What Can Our Dreams Tell Us About Our Conscious Self?
Psychotherapy is unique in comparison to other psychological modalities as it is characterised by the in-depth exploration of the self by tapping into the unconscious. It does not limit the human condition by only exploring behaviour, cognition or observation of self in relationship to others, but rather it is a process of deep exploration which deals with expanding one’s awareness in order to heal and to find fulfillment on one’s life journey.
Working with dreams and visualisations is one way by which we can tap into the unconscious. Not all psychotherapists will want to work in this way and those that do, do so in different ways according to their orientation of practice, whether psychoanalysis, humanistic, existential, or transpersonal.
Many research studies show the powerful positive effects of working with dreams and visualisations - by tapping into the realm of imaginary, the body and mind become connected and an interplay between body and mind can begin in order to become more in tune with the self.
One explanation for the health benefits often seen with visualisation and imagery is known as psychoneuroimmunology. This term describes the interactions between psychological states and health as mediated by the immune system with decisive effects on depression, anxiety, loss of meaning and enhanced quality of life.
The creative realm allows access to symbols, which are a helpful means of comprehending and making use of the non-rational and intuitive realm of functioning. Essentially the images from dreams and visualisations can be used as communication aids.
Images experienced in dreams and visualisations, will evoke feelings connected to the client's waking concerns. The creative realm bypasses the mind, allowing the client to face potential conflict by accessing feelings. This is particularly helpful when the right words are yet to be discovered to express what is difficult or indeed the opposite may be going on; when problems are rationalised and feelings become disconnected.
In order for clients to live in harmony with themselves and the world around them, they need to discover powerful and creative resources in oneself. Exploring their inner landscape via this creative realm allows both the therapist and the client to access inner parts that constitute the self.
Some of these parts might have been suppressed, rejected or kept in exile. The therapist can then help the client find a meaning to dreams and visualisations by integrating what has been learned from the exploration stage. This is something which allows a vivid immediacy to the client’s experience. Clients can then build on this over time as they increase their involvement in the therapeutic process.
For this reason, a strong therapeutic alliance has to be established before working in this way. Ultimately the client must feel an unconditional presence by the therapist. It requires an openness and curiosity, free of judgement and needing an outcome.
The client's experience is the guide that reveals blocks or highlights direction for change or finding new meaning. Experiencing dreams or visualisations in the present allows the client to bridge between the unconscious and the conscious. Often images or symbols are given a voice, allowing the client to meet the experience directly.
Dreams and visualisations can be understood from different perspectives and levels of consciousness, as images and symbols experienced may return or transform over time, allowing a deeper sense of unfolding.
The client is then able to see themself in a new light, experience different aspects of their world, overcome blocks or feelings of being stuck, discover parts of the self and be rewarded by discovering something which was not previously known.
Dreams and visualisations in therapy are experiential dimensions which go beyond intellectual appreciation of oneself and although gaining insight is not necessarily going to result in therapeutic change, it is viewed as an important component of successful therapy as it can instigate or motivate change.
N.Hamilton, (2014). Awakening Through Dreams. Karnac Books: London.
N. Peasent & A. Zadra, (2004). Working with dreams in therapy: What do we know and what should we do? Clinical Psychology Review 24, 489 – 512.
Psychosynthesis Trust (2016). The Benefits of Visualisation. Online Resources
E C. Whitmont, (1980). The Symbolic Quest: Basic Concepts of Analytical Psychology. Pronceton University Press: New Jersey