Psychotherapy and Dreams

By Spencer Overgaard, Copyright 2013

Psychotherapy is an unusual profession. Many people are confused about what it involves. Some people think it has to do with physiotherapy as in healing of strained muscles. Others assume it's a form of advice giving such as counselling or possibly even psychiatric medicine where drugs are prescribed for depression and anxiety among other disorders. None of these fully capture psychotherapy.

The word 'psychotherapy' is derived from two Greek words: ???? (psyche) and ???????? (therapy), the first meaning soul (form) and the second meaning healing. Putting the two together, you get an idea of what psychotherapy means: the art and science of healing the soul. Healing is a strong word as is soul, but if we think of this definition in terms of about a person being pushed and pulled in two different directions from within themselves, something we refer to as psychological conflict, then we get a picture of a person needing help and perhaps also what that help needs to address, in other words, what a therapist would assist with.

Traditionally psychotherapy has been a talking therapy. I love this phrase because it tells you that the tools of the trade involve talk. It involves more than just talk: the therapist has to know what to focus on, but the heart of the profession is talk in the context of a relationship. As the client discusses their life experience, a relationship of trust is formed that allows favourable changes to occur.

A good way to get a sense of what psychotherapy involves is through dreams. This is another dimension of therapy I delight in because dreams are accessible to pretty well everyone. Now, it's fair to say that many people believe dreams to be nonsensical, not worth considering. For example, years ago my then sister-in-law told me that if I tried to understand my dreams, I would go crazy. Freud would agree that many dreams are crazy, but would add that they were exquisitely valuable to self-understanding and transformation. As you may know, he claimed in his most famous work, The Interpretation of Dreams, that dreams are the royal road to activity of our minds that are often commonly experienced as inaccessible.

This area of the soul (psyche) if often called the unconscious. Activity in this area of our psyche is often extremely difficult to access, shrouded in unawareness. However, dreams provide a window to view those hard-to-get-a-handle-on activities of our mind. Freud believed that these often inaccessible activities of our mind have far far more influence on our day-to-day living than most people are prepared to accept. This is a very important aspect of psychotherapy. It's one reason one might consider seeing a therapist: to help gain access to those activities that might be causing us disturbances in our everyday lives.

To introduce how dreams might be approached in a therapy session, I'll offer a dream I had not so long ago.

I find myself in a public place without a belt in slacks that look impossibly long and my legs as well. I feel ashamed of myself. But my wife is there and communicates- somehow- that I shouldn't worry, that it's not a problem.

This is not an unusual dream in terms of surface content- what we see at first glance. It does not appear to be profound. Many people could easily have a similar dream. This demonstrates one of Freud's principle findings about dreams: they often are not what they appear to be. The more plain and unremarkable the dream, the more likely there is something psychologically significant to consider. The reason for this is that troubling activities of our emotional and psychic lives are often pushed into the realm of unawareness, the way we sweep dirt under a rug. But, because our psychological life is pressured, interconnected and intense, those activities strive to surface into awareness. This is why we speak of a dynamic unconscious - an ever-changing chamber of unawareness. One emotion pushes up against another, demanding some sort of action or attention.

A dream is a vehicle these hidden activities of the soul can use to move into awareness without being too severely censored. A dream is a little like a wolf dressing up in sheep's clothing. Uninteresting dreams of everyday life are the clothing. Behind that clothing could well lie a wolf- or, in other words, a piece of information about ourselves that's so challenging that we would rather not learn about it. In the dream we gain access to activities of our mind that we have initially pushed away!

Getting back to my dream, chances are it is probably not about me forgetting my belt. I should likely look to what role shame might have in my life, shame being one of those unpleasant emotions most of us would rather not feel. A further dimension is the relief from shame I felt upon hearing my wife say I shouldn't worry about the belt. There is likely something worth exploring about my relationship with her on the matter of shame and perhaps even my dressing choices!

As you can see, there are many directions one could take with this rather mundane dream. Maybe dreams can be a window into your very active world of unawareness as well!

By way of reference, an excellent book for getting a taste of Freud is Jonathan Lear's Freud, upon which some of my comments are based.