open a new pathway to explore the client's psychological self.