• Eleni Athanasiou


The enduring appeal of dream interpretation

Eleni Athanasiou explores Carl Jung’s approach to dream interpretation, the value of discussing our dreams in therapy, and interviews psychotherapist Dr Alessandra Sax about her thoughts on the matter.


By Eleni Athanasiou

Image Credits: Flickr

The fascination with dreams dates as far back as the first recorded human histories. The first ‘dream dictionaries’ have been attributed to the Ancient Era, known as ‘oneirocritic literature’. The Classical Age saw this fascination grow, with Roman writers such as Cicero hailing dreams as illuminating and reflective. Religions have continuously privileged the ‘dream’ experience over the ‘awake state’, viewing the dream state as a means of communicating with the ‘holy’ more effectively. The latter part of the 19th and 20th century saw a growing preoccupation with the psychological, rather than prognostic, purpose of dreams with extensive works from the likes of Freud, Jung and G. Hindman Miller (author of What’s in a Dream?) on the significance of dreams and how to interpret them. People, it seems, have always been compelled to record dreams, and have always felt the need to relay them to others and try to derive meaning from them.

‘People, it seems, have always been compelled to record dreams, and have always felt the need to relay them to others and try to derive meaning from them.'

Our increasing commitment to rationality has mostly removed the notion that dreams can serve as premonitions. Although we may turn to ‘dream dictionaries’ or manuals in search of meaning to ascribe to our dreams, we generally scoff at the idea that dreaming of walking under a ladder indicates we will be successful, or that dreams of black cats signal a fear of one’s own feminine power. Perhaps we are not wrong to dismiss such interpretations, as, according to psychoanalysts across the globe, the value of understanding dreams does not lie in ascribing generalised meanings to images and events which occur in them. Rather, the value lies in one’s own intimate understanding of a dream - or more often, a series of dreams - and the symbols within them.

The Jungian approach to dreams, or some iteration of it, is the most enduring. For Jung, dreams are the means by which the psyche (the combination of the body, mind, and emotions) communicates unconscious understandings to the conscious mind – because the conscious mind often fails to recognise problems or fundamental truths about the self. According to Jung, ‘Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. They are pure nature…’.[1] Thus, dreams are central to the process of inward examination and individuation - so to ignore or dismiss dreams would be to neglect a wealth of insight.

An image of Carl Jung retrieved from

In the Jungian model, dreams have both objective and subjective meaning. The objective meaning of a dream can be found in the ways in which it represents events in the dreamer’s life. Often, dreams are a means of processing the day’s occurrences - which is why sleep is so important to the maintenance of mental health. However, dreams operate on a subjective level as well; this means that dreams can tell us something important about the dreamer themselves, rather than merely the material conditions of the dreamer’s reality. One may dream of their friend because they spoke to them before going to sleep, but there are other reasons they may have dreamed of them - what could the presence of that particular individual symbolise in the psyche of the dreamer? What could the unconscious mind be attempting to relay?

Jungians claim that when a dream reoccurs or a symbol is repeated, this is an indication that the issue which it represents persists. Dreams are attempts to balance psychic well-being. Yet our dreams are not always readily accessible to us. The modern individual struggles with understanding the communications of the unconscious more than someone in the past might have, since past societies had long emphasised the importance of dreams and understanding the symbols within them as mystical occurrences. Like most 19th and 20th century theorists, Jung believed quite strongly that rationality, though vital, had certain limits – he went as far to say that over-rationalisation may well be partly responsible for the mental health crises of the western world. Thus, the difficulty in interpreting dreams, for Jung, does not come from attempting to reconcile the bizarre or deviant events which are expressed in them with the conscious self, but rather, from decoding the symbols which are present in them. Dreams can compensate for our lack of understanding in our consciousness, and offer a way of understanding events, feelings, or phenomena which we otherwise find irreconcilable with our worldview.

I spoke to Dr Alessandra Sax, an interdisciplinary Psychology Lecturer whose specialisation includes Abnormal Psychology and Advanced Psychopathology; she has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for over twenty-five years with children, adolescents and adults. According to Dr Sax, although interpreting and understanding dreams poses challenges, it is ‘worth researching the symbols and representations we dream of’. Dr Sax is not a ‘dream expert’ - a specialisation which does exist and can be sought out - but she finds the analysis of dreams in therapy both useful and interesting. ‘It often takes a long time - many people may feel shame or anxiety about their dreams - but it is worth it.’ Vitally, it is important to note that analysts are not approaching this analysis without a framework: ‘some symbols are universal and some are personal to the client… both allow the therapist to use dreams as an additional tool in therapy’.

This is precisely why many psychotherapists encourage their clients to keep dream journals - in the final chapter of Irvin Yalom’s Love’s Executioner, titled ‘Finding the Dreamer’, one client’s dreams are analysed at length. For Yalom, the dreams are a means of communicating information to the analyst which is not yet known to the conscious mind of the client. He, like many other analysts, welcomes the ‘dreamer’ into session, hailing him as a unique and fascinating way to gain insight. In fact, if his account in Love’s Executioner is to be trusted, he sometimes finds his client’s dreams more interesting than the client himself. Dr Sax told me that, ‘what is nice about the client sharing dreams, and expressing their own feelings and interpretations [with respect to] their dreams, is that the dialogue is non-binding’. As a result, ‘it is up to the client to accept or reject an interpretation’. Unlike many therapeutic interventions which aim to shift thought patterns and behaviour through standardized exercises, ‘there is a sense of not being so enmeshed [in the practical implications of analysis]...a sense of openness’. Discussion of dreams can therefore lead to enlightening discourse without requiring the client to revisit real-life situations explicitly.

The process of understanding one’s dreams is admittedly complicated - enlisting the assistance of a psychotherapist is advisable, especially when the themes and contents of dreams become disturbing or harrowing. Jung himself wrote:

‘Dreams are as simple or as complicated as the dreamer is himself, only they are always a little bit ahead of the dreamer’s consciousness. I do not understand my own dreams any better than any of you...Knowledge is no advantage when it is a matter of one’s own dreams.’ [2]

Most of us have had irrational, violent or unpleasant dreams which left us feeling unsettled. Although the Freudian model, which suggests these dreams might represent repressed desires, may offer no comfort at all, the Jungian one enables the individual to situate themselves within these dreams in a far more rational manner. Disturbing dreams do not imply a desire or inclination to violence or inappropriate behaviour, but rather are a window to understanding real concerns which have not manifested consciously. What may seem, on the surface, to be evidence of some form of perversion or unpleasant repression, may well symbolically indicate something far more benign, but at the same time far more fundamental to the individual. So how would one derive meaning from very unpleasant dreams? Dr Sax says ‘dreams are so essential to us [because] the unconscious state is representative of the conscious state. What is fascinating is that what we experience in the awake state becomes safer when expressed through the symbolism of the unconscious. Sometimes, dreams are terrifying... but that does not mean the [reality they’re representing in the] awake state is. It's just the unconscious way of ‘working through’ the events and emotions of daily life. Something very frightening can give us positive feedback’.

Dreams are not useful only for understanding the client’s unconscious - understanding and interpreting dreams can help clients shift their unconscious processes. Dr Sax has found that ‘dreams are an added tool for therapy. For this, the client needs to want to share their dreams openly [and when/if they do] this shifts the nature of the work done in therapy. When the client shares dreams, a professional can give an objective point of view based on the client’s experience and the therapist’s understanding of them. This helps the client to learn to bridge the conscious and unconscious. The analysis of dreams imbues verbal therapy with additional robustness, aiding the client’s [understanding of] life in both [unconscious and conscious] states. Considering that when working in a psychodynamic model, the goal is to bring out the unconscious material to the conscious level in session, introducing dream analysis can be very helpful’.


[1] Carl Jung, Collected Works of C.G Jung ed. Gerhard Adler and R.F.C. Hull, Volume 10, (Princeton University Press, 1970), pp. 317 [2] Carl Jung, Collected Works of C.G Jung ed. Gerhard Adler and R.F.C. Hull, Volume 18, (Princeton University Press, 1970), pp. 244


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