Jungian Dream Interpretation

“A dream that is not understood remains a mere occurrence; understood, it becomes a living experience.” — C.G. Jung

Why Pay Attention to Dreams?

Since ancient times, people of all cultures have sought and found meaning in their dreams. We seem to intuit that the mysterious images and strange situations that we experience nightly must mean something. Depth psychologists, particularly Jungian analysts, give particular attention to dreams, considering them to provide direct access to the unconscious.

We all dream several times each night, even when we do not remember doing so.
Dreams are a natural activity of the unconscious. People deprived of REM sleep (the deep sleep state where dreams occur) will experience impairments in cognitive and motor functioning and eventual hallucinations.

It is often said that dreams don’t lie. When we are awake, our perceptions of ourselves, others and events are filtered through the prejudices and biases of the ego, or conscious personality. Our egos perform the job of enabling us to function through elaborate systems of self- protection, called defenses in psychology. These defenses are necessary in order to live our lives in society. They enable us to maintain self-esteem, reduce anxiety and show an appropriate “face” to the world.

But we pay a price for operating too exclusively out of the ego’s defenses. That price may be imbalance, rigidity, being cut off from our emotions, body knowing or creativity. In sleep, the control of the ego is suspended. Without the filtering of the ego’s defenses, our dreams show the current state of the psyche, from the perspective of the unconscious. As a result, accessing our dreams can be a way of correcting or compensating any imbalance.

The language of dreams is a language of symbol, metaphor and image. Because we are educated to rely on the language of logic and linear thinking, it takes training to understand the language of our dreams. Each dream is like a snap shot or short film depicting some aspect of our unconscious psychological state. By paying attention to our dreams and learning to understand their language, we gain access to hidden or buried parts of ourselves. Ongoing dream work creates a dialogue between the ego and the unconscious, enlarging the ego and enriching our conscious personality with expanded self-awareness.

Objective or Subjective?

Suppose I have an interaction with an irritating co worker. That night, I dream about that person. If I view my dream objectively, I explain the dream by saying that I dreamed of the coworker because I just spoke to her. It was simply a replay of what happened that day. There is no symbolic meaning and no importance to the dream. The coworker in my dream simply represents the actual person I spoke to during the day.

In contrast, a subjective interpretation views each figure and element in the dream as representing some aspect of my psyche in symbolic form. To interpret the dream about my coworker subjectively, I might reflect on the possibility that she represents unacknowledged qualities in me. Perhaps the very reason I am annoyed with her is that she mirrors some aspect of myself that I have been unwilling to face. Discovering this could help me to know myself more fully and may also help me to become more accepting of both myself and my coworker as fallible human beings.

This is a very simple example; most dreams are not so transparent. There can often be a mix of objective and subjective elements in any dream. But the example illustrates how interpreting dreams subjectively can lead to greater self awareness. It also points to the usefulness of working on dreams with another person, particularly someone who is trained in dream interpretation. The same ego defenses that have prevented me from recognizing how similar I may be to my annoying colleague will also make it hard for me to see what the dream is showing. The input of another person is often necessary, especially while we are learning, if we wish to derive the fullest benefit from working with our dreams.

Dreams in Jungian Analysis

Dreams often take a special importance in Jungian analysis. Analysts have years of specialized training and experience in working with dreams. As the analyst and client work on the client’s dreams together, valuable information often becomes available to assist in better understanding the client’s personal psychology. This can deepen the analytic work and open doors to self awareness that simply would not be accessible if we rely exclusively on information that is consciously available to the client.

Some people in analysis do not remember their dreams. This is not a problem. At times, there is so much going on in daily life that there is simply not enough psychological energy available to remember dreams. At other times, an individual may be more in tune with her or his inner life, so that dreams are not as necessary. Finally, for some people who have suffered trauma, dreams cannot be easily accessed. Analysis can be just as productive when the dreams are not remembered. In lieu of a dream, we might take a strong emotion or body sensation as the starting point to access the unconscious.

Suggestions for Remembering Your Dreams

  1. Prepare by keeping a pen and paper next to your bed. You may even want to put a small flashlight on your bedside table, in case you wake up with a dream during the night.
  2. Before sleeping, make the conscious intention of remembering a dream.
  3. When you awaken, lie still for a few minutes, in a relaxed state. If you recall any image from your dream, stay with that image and see if you remember more.
  4. Write whatever you remember, even if it is just a single image. If you remember a long dream, you might jot down key words and images, so that you can remember the entire dream later. Some people prefer to speak the dream into their cell phones as soon as they wake up.
  5. Once you are fully awake, write the entire dream with every detail you remember.
  6. Writing the dream is essential, both for remembering the dream and for working with it.

Some Steps for Interpreting Your Dreams

  1. Keep a journal of your dreams and your notes, thoughts and feelings about your dreams.
  2. After you have written your dream of the previous night, briefly note any significant incidents that occurred in the few days prior to the dream. For example, you may have argued with your spouse and felt upset or misunderstood. Those feelings may be connected to your dream.
  3. Pay special attention to the feelings in your dream, both emotions and bodily sensations. Sometimes the feelings alone may be enough to help you construct a helpful interpretation. This may be especially true if you have been suppressing certain feelings in your waking life.
  4. Note the setting and context of the dream to see if they suggest what the dream might be showing. For instance, if you dream you are in you are in your childhood home, the dream may be showing that a current issue in your life has its roots in your family of origin.
  5. Next, write your associations to the images or symbols in your dreams. For example, if you dreamed of a childhood friend, write the qualities you associate with that friend, any particularly memorable events that stand out in connection with your friend, how you felt in the friendship, etc. Consider how those qualities, experiences and feelings may be active in some form in the present time.
  6. Consider the dream as a metaphor. It is as if the dream is saying, your feelings yesterday in that argument with your spouse are like the way you felt when your childhood friend got chosen for the team and you did not. This may suggest that some previously unacknowledged jealousy, competitiveness or shame were in the background of your argument with your spouse. With many dreams, these steps may be sufficient to give you an understanding that you can use for self reflection.
  7. At other times, you may not have any strong personal associations to the images in your dream. For example, you may dream of a tiger. If you have had a meaningful personal encounter with a tiger, begin with those personal associations. But if you have never had any such experience, you might use the method of amplification. Amplification is a uniquely Jungian method of enriching the image with parallels from mythology, culture, the physical sciences etc.
    To amplify the image of the tiger in your dream, you might research tigers online and read about their habits, behavior, and physiology. Or you might look into the ways tigers have figured in mythology or literature. In this way, you amplify the web of meanings around the image of tiger. As before, think of this as a metaphor. Knowing what you now know, how might tiger energy be appearing in your life, or perhaps be needed?
  8. A further Jungian method for working with dreams is Active Imagination. After finishing your associations and amplification of the dream image, you might engage actively with the image, by writing a dialogue with it or drawing, painting or sculpting it. This method takes some preparation and training and is best learned in analysis. There is reading on active imagination listed at the bottom of this page.
  9. At times, people suffer from recurrent nightmares or dreams that arise from trauma. In those situations, the person may benefit more from working with a trained analyst on the effects of the past trauma.

To Go Further

The following local groups offer workshops or training in Jungian psychology, including occasional programs on dream work.

The C.G. Jung Institute of Colorado
This Denver-based training institute provides training for mental health professionals to become Jungian analysts.

The C.G. Jung Institute of Colorado
This Denver-based non-profit organization has a thirty year history of providing workshops and classes in Jungian psychology to the general public and to mental health professionals.

The Boulder Friends of Jung
Lectures, workshops and discussion groups in Jungian psychology to the general public.

The Boulder Association of Jungian Analysts
A new local group that offers a seminar in Jungian psychology.

Recommended Reading on Jungian Dream Interpretation:
Dreams, a Portal to the Source, by Edward C. Whitmont and Sylvia Brinton Perera. Published in paperback from Brunner-Routledge.

Jung on Active Imagination, edited by Joan Chodorow, published in paperback by Princeton University Press.