I’ve read and taught Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams several times; it’s fascinating and beautifully written, a ground-breaking work that brought dreams from the realm of superstition and divination into the world of “science”. On the other hand, while I admire Freud’s insight and careful demonstration of his ideas, I find his stipulation that dreams represent wish-fulfillments too limiting. In my experience, dreams represent all sorts of things about ourselves and our states of mind. When dreams become the subject of a psychotherapy session, associations are crucial, of course, just as Freud instructed; but they may sometimes be those of the therapist, based on familiarity with the client — as I hope the following interpretation of a dream will show.
This session dates back several years. My client Ryan was at that time in his late 30s, living with another man in his first stable, long-term relationship. Although Ryan and his partner Seth were nearly the same age, Ryan thought of him as quite a bit older, mostly because Seth seemed more professionally secure and responsible. In his earlier relationships, Ryan had always looked for someone to “take care of” him, someone he idealized and expected to be a sort of all-gratifying parent. Because they were based on fantasy rather than reality, these relationships naturally lasted only a short time. Ryan and Seth had been living together for two years at the time of this dream; while their relationship retained some of the features of Ryan’s earlier brief liaisons, he had come a long way in becoming more personally responsible: he carried his own weight financially and had grown quite serious about developing his career.
At the same time, Ryan acknowledged that Seth did more work around their apartment, tending to more of the incidental chores and errands that came up. Seth did this, by and large, without resentment or criticism of Ryan. In recent weeks, Ryan had been talking in session about a growing feeling of shame that he didn’t fully do his part. Based on years of our work together, he could feel the angry and demanding part of him who didn’t want to do any work but to remain in a privileged state of pseudo-infancy. In a way that connected to his behavior in earlier relationships, he had come to recognize that he wanted Seth to look after the mundane details of their domestic life so that Ryan would be free to pursue his career with undivided attention. A part of him felt resentful that he had to work so hard at his job and tend to household chores, cooking, errands, etc.
Early in this particular session, Ryan was describing an experience from the night before. He was getting ready for bed, as usual, preparing the coffee maker to be ready for the morning brew. Ryan did best with regular chores so that he could get into an automatic rhythm. In the kitchen, as he was preparing to turn off the lights, it occurred to him that he had forgotten to do something, he wasn’t sure what. He stood there in the kitchen and thought of Seth, the way he seemed always to be picking up, noticing little details that escaped Ryan’s attention, etc. Ryan looked around him and saw that a few cups and glasses remained on the counter — they needed to be loaded into the dishwasher. He also noticed several other items to put away. If he hadn’t stopped in that moment, wondering what he’d forgotten, he would’ve turned off the lights and gone to bed, leaving the chore for Seth to do in the morning.
In that moment, he told me, he felt enraged, that the responsibility should fall to him. Seconds later, he felt the rage become shame. (This transformation came about as a result of years of our work together and the understanding we’d developed.) He saw himself as an angry brat, someone who hadn’t grown up properly (the result of a fairly toxic upbringing). In that moment of shame, he realized he had a choice: he could do what he normally did, turn off the lights and go to bed, pretending not to have noticed; or he could step up to the plate. He loaded the dishwasher, put away the other items and only then called it a day.
That night, Ryan told me, he had the following dream. The first part seemed vague to him. He was at a vacation retreat, or possibly some kind of retirement community. He was trying to find a place where he could paint but couldn’t locate a studio or art supplies. (Ryan was passionate about his art, even more than his career; it was an important source of meaning in his life.) Later, in the most vivid part of his dream, he dreamt that he “woke up” in his bed and felt his scrotum. He realized he had a very large growth down there, and for a moment he panicked. He felt the growth more carefully — it seemed to be of the same shape and size as a very large testicle and had replaced one of his own. His other testicle was its usual size. The growth didn’t feel as if it were attached in some malignant kind of way. He felt his anxiety wane.
When I asked Ryan what came to mind about the first portion of the dream, he told he’d recently read a short story where the author had depicted an imaginary heaven that seemed a lot like Leisure World (a retirement community). The new arrivals were instructed to speak only in the present tense and not to dwell on the past or what they’d learned during their life on Earth. It seemed very boring, and in the end, the main character decided he would prefer to be reincarnated and live another terrestrial life than to remain in Heaven. My own associations to the second part of the dream related to something Ryan had told me on more than one occasion — that Seth had much larger testicles than Ryan did, about twice as large. In earlier sessions, we’d taken this up in terms of manhood and “having balls.”
Here was my interpretation of the dream: Before going to bed the night before, Ryan had struggled with his infantile, bratty self and made a choice to subdue that part and take responsibility. While this at first enraged him, it also made him feel good about himself, earning his own self-respect in the way I described in my post on healing shame. In the dream, a part of him still longs to be taken care of — to be on permanent vacation or live in a state of “retirement” so he can do whatever he wants. But he has begun to wake up to the fact that such a condition is actually boring, with no real chance that you will find fulfillment. The kind of fulfillment that has begun to matter more to Ryan involves growth into fuller manhood which he links to his partner Seth and his larger “balls”; as a result, he has begun to develop deeper and more authentic feelings of self-esteem. In the dream, the fact that only one testicle has grown reflects his awareness that he has further work to do.
Ryan felt deeply moved by this interpretation. To see himself as worthy of his own respect had become increasingly important to him. In earlier years, he’d struggled with powerful feelings of shame and we’d spent a long time working through his narcissistic defenses against it. Witnessing these signs of growth also made him feel deeply grateful for our work together. His immediate emotional reaction to my interpretation showed me it had been accurate. It is always the client’s response — whether he or she makes an emotional connection to your interpreation and finds it revealing — that will tell you if you’re on the right track.
FINDING YOUR OWN WAY:
Do you remember your dreams? Many people tell me they don’t have dreams but this isn’t true: they simply don’t recall them. I immediately direct my attention to the issue of dreams as I wake up and this helps me to remember them, before they succumb to repression. Some people find it useful to keep a pad at bedside and to write down their dreams first thing.
In my own process, I do just as I did with my client Ryan — ask myself what associations I have to the material. You might want to try writing them down, as well. I can’t always come up with an interpretation of my own dreams but I believe this process is nonetheless valuable.
Bear in mind that most dreams, unlike Ryan’s, concern emotions and states of mind that we don’t want to know about. Freud famously said that “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious”; but most of what ends up in the unconscious concerns painful thoughts and feelings. Don’t let wishful thinking color your interpretations. Look for the difficult, painful truth in your dreams, not the interpretation that will make you happy. Ryan’s dream came after years of psychotherapy and hard work.
If you’re a therapist, do you do you dreamwork with your clients? How do your methods differ from mine? What do you think about the issue of “wish fulfillment”? Does that idea play any part in your work?