As already seen in several previous posts, at the core of our model there is the idea that both our conscious and unconscious mental functioning is highly sophisticated, aimed at adaptation and regulated, at its basis, by the safety/danger principle. This means that we want to pursue pleasurable and healthy goals but are frequently obstructed in this task by the difficulties of reality and by our pathogenic beliefs, the deep and long-lasting traces of our developmental traumas. Starting from these premises, it is not difficult to hypothesize that also our dreams, the product of our night-time unconscious mental functioning, are an effort at adaptation. Saying it in the simplest way, our dreams are messages we send to ourselves by which we try to develop and test our policies for solving unresolved problems (see also Bargh, 2017). And dreams serve this function whether or not the dreamer remembers them. As said by one of my patients: “I like dreams, even because when I dream I do not have to try hard to understand what my mind is dealing with. The dream says this to me”.
Dreams are never trivial; they address the main concerns of a patient, even if s/he is not able to understand their meaning. People dream about problems they have not been able to resolve so far, and may dream also about problems they do not feel able to face in their conscious awareness because their pathogenic beliefs make them feel in danger. So, a person may “reveal more self-knowledge and may see things more clearly in his dreams than in his waking-life” (Weiss, 1993, p.142).
Dreams have an overarching adaptive function. We may have dreams aimed at mastering traumas, at providing corrective emotional experiences (similar to the wish fulfilment dreams), or dreams aimed at soothing and consoling oneself. Self-punishment dreams are quite common, as are those that warn or encourage the dreamer. There are dreams in which we muse on our problems and develop insights into possible solutions.
The fact that dreams are thoughts expressed by visual images and are experienced as something that is happening to us, not as something felt as produced by us, make them an enormously powerful tool -- much more powerful than an abstract thought. In our dreams we can use different narrative styles (realistic novel, sit-com, narrative, prophecy etc.) and a wide range of rhetorical figures (irony, reductio ad absurdum, hyperbole, repetitions etc.) to convey important messages or themes. Finally, even the comments that the dreamer makes in recounting the dream or the associations to it are frequently relevant for understanding it.
But if dreams have an adaptive function and can be understood as a message that a person is sending to him/herself, why is it often so difficult for the dreamer to understand them? First of all, because it is not always clear to the awakened dreamer which is the problem or concern his/her dream is dealing with and the attitude s/he may have toward that problem while dreaming. Second, as adults we are in general less accustomed to think in visual terms. Third, dreams take place in a in a very particular state of mind, sleep, which is naturally dissociated from the lucidly wakeful state we are in when reflecting on the dream and trying to understand what it means. Finally, dreams may be hard to understand because, consciously or unconsciously, they may be heavily disguised. There are many reasons for such disguises; consider, for example, a person who wants to warn himself about a danger while consciously needing to deny that danger.
In order to understand the meaning of a dream a therapist should consider both its context (what the patient was talking about before telling the dream, what is happening in therapy and in in the patient’s life when s/he has this dream) and the associations that the patient makes about the dream and its various components. We may think about the interpretation of a dream as something like the task of giving a caption to a cartoon (Weiss). It is helpful to shift from the idea of interpreting a dream to the idea of exploring it (Paul Ransohoff). And we should not forget that dream interpretation is just one part of psychotherapy, and not always the most relevant. We can make sense of a patient’s dreams only within the following context: when a patient reports a dream, it is possible that s/he is testing us, or tells us a dream because we passed an important test, or maybe s/he is coaching us with it. In psychotherapy, we can rely (also) on dreams for understanding the goals the patient wants to pursue, the pathogenic beliefs s/he is trying to disprove, the policies s/he is considering and which kind of relationship s/he wants to have with us.
Just one example. A patient in his thirties was working through the loss of his father. He was trying to understand if he should follow his father’s teachings about the centrality of social status in life or follow what he thought to be important and “true”. At the same time, he was trying to understand if he should have complied with the requests of a couple of friends who could have been useful to him in term of status or if he should have broken off the relationship because they had disappointed him and were increasingly distant from him. During a session, he told me this dream:
I was with that couple of friends near the walls of a very old town, probably a town from the ancient Roman period or from the Middle Age. We have to go to a bookshop, but following one of these friends we lost our way and were not able to find the bookshop. A that point I realized that the bookshop was in the center of this town, while my friends thought that it was in the outermost part. I see some broken keys on the ground, and I thought that they had been broken by my two friends lack of care.
The basic message of this warning dream, which is expressed like a prophecy, is that he could find his "center", the "key" of his future only if he does not comply with the teachings of his father and with the requests of those friends. And this is what he did in the following year. This dream was very important for the patient, who went back into his mind several times in the following years when he felt confused or anxious about what to do.
Bargh, J. A. (2017), Before you know it: The unconscious reasons we do what we do. New York: Touchtone.
Weiss, J., Sampson, H., & the Mount Zion Psychotherapy Research Group. (1986). The psychoanalytic process. New York: Guilford Press.
Weiss, J. (1993), How psychotherapy works: Process and technique. New York: The Guilford Press.