Dream Work with Jung: What’s Your Unconscious Saying?

dream work

Jungian analysts offer insight about dream work and what our unconscious minds can tell us about ourselves.

Everybody dreams, whether we remember our nighttime visions or not. Some dreams are so clear we’re shocked to wake and realize they weren’t real; others are so foggy we can barely make sense of them. Some dreams are quickly forgotten; others linger for years. Some dreams come up at the breakfast table in casual discussion; others feel too strange to repeat.

Dreams have fascinated humans for ages, and the questions continue. Why do we dream? What do our dreams mean? And do our dreams really carry messages that can help us? According to the dream work of Carl Jung, yes, they do.

Before we dig into Jung’s perspective on dreams, here’s a bit of background on the acclaimed Swiss psychiatrist. Carl Gustav Jung (1825-1961), the founder of analytical psychology, expanded on the work of Sigmund Freud. While Freud drew from the past, Jung tended to be more optimistic and look into the future. While many people associate Jung with some of today’s key psychological concepts, such as the ego and the shadow, and the introvert and extrovert, it is worth noting that Jung’s discoveries and influences span over multiple fields, including anthropology, literature, philosophy and religious studies.

Jung also spent a lot of time researching dream work, including thorough analysis of his own dreams. From a Jungian perspective, a dream is something that emerges from the unconscious mind with a message for the conscious mind. The message? It’s different for everyone, and that’s where dream analysis begins. While there are many ways to interpret a dream, Jung felt it was important to have an outside perspective. Psychoanalysts, the Jungian term for psychotherapists, are trained to weave dream work into therapy sessions with analysands, the Jungian term for clients.

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist. Getty Images.

Dr. William Grevatt, aka Dr. Bill, director of training at the C.G. Jung Study Center of Southern California, told Crixeo that dreams can be looked at objectively or subjectively, depending on what resonates with the analysand.

Dr. Bill describes the Jungian perspective on dreams as follows: “Jung said the main objective of dreams is to provide a compensation to the conscious attitude. The unconscious dreams come up from the unconscious and present images to the conscious mind that are complementary. It shows a different perspective on the issue the individual may be grappling with.” Dr. Bill adds that Jung viewed images as “shaped energy,” and these images hold the power to heal.  He adds that images can come up from the unconscious via dreams, active imagination or fantasy (daydreams).  “All are valid products of the Collective Unconscious, what Jung sometimes described as the accumulation and depository of human wisdom  over hundreds of thousands of years.”

As a Jungian psychoanalyst, Dr. Bill explains that the essential idea of Jungian analysis is to get to know one’s inner landscape, to discover the anatomy of the psyche. He says it’s helpful to look at the ego as a circle. Above the circle is your persona. Underneath the ego is the shadow, which can be described as the unsavory aspects of ourselves that we don’t wish to look at; these often come up right away in dreams. Within shadows are complexes, such as a mother or father complex, a money complex or an inferiority complex, just to name a few. Dr. Bill points out that complexes can be negative or positive in nature. He gives an example of a positive complex surfacing in a dream: “For example, a young man has a dream about his father being a fool, and he can’t figure out why he’s had this dream. The reason is that he has a positive father complex. He’s too connected with the father, and his dream is pointing to how to become more independent from the father.”

Jungians say it’s often a complex speaking in dreams. Jung said, “Everyone knows nowadays that people ‘have complexes.’ What is not so well known, though far more important theoretically, is that complexes can have us.”

“Everyone knows nowadays that people ‘have complexes.’ What is not so well known, though far more important theoretically, is that complexes can have us.”

—Carl Jung

Dr. Bill is quick to point out that, from a Jungian perspective, there is not just one interpretation for a dream and that the important thing is whether the amplification the analyst is providing resonates with the analysand. In order for the analytic relationship to work between the analyst and analysand, Dr. Bill says it must be a dialogue. “There must be a positive chemical reaction between the two people. The analyst has to be affected by the analysand.”

Once there is a working analytic relationship and a general interpretation that resonates with the client, practitioners use different tools to help further the work. Dr. Bill, for example, uses Active Imagination, which is basically a fantasy dialogue with an inner figure — an inner dialogue of sorts. “If I dream of a famous movie star, for example, and Scarlett Johansson is saying something to me in the dream, I can continue it by inviting this fantasy figure into a dialogue. The purpose is to bring that fantasy material into your consciousness and to see what wisdom could be there.”

Fantasy conversations with Scarlett Johansson bring up an important point about dreams from a Jungian perspective; the characters in your dream are often different representations of yourself. Whether emotions or complexes, these “characters” take on roles in our inner world, much as they do in the popular animated film Inside Out. This definitely puts an interesting spin on that recurring nightmare in which you’re chased down by, say, a maniac with a machete.

dream work


Nightmares, just like dreams, can hold important clues to understanding our inner landscape. Dr. Bill says if someone isn’t allowing an image from the unconscious into their conscious attitude, it doesn’t just go away. It actually intensifies in the unconscious, which is the nature of a nightmare. “It’s often terrifying because it’s trying to make an impression on the attitude.”

Similar to nightmares, recurring dreams occur when something is within the psyche that we are not getting, according to Joel Murphy, a psychotherapist and Jungian candidate at the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago. “Either it’s an important theme or it keeps showing up until you get it. Something in the psyche that the conscious is not getting. Sometimes motifs or themes…kind of like themes that you keep arguing over in a marriage,” Murphy says.

Murphy says a really good dream has many layers and unfolds over time. “What’s so great about a dream is that it works the other way. It’s saying something to you. It’s working a picture or symbolic language. The hard part about dreams is figuring out how that language works. It’s like a foreign language. When you can start to work with it in this other way, then things start to click.”

Murphy cautions against making a quick decision based on a dream. “Dreams are not directive. You’re trying to create a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious.” Dr. Bill does point out, however, that dreams can, in fact, lead to making changes and even life decisions, especially if you have a series of dreams with similar themes. “The more we can expand our consciousness with the previously unconscious material, the more firmly we are rooted in our psychological reality, and the less one-sided and neurotic we will tend to be. This allows an individual to make more informed and balanced decisions, in regard to vocational choices, relationships or anything else.”

Murphy says that Jungians sometimes compare the inner dialogue to marriage counseling. The unconscious might have a totally different perspective than the conscious. There is the ego’s position, but then you can pull back and observe what you think.

Both Murphy and Dr. Bill say that becoming curious and paying attention to your dreams is the first step in dream work. And both also caution against coming to a quick conclusion about a dream’s meaning, or simply Googling symbols.

“Jungians hate symbolic dictionaries because it’s different for everyone. In the context of your life, what does this mean? Water is often a symbol of the unconscious, but just to say that doesn’t get to the richness of what it can be,” says Murphy.

dream work


Symbols can be a good starting place. Dr. Bill explains how water, for example, translates to solucio and is related to solution. Tears are a form of solution with salt, and they represent bitterness or wisdom. As we work through the bitterness, we can transform the bitterness into wisdom.

“The clear image of a car going into water can represent diving into the unconscious,” says Murphy, “but be careful of being too concrete too early. One phrase Jungians use is ‘Let the symbol speak.’ There’s an energy in the symbol; let that energy speak to you. Treat it like another voice that would speak to you.”

Murphy says that if you’re just starting to do dream work, the most important part is to record the dreams, which are often as elusive as shadows. To those who say they just don’t dream, he says it’s probably more that they’re not paying attention. He suggests keeping a journal at your bedside to record dreams upon waking, or even speaking them into the phone if you wake up after a dream in the middle of the night. “Jung says when you turn your face to the unconscious, it will pay attention to you.” Murphy does say that dreams are not the only pathway to the unconscious. “Some people, especially artists, who are really in touch with the unconscious, might not need dreams.”

“Jung says when you turn your face to the unconscious, it will pay attention to you.”

—Joel Murphy

For those who want to delve into their dreams and really do the work, Murphy says the next step is to take the dream you quickly jotted down or recorded and type it out. After that, consider all the different characters in your dream and their important associations with the dream. What are three words you’d use to describe each character? Imagine all the characters in your dream as different facets of yourself. Is that character energetic, fun, etc.? It’s usually not about your sister or that person from third grade; it’s the essence of that person and the way you’ve internalized that person. That’s the part of you that wants your attention. Murphy goes on to say it could be your unconscious telling you, “I want to have more fun.”

When looking at your dream, Murphy says there are three aspects to consider: (1) personal, (2) cultural, (3) archetypal (mythological, fairy tales, literature, etc.). “The idea is to gather all those associations together.”

dream work


Murphy says it’s helpful to have a psychoanalyst, but if you don’t have one, then you really need curiosity or a curious friend who will ask you about it. Murphy says it’s less about getting the interpretation and more about uncovering layers and really shifting things. “The best dreams continue speaking with you for years to come.”

To some, this may sound like a whole lot of time and work, which may leave you wondering, “What’s the point? Why attempt dream work?”

Dr. Bill offers insight on the benefits of inner work: “Building a bridge to the unconscious can enable an expansion of awareness, leading to a much more authentic and fulfilling life.”

He also adds that dreams help us in the important work of separating from our thoughts and emotions. “It’s a matter of separating out, even one degree. I’m not just those negative thoughts. I’m telling that inner critic, ‘Sit down in the corner and let me breathe. You’re not being helpful right now, so just relax.’”

For those curious dream enthusiasts who want to work with a Jungian psychoanalyst, rates vary from $90 to $225 per session, depending on the region and the analyst’s experience. Since there are only a few accredited Jungian institutes worldwide, it can be difficult to find a trained Jungian analyst in rural areas, but many practitioners are willing to do phone or Skype sessions.

“The benefit of getting to understand your own psyche through dream work and the analytic process,” says Dr. Bill, “is that your little ego is getting grounded. Your consciousness is getting grounded and assimilated with the unconscious. You’re growing your psyche. With a wider realm of consciousness, you can be much more grounded in the world. Think of a large tree: there’s as much of a tree underneath as above the earth. That’s what this work provides. It gets us rooted in the reality of the unconscious, which we’re all in whether we understand it or not. The psyche is everywhere. The unconscious is not just below us; it’s above and in us.”

In the words of Carl Jung himself, “Your vision will become clear only when you look inside your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” end


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