The Interpretation of a Dream

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.


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?

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I don’t make a point of remembering my dreams though I do try to pay attention to the ones I remember after I wake up.

    I use writing to process them. I usually speak to the different parts of the dream and dialogue with them.

    I often find that the meaning of other’s dreams when they tell them to me seem obvious. Mine not so.

    Which leads me to think that dreams are a way of communicating what we don’t want to consciously know. Which I suppose includes some wishes. But wish fulfilment seems only part of the story for me.

    1. I have the same experience — when people I know tell me their dreams, I can usually see what they’re about, but my own often remain a mystery. I think you’re right — they express something we don’t really want to know, what has been “repressed” from consciousness.

  2. Dreams are such an interesting topic. I agree that they can reveal a lot about our subconscious, but I also think that sometimes they are just our minds processing things that have happened during the day, and they have no real meaning. I often dream about novels I have read, or movies I have watched. I think this is simply because it was the last thing on my mind before falling asleep. Although there probably is some merit in the argument that those stories have connected with me in some way, which is why I am thinking, and then later, dreaming, about them in the first place.

    1. Freud talked about how the dream process makes use of “day residue,” as he calls it — whatever comes up during the day that connects to something unconscious and can be used as a symbol in the dream.

  3. I always enjoy your posts Dr. Burgo.

    I do have a question regarding protecting confidentiality. How do you use real case examples in your articles and protect your clients confidentiality at the same time? Do you ask them if you can write about them? I would imagine that you would also change names and other less relevant details as to protect their identities. I find using these real life examples to be really helpful in my own learning process as a new therapist, but I know that many of us fear talking about our clients in a public forum as to avoid any issues of violating confidentiality.

    Dream work is something I am very interested in but know very little about. Do you have any good resources that you’d suggest therapists read/utilize to exand our knowledge of this area?

    Shaun Fischler, LPC

    1. I always disguise names, ages and any identifying details. Sometimes gender, too. The point is to protect your client’s privacy while preserving what is beneficial in the clinical material. And no, I do not ask permission first. As long as I feel confident no one but my client would recognize the material (and sometimes, not even the client would recognize it), then I feel I have behaved in a responsible way.

      If you haven’t read “The Interpretation of Dreams,” start there. But I think the best way to learn how to work with dreams is by having your own dreams interpreted by someone who knows how to do it. My own therapist was a master at it. From my own work, I find that the best interpretations come when I am quiet and not striving to understand; you could say I’m letting my ucs. resonate with the ucs. material in the dream and patiently waiting for insight to occur. There will come an “aha” moment when something clicks for me, but there’s nothing technical about it. It’s intuitive rather than analytical.

      1. Thank you for the quick response. Since I am newer in the field I feel more apprehensive to talk about clients online. I see your perspective on this. Talking about real life examples helps us to conceptualize and better understand these complicated aspects of our human experience.

        I also want to thank you for sharing your own life experiences on this blog. It is refreshing to hear professionals talking about our own struggles. Sometimes therapists are idealized in our culture and portrayed as superhumans, and it is helpful to educate the public that we have our own issues, too.

        I might have to look into having my dreams interpreted. That does sound interesting. However, it seems to me that this area isn’t as popular as it once was. I don’t see many therapists advertizing themselves as psychoanalytic or offering dream interpretation. Maybe that is just Denver?

        Thanks again!

  4. I find the interpretation of dreams to bevery interesting. I have had such scary dreams for so many years that I have mostly stopped sleeping altogether so as to avoid them. Recently my therapist started working through them with me – having me write them down right when I wake up and all that. At first I was very reluctant to look at them or think about them – I simply sent them to my therapist and tried to forget about them. But I have slowly, with her help, been able to start looking at them a bit. It has been interesting to find that, as someone mentioned earlier, they are often just a reflection of my mind processing the days events. Sometimes they are caused by memories of early traumas. But I have been truly amazed to find that working through them has really helped!! I did not expect that. I do not think it is all about wish-fulfillment. Sometimes I think they are an expression of fears, insecurities, expectations, and sometimes I think they are even a preparation for things to come. I, too, have appreciated this website. Very interesting and helpful (I came by it while researching ‘Toxic Shame”; which is something I had never heard of before last week.). Onward!

  5. Hi Dr. Joseph Burgo,

    Thank you for your articles: they are very helpful specially the Dream Analysis and Free Association.

    I have a concern about a sleeping problem: it seems I can’t sleep with lights on but when I turn off the light and it’s dark, I imagine things (dead people, spirits) and become afraid that I have problem sleeping. Sometimes I end up sleeping early in the morning (12-5am). I do get an average of 5-6 hours, wishing it was 8. Sometimes I keep the TV on just to have some light and not be afraid when I wake up.

    I hope the solution would be simple – an insight. Thank you for your time and insight.

    Sincerely, Gerald Victoria

    1. Oh dear, I wish I had a simple answer for you! It sounds like an issue that could be addressed with a therapist, with a “solution” coming slowly over time.

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