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Therapy Skills: Dream Work


  1. Get clients to record dreams in morning on pad already beside bed. See handout on dream recording.
  2. Clients to keep dreams in journal with other personal journal work.
  3. Write down the dream in shorthand form in your case-notes.
  4. Get the client to verbally report the dream rather than give you a copy, this encourages a free flow; relevant associations and anecdotes are more likely to occur.
  5. Listen to general “off the cuff comments” as clients presents dreams, as some of these preliminary statements can be rich in associational material for later dream interpretations.
  6. Ask client what the dream means to them, or what they made of it.
  7. Try to be highly tuned in more of the artful listener mode when dreams are presented instead of trying to interpret or being directive.


  1. Remain naïve to symbols at this stage but begin to ask questions about the symbols in the dream. Get the client to talk as freely as possible about each symbol.
  2. People. Ask: “Who is this person to you? What are they like? Where do they fit into your life? How do they compare to you/or how are they different to you? What were you doing when you were 8yo?” (If there was a dream figure of this age).
  3. Objects. Ask: “What do cats mean to you? Where do Mercedes figure in your life? What does your right hand bring to mind if you look at it? What do you associate with flying?”
  4. Write down the pertinent symbol and “mind-map” association arrows as they remark on different features associated with the symbol.
  5. Don’t make interpretations at this stage, consider you are collecting the symbol materials in a linear accumulative fashion.
  6. Tell the clients that “symbols are like “packets of their own personal experience” that are evoked when discussed and this can be proved later”, (at the Passive Gestalt stage).
  7. Follow-up any emotions that surface with counselling skills and you may at times need to follow this direction rather than dream interpretation. This is probably what was intended by the unconscious anyway.


  1. This is a derivative term and technique I devised many years ago because most clients are introverts presenting in a smaller, less adequate physical space than Fritz Perls the originator of Gestalt therapy had in mind when he used his more physical “acting out” method of therapy. Hence here clients just sit in the chair and close their eyes.
  2. Mention to the client that you would like to use a technique called Gestalt therapy where they imagine they are part of the dream. (Most clients think this is a very strange thing to do so you need to be convincing in your dialogue here!) “Each part of the dream is an aspect or facet of yourself, a part of your experience. Dreams are not to be read as you would a book since they are a different process hence our conscious mind can not usually make sense of them. It is true to say that they are literally unconscious to us. However if you want to give this technique a go, I think you will be surprised to see for yourself that what I’m saying is true. All you have to do is sit with your eyes closed and imagine yourself as the object in your dream. I will ask questions and this will guide you and mean you don’t have to be theatrical as if acting out a part in a play, its actually quite simple. Would you be happy to try it? ”
  3. Instructions: “So close your eyes and imagine yourself as the (say eagle). Give yourself a chance to settle down and adjust to having your eyes closed for this unusual task... Now just let yourself be this eagle try not to watch it but let yourself be it. If you are watching it you are going back to the original role you played in the dream. So use the language I am an eagle, not it was an eagle...”
  4. Key questions: Give them a chance to accommodate to the experience and then start with. “So imagine I’ve never seen an eagle, as if I’ve come from outer space or somewhere, how would you describe what you are, what you look like and what it’s like to be this eagle. How does it feel to be an eagle? (Try to elicit actually feeling/emotional language.) What is your purpose? You’re not a car, or a dog you are this eagle, what is your purpose in life? What is life like for you? As each day comes along as night follows day, what is your daily life like for you? (Write down everything they say, this is important and underline key personalized sounding language e.g. I’m above everything free of the world and all its troubles… I’m powerful; I can see things clearly and notice anything that moves… I’m always ready to attack….. I’m meant to be free and full of life and energy, that’s my purpose.”)
  5. Personalizing: One of the most pleasing aspects of this process is helping people make the real life connections of the symbols. It also has the effect of making the whole technique so convincing and helps the consciousness raising process. The procedure is to repeat back to them several times, the key words that you’ve underlined. This is “holding the experience” (see Language skills notes). It gives them a chance to re-experience the key feelings and then you ask “When do you feel like this in everyday life, as Jane. When, as yourself, do you feel powerful, able to see things clearly, always ready to attack.”
  6. Most clients can easily make the connections and verify that in fact they do have exactly this experience in a real part of daily existence or they did recently. This is why we claim that the symbols are “containers of experience”.
  7. Only give clients 2-3 symbols in one session. The experience is quite draining and may occasionally be distressing. Keep them with their eyes closed when shifting from one symbol to another. “So just keep your eyes closed now, let go of being the eagle, I want you to shift yourself over to the experience now of the small rabbit that the eagle tries to capture.”
  8. Return to room: “So now letting yourself be your normal adult self again, feet on the ground in the consulting room. Feeling your full normal adult body, and being aware of the room, keeping your eyes closed, and start to prepare yourself gradually to open your eyes, at your pace and when you want to, opening your eyes and getting ready to adjust to the lights overhead after your journey within.” Most clients are surprised and affected by this and take a little time to adjust even if at first they were skeptical or clumsy at the entry point. Ask them how it was and check that they are returning to a balanced emotional state. If not, just give them time to ‘come round’. People like to share this experience quite often so don’t race off to the next stage or dream interpretation too fast!
  9. Don’t get clients to play out actual people is this segment. It is unnecessary and time consuming. You can get this from their projections and associations at the ‘amplification’ stage. It is fine to get them to play out abstract people, ‘dream creations’ and usually quite fruitful. If the client is a woman for example ask particularly what it is like to be a man. “Not a woman, boy or girl but a man, the one in the dream, how does that feel? What’s it like to be a man?”


  1. So far we have associations and recovered experiences but the unconscious is very exacting and chooses particular symbols for different reasons. For example when ‘Jane was an eagle’ the experience of power could have come from being a man or a lion. The dream chose an eagle a powerful bird for a specific reason.
  2. So here we try to make interpretative sense of why this particular symbol, why is there a man or a 30-year-old car or a little boy in the dream?
  3. It is useful to think metaphorically here and look for a type of punning that dreams seem to be full of. If there is a tree upturned you can ask her where does she feel turned upside down and “uprooted” in life? Why a tree? Is this symbolic of growth or feeling stumped!? Can we associate with trees as symbols of life or knowledge from the Garden of Eden?
  4. Jung is a controversial figure in University psychology but there is a dearth of information in scientific terms to guide us, when using dreams. However, I can assure you dreams are enormously useful when interpreted or employed carefully. People like Jung and Perls had great knowledge and can shed some light on a ‘dark topic’. The bottom line here is to test it out for yourselves but keep an open mind both ways.
  5. Jung believed symbols originated from the ‘collective unconscious’: That we are ‘imprinted’ with knowledge and archetypes from our birth as to what things are. People from different cultures (hence collective), also dream things with very similar meanings. Some people seem to ‘know’ about symbolic material even when it would be outside of their normal knowing or experience. There is a sense that ‘the unconscious knows’.
  6. Jung said, “learn all you can about symbols and then forget it when you are with a client.” In other words, go with the flow of experience of therapy and try not to get stuck in your head about symbolic details. However, as he indicates it is useful to know information about symbols, which can be offered at the pertinent time. This is similar to counselling where we learn as many feeling words for our vocabulary or word library before our live sessions. Then when counselling, let them flow out naturally.
  7. So you can learn about symbols from some of the books. Gypsy like interpretations seem less useful, for example black umbrellas mean a dark stranger will enter you life and look over you! However you might break it down as follows. Umbrella- protects you from the rain, water, and emotions? Feelings? Is the person correctly using the umbrella or is he over protected from “getting wet”. Is he afraid of experiences, especially letting himself feel his actual emotions? Or is he correctly avoiding feelings when appropriate. The dream context will give you the meaning here, plus your previous amplifications and gestalt work, if performed.
  8. References to mythology, fairy tales, colour interpretations, nursery rhymes, common folklore and so forth are very useful in using symbolic interpretations. If ‘he’ were supporting a globe of the world on his back, we would be unwise not to look into the myth about Atlas. If she was sitting on the floor with a glass slipper at her feet we would naturally consider her treatment in her family or family substitutes, self esteem problems or is she waiting too much for ‘her prince charming to rescue her’.
  9. General symbolism is useful. Consider the associations with male side or female side. People get concerned about sexism and value judgements here but the clients associations can still guide us. Anyway the idea is that regardless of sex we all have a male and female side and these forces run deep. What does a man mean to you? How are they different to women, boys and girls? What do you think masculinity means or the word feminine? Remember the unconscious is concerned about what you really think deep down not what we are supposed to think through socially adapted processes!

Integration and Action- Fifth Stage

  1. Obviously, you are in a position in conjunction with the client as ever, to put things together.
  2. You should always be tentative especially with a solitary dream. However, synthesize information from the clients past, goals, problems, functional analysis, your own knowledge and intuitions. The more dreams you look at, the more you will be confident of certain themes because motifs and patterns emerge over time and repeat.
  3. Always remember that the client will be the final and only person who will make sense of the dream. This may be slowly at first or over a period of time. It is unconscious to them and it is certainly unconscious to us! However, we have our ‘light’ of knowledge and objectivity and can see the dream in a light that can be useful, even if only to form working hypotheses.
  4. Action: Clients can often find it useful to act on aspects of a dream. For example, a man dreaming about his right hand could spend time looking at it in a mindful state. A person who dreams of Chopin may be wise to listen to some of the maestro’s music and see what comes to mind. A woman who has a Cinderella theme would be wise to work on her male side and perhaps do some assertiveness training.
  5. Dreams form what I call the ‘bottom up’ part of therapy. It is wise to not spend too much time at the dream end of the process, try some actual symptom work (top down), in the next session and see how this links to the unconscious work of the previous session. Alternatively, work on behavioural assignments, send the woman above home to practice standing up to her husband in situations where she usually hopes he will know what she’s thinking! Set a man, who is out of touch with his ‘feminine’, the homework of practicing describing his feelings everyday in the car using feeling words.
  6. Remember dreams are just one aspect of the mosaic of techniques to use with our IMCT approach here and if occasionally you don’t find them useful switch to another technique from a different model.

Dreams-Handout   Given to Client

Dreams Handout