John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology

Created June 1995, latest revision May 2013

~ Working (and playing) with Dreams ~

dream interpretation
John Suler, Ph.D.
Rider University

Every dream has many layers of meaning. Every object, person, and situation in a dream may have many meanings. So take your time in trying to understand it. Think of your dream as something to EXPLORE. You have to look at it from different angles, walk around in it for awhile, work with it - and then its many meanings will begin to reveal themselves.

Try not to give into the pressure to "interpret" a dream. If you put yourself or others on the spot to "tell me what it means" then you are taking the wrong attitude toward working with the dream. It's not a game of Jeopardy or a multiple choice test where there's a right or wrong answer. Working with a dream is more like playing with it - the kind of play that involves creativity, imagination, and a willingness to experiment. It also requires patience!

First of all, here's How to Remember Dreams.

Here are some ways to work with a dream:

Free association
Free Writing
Mental Images
Dream Enactment
Day Residue
Dream Intangibles
(tone, color, time, space)

Connections Among Dreams

- A Dream's Worth (essay)

Think Unusual (exaggerating, reversing)

The Problem and Its Solution
Anxiety and Fear
Where are you (in the dream)?
A Little Help from Your Friends
The Dream Collage
Dream Homework

- Books & Videos About Dreams

When using any of these techniques, if some-
thing makes you too comfortable, then stop

Free Association

To unpack the various meanings of a dream, take each object, person, situation, etc. and free associate to them, one at a time. What does it remind you of? What comes to mind when you think of that element of the dream? Let your imagination go. Let your attention wander. Come up with as many associations as possible. Do this in your head, or talk out loud. If you let yourself go with this, something will come up - a memory, an idea, a feeling. It may not tell you "The Meaning" to the dream, but it will give you pieces to the puzzle.

Free Writing

Write down on paper a stream of consciousness reaction to your dream. Start anywhere and just keep writing whatever comes to mind. Don't censor or edit anything out. It's like free associating onto a piece of paper. Record everything you are thinking and feeling. If you get stuck, simply write "I'm stuck, I'm stuck..." over and over again until a new association comes up. Then keep writing.

Or write down on a piece of paper each element of the dream, and then write a stream of consciousness for each one. Compare what your wrote for each element of the dream. Look for similarities and patterns. Hold onto these writings - and go back to them later on. Days or weeks later you may see something that you missed the first time around.

Mental Images

Pay attention to any sesnations in your body that you experience during a dream, or while working on it. What do they tell you about the dream?
Images are pictures or sensations in you imagination, in your "mind's eye" - similar to dreams. Use them to explore a dream. For example, close your eyes and free associate to the various elements of your dream by letting PICTURES or SENSATIONS flow through your imagination. Let your imagination go. Don't try to control what you see or experience. Let it move on its own. Stay with this and something important will come up.

Another technique is to RELIVE the dream in your imagination. Close your eyes, start at the beginning of the dream, and relive it as vividly as you can. Then replay the dream again, only this time let your imagination go. Let your imagination add to and change the dream in any way it wants. It will lead you to important insights.


Create a conversation between you and the dream, or between two elements of the dream. If you dreamed about driving a car through a forest, write down on a piece of paper a conversation between you and the car (or the forest). What would you say to the car? What would the car say back to you? Don't try to over-control the conversation. Let it be as spontaneous as possible. Stay with the dialogue and let it progress. Or create a conversation between the car and the forest. What would they say to each other?

Another possibility is to carry out this conversation LIVE. Set up two chairs. Sit in one chair and put the car into the other. Talk to the car. Then switch chairs and talk back to yourself. Keep switching back and forth. Let the conversation progress. Be spontaneous and honest! Sounds crazy, but THIS WORKS!

Dream Enactment

If you are in an adventurous move, get together some friends and reenact the dream as if it is a play. Assign roles to people. People can also be objects in the dream. First replay the dream as it actually occurred. Then do it again and let people improvise in their roles. Experiment with the play, with you as the "director." This is a powerful technique.

Day Residue

You know you're onto something when you have that "AHA" experience - like a lightbulb popping.

People, things, or events from the previous day that get incorporated into a dream were put there for a reason. They touched off ideas, feelings, and memories in the unconscious. Examining your thoughts and feelings about these events from the day will help you understand the dream and why it is "commenting" on these events. What do these day residue events remind you of? Have these sorts of things happened before?

Dream Intangibles

There is a tendency to focus just on objects, events, and people in a dream. But there is more to the dream than that. Consider also:

Feeling tone: what is the primary feeling in the dream. What does it remind you of in your life? Does the feeling tone change at different points in the dream? Why?

Colors: how are colors used in the dream? What feelings and meanings might be associated with them? What do the colors remind you of?

Time and space: how are time and space used in the dream? What feelings do these create? Is the dream communicating an idea by how it uses time and space?

Missing and vague parts: what parts of the dream are vague or unclear? Is something missing that should be there? These might be the points where dream censorship by the ego is at its strongest. Focus on these parts. There's something important going on there. Use free association and the other techniques described above to fill in the gaps. If there is a vague part to the dream, try to catch whatever details you can. For example, if you can't remember a person in the dream, can you remember what they were wearing, the color of their eyes, the color of their hair? Who does this remind you of?

Connections Among Dreams

Dreams often are connected to each other in their meanings. Look for similar patterns or themes across your dreams. Are your dreams progressing or changing somehow over time? This might indicate something about YOU that is changing over time. Pay particular attention to recurring dreams since these are important! They point to a persistent theme or issue in your life. They may indicate some "unfinished business" in your life. How are the recurring dreams similar to each other? Different? Are they changing over time? What might this say about how you are changing?

Think Unusual
All of these techniques work best if you are spontaneous and free wheeling. Let your imagination go. Don't try to force or over-control the process.
Be honest. Don't censor ideas.

Remember that the unconscious thinking that affects a dream is unusual and illogical by conscious standards. Things can mean exactly the opposite of what they seem. Something you fear in the dream may be something you unconsciously wish for. Things may contradict each other, which suggests a conflict in which you have contradictory feelings about something.

Try EXAGERATING some important aspect of the dream. In your mind, in writing, or in a dream enactment, amplify the feeling, action, or situation in the dream. Take it to the limit. Make it as intense as it could be. Where does this take you?

Try REVERSING the important elements in the dream. Turn them into the opposite feelings, behaviors, or characteristics. Does this ring any bells? Does it change the meaning of the dream?

The Problem and Its Solution

A dream may be showing you a problem or issue that needs to be resolved. It may be showing you how you are reacting to the problem. It may even be suggesting a solution. For each dream, ask yourself, "What is the problem? How am I reacting to it? Is the dream suggesting a solution?"

Anxiety and Fear

Anxiety in a dream usually indicates a point where important, perhaps threatening, ideas are surfacing from the unconscious. The anxiety is a signal. Pay close attention to these anxiety dreams. Nightmares that wake you up indicate the surfacing of particularly powerful material. In these cases, the mind can only think of one way to deal with the situation - ESCAPE!

Where are you?

You may be able to find yourself in various places in the dream. The most obvious place is the "dream-ego," as Jung called it. This dream-ego is the person who is having the experiences that make up the dream. Usually the dream-ego does not know he/she is dreaming, unless it is a lucid dream.

Examine this dream-ego carefully. Even though you may experience this ego as yourself, the person in the dream may be behaving and feeling in very different ways than you normally would. Compare yourself to this person in the dream. How are you the same? Different? Is this person in the dream some hidden part of you - some part you wish for, need, or fear?

Other people in the dream may represent important people in your life - how they actually are, how you wish them to be, how you fear they might be.

Or, other figures in the dream may represent hidden parts of yourself - the way you wish you could be, the way you used to be, parts you try to deny, your hidden potentials, something that is missing in your personality etc. Some dream researchers even believe that everything in the dream - every person, object, and event - represents a hidden part of you.

Jung would say that you should always look for what the dream is trying to teach you about your SPIRITUAL self.


Jung would say that every dream has its roots in mythology. Your dream - and the situations in your life that it depicts - are a reliving of issues that are universal to all humans. So find a good book on mythology. Locate a story that contains people or events similar to those in your dream. The mythical story will give you insights into your dream and how it relates to universal human struggles and triumphs.


At some point in working on a dream you will get stuck. This is an impasse, a barrier. It means you have to take a different perspective on the dream. You have to reorganize your thinking. Immerse yourself into that stuckness. Stick with it and eventually you will be able to break through to a new level of understanding. If you're REALLY stuck and frustrated, you may have to set the dream aside and come back to it later. Let it percolate in the back of your mind. Look at other dreams. They may help you make that breakthrough.

Don't underestimate how "deep" a dream may be, even if it seems silly or simple. When you think that you are all finished working with a dream, think again. There is probably more there!

A Little Help from Your Friends

It often helps quite a bit to get someone else's perspective on your dream. Tell your dream to a friend or family member, someone who knows you pretty well. With their help, try using some of the dream techniques described in these pages. Here are some other tips:

GROUP DREAMING: In the presence of one or several friends (or when working with fellow dream explorers), close your eyes and describe your dream in the first person and in the present tense. Tell it, from beginning to end, as if it's a story. With their eyes also closed, everyone quietly listens to your dream and tries to imagine it in their mind as you describe it. Afterwards, they describe to you the reactions they had to your dream.

"IF THIS WERE MY DREAM..." - As a general rule, you can only make guesses about what someone else's dream means. And it's quite easy for you to project your own personal meanings into it. Try using your own personal reactions to help your friend. What if your friend's dream WAS your dream! What would you think and feel about it? What would you be thinking and feeling if you were the people inside the dream? Tell your friend about your personal reactions. It might help your friend understand his or her dream.

The Dream Collage

In a group with fellow dreamers, take turns creating a dream collage. On a chalkboard or on a large posterboard, jot down words or phrases about your dreams. Feel free to be creative in how you record these ideas. Pick an interesting spot for each item. Add arrows, boxes, patterns, drawings, doodles, whatever you like. Be as spontaneous as possible. The group can suggest ideas about things to add to the collage. Some items that you can add to the collage might include:

  • the people, places, animals, objects in your dreams
  • the important activities, actions, or events in your dreams
  • the emotions expressed in your dreams
  • quotes from things said in the dream
  • how you would describe the dream ego
  • the names of important people in your life
  • important past or current events in your life

Afterwards, the dreamer and the group can step back to take a look at the completed collage. Do any interesting patterns emerge? Is there meaning to how the different items are placed next to, above, below each other? What is written large, small, faintly, boldly? Do there seem to be distinct sections, centers, boundaries in the collage?

Dream Homework

Robert Moss, a well-known expert on dreams, recommends doing some "homework" on a dream that you want to understand better. That homework falls into two categories: getting background information and experiential research. If you dreamed about being in Hawaii, read about Hawaii. If you dreamed about wearing a red hat with a big feather, try actually wearing such a hat to see how it feels.

dream Your Dream, You

Remember that your dream was created by your mind. Other people can help you explore it, but that's all. Listen to their feedback, take what makes sense, and leave the rest. Ultimately, YOU are the expert on what your dream means.

~ How to Remember Dreams ~

Invite, Don't Hunt

Your dreams can be elusive. Try NOT to think of a dream as something to be hunted, captured, or controlled. If you do, it will be like trying to catch your own shadow. The faster you run, the faster it moves away from you. INVITE dreams to come to you, rather than pursuing them. Try to think of them as a friend or an ally who is willing to teach you something if you allow and encourage them to do so. Try to cultivate this attitude of "inviting" and "welcoming" your dreams.

Plant a Seed

Before going to sleep, tell yourself that you are going to dream. Keep a positive, inviting attitude. Think about and write down (1) the important issues that are on your mind for that day, and, (2) the kinds of things you would like to dream about. Read over what you wrote. Keep that idea in the back of your mind as you fall asleep. Don't analyze or think too deeply about it, just hold it lightly in your mind.

Reflect Upon the Dream

When you wake up from a dream (in the middle of the night or in the morning), lie still for a moment and turn your mind inward toward the memory of the dream. Invite the various pieces of the dream to come back to you. Be patient. It may take time for the different parts of the dream to surface and come together. Even if only fragments of the dream return to your mind, that's OK. Don't strain in trying to remember. Let your mind be light and easy. Allow the dream pieces to surface on their own. Gently repeating the dream over and over in your mind may allow new pieces to surface.

Write Everything Down in "Rough Notes"

After you've reflected on the dream and seem to recall as much of it as you can, write down everything you remember! Don't trust your memory. You sometimes may think "Oh, I'll definitely remember THIS dream! It was crazy!" But there's a very good chance that you won't. Dreams are elusive! Have paper and a pencil ready by your bedside. Maybe even keep a flashlight next to your bed too (so the light won't disturb others). Use an audio recording device, if possible. Whatever method you choose, record the following types of information:

  • anything you can remember about the dream itself, even if only fragments
  • small details in the dream, even if they seem insignificant
  • the feelings or sensations you experienced during the dream
  • events from your life that come to mind when you think about the dream (even if you're not sure how those events are related to the dream)
  • the thoughts that were on your mind when you were falling asleep
  • any other thoughts, feelings, memories, or sensations that arise as you are reflecting on the dream
If you can only remember fragments of a dream, write those down without worrying about how to put them in order. In general, don't worry too much about the grammar, spelling, or logical flow of what you write in these "rough notes." These notes in fact may be a kind of "free association."

Your Dream Journal

Keeping an ongoing dream journal can be a good way to stimulate your recall of your dreams. The more attention you pay to your dreams, the more your dream life will "open up" to you. Whereas the rough notes are your immediate "off the cuff" recall and reactions to your dreams, the journal can be a place for more detailed, in-depth, systematic thinking and exploring. Use the rough notes as fuel or as a springboard for ideas that you investigate in the journal. You may also use the journal to try out the various techniques for working with a dream.

Daytime Dreams

Sometimes the memory of a dream may spontaneously pop into your mind during the day. Try to write it down as soon as possible. Also write down what you were thinking about, where you were, and what you were doing when the dream came to you. All of this information might be clues to the dream's meaning.

If you find yourself daydreaming or fantasizing during the day, treat them as if they were dreams. Write down what you were thinking about, as well as where you were, what was happening to you, and what thoughts, feelings, or events might have triggered the fantasy. Daydreams in many ways are similar to dreams. Exploring them could enhance your understanding of your nocturnal dreams. Exploring them could help open up your dream life.

Be Patient and Optimistic

You will go through periods when you just can't remember dreams, or only recall small fragments. That's OK! Be patient. Try to remain optimistic and inviting. Don't dwell on frustration or "failure." In your rough notes and journal, describe any your thoughts, feelings, and sensations you do have upon awakening in the morning. What things *do* you remember about your sleep? Write about your thoughts and feelings about not being able to recall dreams. Explore those thoughts and feelings with curiosity and acceptance.


Taking even just a few minutes during the day to meditate may open your mind to your internal world, including your dreams. There are many different meditation techniques. Find one that's right for you and practice it on a regular basis.

~ Books and Videos About Dreams ~

van de castle dreams

Our Dreaming Mind - Robert van de Castle

Without a doubt, this is the most comprehensive as well as in-depth book ever written about dreams. It covers almost everything you would want to know, including the scientific research on dreams, the role of dreams in history and literature, the various theories about dreams and dream interpretation, and the role of dreams in mental health, problem-solving, and creativity. If you wanted to learn as much as you can about dreams and are willing to read only one book on the topic, this is that book. Van de Castle comes down a bit hard on Freud, but otherwise this book is a well-balanced voyage into the complex world of dreaming.

working with dreams

Working with Dreams - Montague Ullmann and Nan Zimmerman

Here's a book that's slowly disappearing, yet it is one of the best written on the topic of how to work with dreams in a way to gain better insight into yourself and the problems you confront in life. Montague Ullman was a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and parapsychologist who founded the Dream Laboratory at the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York and for over three decades actively promoted public interest in dreams and especially dream sharing groups. Much of what he learned is in this book. Grab one of the few copies that are available at Amazon!

freud on dreams

The Interpretation of Dreams - Sigmund Freud

You can't say that you're well-read on the subject of dreams if you haven't at least browsed Freud's classic text, first published in 1900 as the cutting edge study of how the mind works at deep unconscious levels. Many people criticize Freud for dwelling on sexuality, including dreams as an expression of repressed sexual wishes, but his theory goes far beyond that issue. As one of the most well-known treatises in psychoanalytic literature, it is a tour de force voyage into the realm of the unconscious, as well as the foundation for the modern age of how to work with dreams in psychotherapy.

lennox on dreams

Dream Sight: A Dictionary and Guide for Interpreting Any Dream - Michael Lennox

Many books on dream interpretation take a cookbook approach to dream symbolism. A tree means this. The sun means that. Although helpful in generating possiblities for understanding one's dreams, such cookbook approaches should be taken with a big grain of salt. Dream Sight does a good job of avoiding such mechanistic interpretations. It suggest that you begin by reading about the universal symbols in your dreams, then consider the unique context of your dream, and finally identify your unique personal associations to dream symbolism. This method leads to a deeper, more personalized understanding of your dreams. A variety of different types of dreams are discussed, including recurring dreams, precognitive dreams, and nightmares. It also offers advice on remembering your dreams and interpreting them in as objective way as possible.

bethards on dreams

The Dream Book: Symbols for Self Understanding- Betty Bethards

As a teacher, healer, and mystic, Bethards takes a more spiritual approach to dreamwork as a way to develop your higher consciousness. Using principles from eastern philosophy, such as karma and reincarnation, she sees dreams, along with prayer and meditation, as a tool to help you achieve the goals you have set for yourself in your life. This is one of the most popular and highly rated books on dreams in Amazon.

what are dreams


What are Dreams - Nova Video

You would think that because dreams are such a fascinating topic, there would be many documentaries on this subject. I'm sorry to say that there aren't. In fact, you could count on one hand these documentaries and still have some fingers left over. As part of the "Best of Nova" series, What are Dreams is one of these preccious few. Approaching the topic mostly from the standpoint of traditional science, it describes research on how REM and Non-REM dreaming affect mental and emotional functioning in everyday life. The video clearly shows us that dreams play an important role in our psychological and emotional health. This video can be streamlined online.



secret world of dreams

The Secret World of Dreams - Gerald Brodin

Hosted by Stephanie Powers, this documentary takes a case study approach to the topic of dreams. It offers examples of how various people use dreams to resolve problems in their lives. One women learned how to improve her diet in a dream and as a result lost 20 pounds in real life. A young man suffering from nightmares of being chased one night fights back in his dream. A Vietnam vet learns how to use dreams to recover from his war experiences. This is another video that seems to be disappearing, so grab it while you can.



The Power of Dreams - An exellent two-part video that originally aired on TV, but is now almost impossible to find. I wish I could link to it here. I've shown this video to my classes for many years. Although a bit old and therefore lacking coverage of contemporary dream research, it nevertheless does an excellent job of exploring dreams from the perspective of the psychotherapist as well as the scientist. It includes an accurate summary of such theorists as Freud and Jung, as well as interesting interviews wtih well-known dream researchers, including the hard-core skeptical scientist Alan Hobson (founder of the activation-synthesis theory), the versatile psychoanalytic thinker Ernest Hartmann (a "boundaries of the mind" theorist), and even William Dement, the pioneer of REM research, who describes how a dream saved his life. What does it mean to say dreams have a "meaning?" What did the ancient Greeks believe about the healing power of dreams? What role do dreams play in people suffering form trauma? These are just a few of the fascinating issues covered.... If you can find this video anywhere, grab it!

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