How I use Dreams in Therapy

Written by: Benoit Santerre, MSW, Psychotherapist


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Almost 120 years ago, Sigmund Freud proclaimed that dreams are the royal road to the interpretation of unconscious material (Freud, 1900). Since Freud, psychoanalysis has developed various models, some of which drastically changed aspects of Freud’s model. Along with that, these later models look at dreams in ways that are also different from Freudian theory.

Using dreams in psychoanalytically-oriented therapy

In my own practice as a psychoanalytically oriented therapist, I tend to use more than one of these models,  an integrated approach. This approach can make sense when we consider the mind as multisided, multilayered, and multidetermined (Lippman, 2000). Simply put, the mind is a complex reality; some dreams may express sexual or aggressive drives, while others may express something about how one relates emotionally to others, etc. Because of this, I find that an integrated approach is more effective when working with my clients’ dreams. When a  client reports a dream in therapy, we explore the dream in the context of his or her life along with past or current struggles.  Sometimes a Freudian interpretation may help to identify or clarify aspects of the difficulties. For other dreams, a Freudian “lens” will not be helpful, but by using a Jungian (i.e. Carl Jung’s school) approach, one will succeed in finding meaning in the given dream.

To illustrate, I will give some examples of the way dreams could be interpreted more meaningfully using specific models; either Freudian, object relational, or Jungian. In order to respect confidentiality, I will not use material shared by my clients.  I will  briefly illustrate several approaches to exploring dreams  to provide a very basic sense of how they can be understood by these three schools of thought and  will explain some general principles of how I work with dreams in therapy.

Dreams in Freudian Theory

Freudian theory sees dreams as disguised wish fulfillments, usually infantile sexual or aggressive wishes (Gabbard, 2010). The function of dreams in this theory is to preserve sleep, which is done by disguising unacceptable wishes (unacceptable to the person having the dream) that, if not disguised, would disturb the dreamer out of sleep (Gabbard, 2010). According to Freudian theory, dreams serve two functions: the release of tension from unacceptable wishes, and the preservation of sleep. If the dreamer has an obnoxious neighbor and doesn’t dare openly expressing anger and hostility,and dreams that the neighbor dies in a car accident, a Freudian analyst may suspect  an unconscious and primitive murder fantasy.

I have found in my practice that sometimes, dream images strongly do seem to be disguised expressions of disturbing material, though not necessarily sexual or aggressive in nature. It could be about loss and grief, for example. I will use a personal example of a dream. I once had a 10 year old dog who began to show some signs of illness. During a check-up at the veterinarian, I was told that my dog was quite sick despite appearances (he was still playful and active). The veterinarian said: “I cannot even tell you whether your dog will be alive tomorrow.”  (he did live many more, happy months after this.) In any case, it was quite a distressing statement to hear.

When I came home that evening, I was joking around saying that for a “dying” dog, he was quite playful, or that maybe he had multiple lives. In retrospect, it’s obvious I was repressing or denying anticipatory grief feelings that evening. More precisely, I was using the defense mechanism of humor.  That night I dreamed that I visited an old apartment that  I used to live in when I was 5 or 6 years old. I was re-visiting and exploring the apartment. At one point I was told in the dream that the babysitter who used to care for me in that apartment had died. In the dream I felt tremendous grief at that news. Although I don’t have any negative memories of the babysitter, in real waking life I would not feel any deep grief if I learned she passed away. I don’t have many of memories of her and hadn’t maintained any bond with her. As I reflected on the dream, I began to suspect it was related to the “impending death” of my dog, who had been living with me since he was a 3-months old puppy, and who I was very fond of. But why the babysitter?

It turns out that in French, the word I’ve always used for a babysitter is “guardienne”. I have always considered my dog, besides a great animal friend, to be “le gardien de la maison” (i.e. guard of the house), due to his guarding abilities. Indeed, there was unexpressed grief  about the impending death of my “guarding” dog. Also, the family name of the babysitter included the name of a color, which happened to be the colour of my dog. If I had been a patient in analytic therapy at the time, the analyst comay have pointed out that the “guardienne” in the dream could be a disguised image of my “guard” dog. Given I was not consciously processing my grief and at the time may have not been willing too, it was expressed, in a disguised fashion, in the dream image of my “guardienne”.

When I have clients whose maternal language is not French or English, I will sometimes ask them, to name their dream images in their maternal language. I then ask if that word, in their language, could mean something other than the image in the dream. It is fascinating how this can sometimes reveal themes that are significant to explore for the clients` personal issues.

Dreams in Object Relations Theory

In object relations theory (especially Fairbairn’s model), dreams are seen as representing relational dynamics between internal images of self and others (Celani, 2010). They are representations of current internal fixation points of bad relationships, and dream analysis is meant to help clients work through these (Alperin, 2004). The function of dreams here is to work through negative relational patterns (Padel, 1978). In simple terms, dreams are seen as representing internalized scenarios we hold about relationships. For example, if a client would reveal  a repetitive dream in which her new boyfriend keeps disappearing every time she reaches out to him, exploration of such image may reveal deep fears of abandonment in her internal representations of relationships. There is no disguised image here. Her chronic fears of loss and/or abandonment is being expressed quite directly in the dream. She is afraid that her new boyfriend could “disappear” if she reaches out to him.

Dreams in Jungian Theory

In Jungian theory, dream images are not seen as disguise for some hidden thoughts or feelings, but rather as expressing an inner truth or reality as it is (Jung, 1961). But it is a truth which is not acknowledged, or fully acknowledged, in the dreamer’s waking life (Jung, 1961). As such, dreams are seen as compensating or balancing the attitudes of the dreamer in waking life (Jung, 1961). Jung often saw dreams as rectifying a situation in the dreamer`s conscious attitudes (Jung, 1961).

Let us take the case of a woman who is married to an abusive, excessively authoritarian husband, but who always praises him for being a good-natured man. If such a woman would describe a dream in which she is held captive or hostage to a terrorist in her own home, a Jungian approach to looking at the dream could be to understand it as a compensation (and a corrective) to her conscious (waking life) attitude. The dream could be expressing exactly how she truly feels deep down (i.e. in her unconscious) about her marital situation, and how she needs to see it. Such dream images present no concealment, but rather a metaphorical expression of an inner reality as it is: deep down she feels terrorized by her husband, as she should, given the situation. She feels that he is a “terrorist” of some sort. 

Working with Dreams in Therapy

When working with dreams, it is important to first allow the client to associate his or her own ideas, thoughts and feelings to the dream images, even if, as a therapist, we may have an idea of what the dream may be expressing. I like it when clients find their own interpretations to their dream, although at times they could interpret their dreams defensively, meaning they deflect certain aspects of the dream. We need to be mindful of that possibility as well. I see dream exploration with clients as a collaborative work between myself and them. I aim to encourage them to be curious and inquisitive about their dreams and inner life. The way I work with dreams may vary not only according to the theory that seems most appropriate to a given dream, but also according to the phase of therapy we are in.

For the dream described above (the abused wife), during the initial phase of the therapy I may simply ask her if any thoughts, images or feelings come to her mind about the terrorist image. A bit later, I may ask if she thinks the terrorist could represent someone in her life. At a later phase of therapy, when there is an established alliance and clear examples of abusive behaviors she reports from her husband, and if she still praises her husband, an intervention (using Jungian theory here) with such a client could be: “You know, you keep talking about your husband as a good-natured man, but your dream seems to express something else about how you may truly feel about a man in your life. Given what you told me about your husband, do you think the male terrorist in your dream could be him? That deep down you feel he is like a terrorist holding you captive in your own home?”

Sometimes clients will immediately find a plausible interpretation to a dream image. Asking “what comes to mind about the terrorist”, such client may start talking about her husband. Sometimes a client may directly say whom or what they think the image refers to. If they are defensive about exploring the dream image, it is often better to wait till there is an established alliance with the client before continuing the exploration or offering some hypothesis of what the dream may be expressing. In the above example, note how when I offer my own interpretation, it is not framed as a dogmatic interpretation, but as a hypothesis or question allowing the client to validate, respond, or further explore the dream. Telling such client: “The terrorist is your husband” expresses an authoritarian, and perhaps narcissistic, stance that is best avoided when working with clients.

Another principle I have found important in working with dreams is looking at the dream in the context of the client’s actual life situation, personal history, and character style (the client’s personality). A dream of bombs exploding will mean something to a war veteran experiencing war trauma, and probably something else to a timid person who never dares express anger, and who has never gone to war. Finally, I have also found that it is important that when working with dreams, if the therapist’s interpretation makes no sense to the client, even if it may later prove correct, it is not helpful for the client. To be helpful, a dream interpretation needs to be close to the client`s consciousness, meaning the client is very close to gaining a particular insight and only needs a few words from the therapist to get a sense that they have understood something important about their inner life or a given situation. To arrive there, one needs to allow time for the client to freely associate ideas, thoughts, feelings and images to the dream. We cannot arrive there if we immediately offer an interpretation to the dream.

I have found that in my practice, keeping an open mind about what dreams may be expressing and using a variety of theoretical perspectives, offers more chance in understanding the possible meaning of a dream in a way that is helpful to a variety of clients. I have found that at times a Freudian analysis is most pertinent, while at others, a Jungian or Object relational will do the trick, so to speak. Finally, when working with dreams in therapy, I find that it is most important to allow the client to freely associate their own thoughts to the dream, and to consider the dream in the context of their individual life, before suggesting a hypothesis or interpretation of the meaning of the dream.



Alperin, R.M. (2004) Toward An Integrated Understanding Of Dreams. Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 32, No 4, Winter 2004. Springer Science + Business Media, Inc.

Celani, D.P. (2010) Fairbairn’s Object Relations Theory In The Clinical Setting. New York. Columbia University Press.

Freud, S. (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams. London. The Hogarth Press And The Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Gabbard, G. (2010) Long-Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: A Basic Text. Second Edition. American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.

Jung, C. G. (1945). Psychological Reflections. New York : Harper Torchbook, Harper & Brothers, 1961.

Lippman, P. (2000). Nocturnes: On Listening to Dreams. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Padel, J. (1978). Object Relational Approach. In: Dream Interpretation: A Comparative Study, Ed. J. Fosshage & C. Leow. New York: Spectrum, pp. 125-148.