Despite wishing for sweet dreams every night, we do not experience them as often as we would like. Either we do not remember what we dreamt, or we recall something that does not make sense and we shake our heads at the foolishness of our dreams. Dreams can also be frightening, causing us to wake up feeling scared or uneasy. So where are those sweet dreams? Why don’t we dream of them?
To understand our dreams, it is important to understand their purpose. Sigmund Freud was one of the first psychologists to seriously study dreams. Despite the many changes in our understanding of dreams since 1900, Freud’s findings are still fascinating and many of them have been confirmed in modern neuroscience research (Gabbard, 2005).
Because we desire what is forbidden
Freud proposed that dreams are veiled fulfillments of conflicted desires (1900). What does that mean? When we are awake and conscious, we have control over ourselves. We have defense mechanisms to help us function in relationships with others without driving everyone away. Not everything we think, we do. Even when we think of something unacceptable, something that is in conflict with our values and principles, we quickly push it away and hide it from ourselves. However, these forbidden thoughts, desires, or wishes do not disappear. They hide in our unconscious and wait for their chance. In sleep, the defenses that keep these forbidden desires from entering our consciousness are weakened. This is an opportunity for the unconscious to finally release what we have been repressing. It’s as if the mind uses the physiological state of the sleeping brain to deal with what it cannot deal with when we are awake and conscious (Gabbard, 2005). But it’s not that simple.
Still mask yourself and then go out or Why we don’t understand dreams
If the contents of our unconsciousness were to be cleaned out without hesitation, we wouldn’t allow it. It would be so threatening to us that we would wake up immediately. Therefore, the mind chooses a compromise. It releases blocked desires into the consciousness, but disguised. Dreams are very condensed, containing many images that don’t have clear meanings and are full of symbols; emotions that we experience towards a person can, for example, be transferred to another person (Mitchell, Black, 1999). Ideas are transformed into images that we can bear, that are acceptable to us. And so we dream about things that don’t disturb us too much, we can handle them, but they’re not necessarily pleasant and we prefer to forget them quickly. It’s logical – pleasant and nice things don’t need to be hidden in the unconsciousness, so they don’t need to manifest in dreams.
Dreams in psychotherapy
Since dreams are, as Freud said, the “royal road to the unconscious,” after a hundred years, working with them still has its place in psychotherapy. Today, we know that dreams don’t just conceal disguised desires, but also fears, conflicts, and repeated attempts to process traumatizing experiences (Gabbard, 2005). They can also reflect persistent problems that we still haven’t resolved (Cartwright, Lamberg in Hill, 2009). Dreams can help us reveal what we don’t want to see, name internal conflicts, even if we don’t know how to express what makes us unhappy (Hill, 2009). And that’s precisely what needs to be worked on in psychotherapy.
It’s important that we don’t imagine this work as the client coming in, telling us what they dreamed about, and the therapist telling them what it means and what their problem is. The meaning of dreams is always sought with the help of associations brought by the dreamer. We never simply assign symbols based on some manual or a string of dreams. That’s where an honest therapist differs from a charlatan. We don’t look for universally applicable symbols, but specific symbols used by the dreamer – based on their associations with the dream. Without such mutual cooperation and without knowing something about the client, we can never analyze a dream.
Does it make sense to deal with our dreams at all?
It may seem overly speculative. You might think, “That’s nonsense. My dreams are so random that they don’t say anything.” Although it may be hard to believe, a dream can be a great tool for revealing what we are not aware of about ourselves. Uncovering these hidden depths within us makes us wiser, but most importantly, more balanced and happier. What we suppress often returns to our lives in various forms besides dreams, such as physical difficulties (high blood pressure, cancer, stomach or skin diseases, headaches, etc.) and psychological difficulties (depression, nervousness, anger, aggression, etc.). You don’t have to run to a psychologist about your dreams right away. Just a little bit of effort and willingness to pay attention to your dreams and occasionally think about them can go a long way. You may be surprised that you can sense what they are related to and this will lead you to reflect on yourself. If successful, the wealth that dreams offer will have been utilized.
I don’t know if I convinced you, but I believe that it makes sense to discover the hidden depths of our inner selves and release them appropriately so that we don’t feel like pressure cookers. Fortunately, our body and mind are wise enough to not rely on our spontaneous self-discovery activity, and at least release steam in our dreams. So I am grateful for every dream I have, whether it is sweet or bitter, or anything in between.
So, good night and sweet, rich dreams…
Mitchel S. A., Blackova, M. J. (1999). Freud and After: Exploring the Work of Freud and Jung. Triton, Prague.
Hill, C. E. (2009). Working with Dreams in Psychotherapy. Publisher F, Trencin.
Gabbard, G. O. (2005). Long-Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. Publisher F, Trencin.
Freud, S. (1999). The Interpretation of Dreams. Oxford University Press, Inc., New York.