Dream analysis: a gold mine within reach
- Posted by Caroline Giroux
- Posted in Clinical Pearls, Editorials & Commentary, Lived Experience, Psychotherapy
Vol 10 #7 Special Edition Dreams and Nightmares
Associate Clinical Professor, Psychiatrist, University of California, Davis Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Sacramento, California, USA. [email protected]
Nobody will doubt that dreams have a function. It helps with memory consolidation, and
also allows access to creative solutions to dilemmas that seemed insoluble during
waking time. At the beginning of my residency, I appreciated escaping the
institutionalized look of the hospital by hiding in the library. I read Freud’s Interpretation
of Dreams and I thought it was very interesting and some of the described
conceptualizations made sense, such as remnants from the day, condensation etc. But
without being able to name this, I thought it was rather incomplete and too pragmatic.
Also around that time, we had a supervisor who was a Jungian analyst and who paid
attention to any images or art work and their deep meaning.
Later, I saw the powerful healing potential of the work on the dream, an art piece in and
of itself, if we could view it as a dynamic material to mold into a unique sculpture, like
we would with clay. This notion expanded and got consolidated towards the end of my
training. I remember as a fifth-year resident, I had the privilege to do an elective with an
amazing mentor who was doing crisis intervention. Her comprehensive intakes were
quite enlightening. Her in-depth questioning was psychotherapeutic, and when patients
brought up dream content, she would work with them on the dream. It was fascinating. I
felt like I was in front of a wizard, a magician. She would lead them into describing their
dreams in vivid details, asking about colours, the appearance of objects, people, in which
number where they, what did they say, and how did they feel, what they did think it
represented for them, did it have any relevance in their own life etc. Then, she would
turn what had the appearance of a nightmare into a positive situation by asking how
should the dream have ended instead of by tragedy, or if it was abruptly interrupted,
what would be the ideal ending. I was immediately hooked and decided that we should
systematically demonstrate how to do this to patients so they can do this on their own.
Therapeutic use of Dream Content
Currently, I incorporate these techniques about the work on dream material in my
narrative therapy group. As Christiane Northrup wrote, it is about working on the
subconscious story and upgrading it in waking life . We can always rearrange the
message in the dream, and should never be the victims of our dreams . She also
encourages us to identify the emotions, name them, experience them fully, identify the
unmet needs they correspond to, and do something to get those needs met.
I saw my mentor’s interventions as extremely creative and empowering. The dream was
a starting point, a seed to be planted, leading to growth and insights. I had first hand
experiences of imagination creating our reality throughout my whole life, but this
provided me with an additional tool: once you choose the dreams you want to have, you
set the stage in your subconscious to dream well or at least to have the power to make
the best out of the bad dream once awake, helping you feel empowered, self-efficacious
and regulated during the day, hence creating favorable conditions for sleep. From then
on, I became even more interested in my patients’ dreams, and my own. I started
journaling about them and invited my patients to do the same.
Dreams must be caught and written down as soon as possible. We all know that their
remembrance is evanescent. Even if they don’t make sense at first glance, we can still
deconstruct them because as we write down or tell them out loud, we can have revelations.
A word used in a concrete application will lead us to a proverb capturing a life dilemma
when we say it or write it (for instance, there could be a barrier in the dream that could
represent mental barriers preventing the dreamer to achieve goals).
Words and numbers are usually not random. They have a vibrational frequency and they
can also have deep resonance based on our life story. Symbols are fascinating to decode,
and all aspects (the cultural or universal and personal) of the meaning must be examined.
For instance, the significance of a wild animal can be positive from a totem signification
perspective, but if the dreamer had a negative encounter with the creature in the past
(for instance, was once attacked or bitten by the beast), there would be a trauma element
needing to be worked through. It could still be a positive appearance, helping the patient
finding the positive aspects of the power animal and drawing inspiration from it.
Another example of dream content or theme is a car. I had a dream
about a car at least 3 times over the past 6 months. Car can represent the ego. In my
case, when I had a dream of a car in which I was passenger, it was around a time I felt I
had little control over my life. It made a lot of sense. Also, I grew up in a family quite
obsessed with cars while I didn’t care much about the type of car I had, for me this
being a functional thing rather than a status symbol or expression of mass-produced
technological estheticism. Maybe this was a reminder that I had to stay connected with
my roots, my family of origin I didn’t get to see during this pandemic. Like a reassuring
cue. A subsequent dream was in a red car (red has a special significance for me and might
represent exuberance) and I was in the driver’s seat but pushed in the passenger’s seat.
Again this was mirroring a time when I was trying to reclaim some of
my power but didn’t feel immediately effective. Another recent, more intense dream also
involved a car, and I was driving it in a multiple-lane highway that was going up and
curving, above the ocean, but as I took the curve, I was going way beyond the 35 km/h
limit, so I tried to slow down (going against my dad’s advice who always told me that
accelerating in a curb makes you take it more smoothly, which I found to be true ever
since I got my driver’s license) and ended up losing control, hitting the side of the curb,
fearing the rebound that would propel me in the ocean, or going down but risking a face-
to-face collision… This time I was the driver, but not quite in control, or unable to
channel my power yet… I basically got scared of my inner power (decelerating), instead
of using its momentum (accelerating through a challenge or transition, to follow my
dad’s advice, or my deep intuition).
Metaphor and Context
As I am writing this, I realize the precious gift such a metaphor represents. And putting
this dream into context, I know it has something to do, again, with current challenges,
and is a reminder that I need to calibrate my inner resources and trust them, and maybe
getting out of the car to pause and reflect rather than feeling like there are only 2 options
(slowing down or going fast). Stopping the car altogether in a safe place for a while is still
a choice, and it might symbolize letting go…
If an unpleasant dream recurs, it might mean that there is an element that needs to be
processed and integrated. Shadow elements often appear in dreams. Carl Jung
described the shadow as the disavowed parts of the self. They were repressed in
response to disapproving or non-affirming familial and/or cultural environments during
childhood (such as an artist growing up in a family of hard core scientists, or an
analytical person born to gypsies, or a bookworm who grew up among close ones
valuing sports). It can be quite enlightening to explore what repulses us about dreams
because these aspects can be pointers to our shadow elements. I remember dreaming
often of an unpleasant woman with red hair. I have never really dared to dye my hair,
and deep down I knew that having my hair red (symbolic for my inner, repressed
passion and flame) was a fantasy I had yet to come to terms with. By welcoming and
embracing (rather than rejecting) those aspects of my self, I made peace with the
complex, at time contradictory, elements of my personality.
I have come to conceptualize a dream like a movie, a self-imposed image to elicit
insight and new perspective. It is a gift from the unconscious and being receptive to it
will open to door to so many self-reflection opportunities. “Think of your dreams as
letters from your subconscious telling you what is still wounding you,” wrote Christiane
For those who don’t remember their dreams: you can still cultivate daydreaming, mind-
wandering and visual imagery. These conscious activities are as valuable, especially if
a relaxation state is achieved. It still helps the brain to be in creative and positive-
reprogramming mode, a key element to healing and experiencing the best out of life.
- Northrup C. Dodging Energy Vampires: An Empath’s Guide to Evading Relationships that Drain
You and Restoring Your Health and Power. Hay House; 2018.