What Dreamwork Can Reveal about Recurrent Dreams

Moon through the treesDreams provide an alternate vantage point to the one from which we habitually view our situations and behaviors when awake. Whether dreams hold meaning, or whether meaning is made when dreams are actively examined and processed, is open to debate. They’re a matter of how you value them. Some people in therapy resonate to dreamwork, and some therapists find it an effective component of treatment. In this article we’re going to look at work done on recurrent dreams.

“Mary” is in her mid-60s. “Ben,” her husband of over 40 years, died last year. Mary came to therapy to address bereavement issues, noting that “this is taking longer than she thought.” Early on, she wonders if she’s stuck and cites not having any dreams about her husband as possible evidence of this.

I ask her about dreams in general. Is she an active dreamer? Had she dreamed of Ben before his death? Yes, she says, she always dreams, sometimes very disturbing things. Her husband had figured in her dreams throughout their life together. This stopped around the time of his last hospitalization and subsequent move to a skilled nursing facility.

When I ask her about disturbing dreams, she says she has one that’s especially fearsome, that “always comes back.” There are variations, though the setting is usually her grandmother’s house. In one version she’s bringing plates of food from the kitchen to the dining room. Her grandmother sits at the head of the table and tells Mary to join them. In a second version the meal has been eaten and Mary is clearing the dishes away. The family decides to go for a walk. Mary’s grandmother tells her to take care of the dishes later and join them. Mary reports having this dream since she was 6.

I ask her what happened when she was 6. She tells me that was when her grandmother died, then that all the family members in the dream are deceased.

I ask her to tell me about her grandmother. Her grandmother—Mama—had been the matriarch of the family, often filling in for Mary’s mother, who “lived her own life.” Mary had been Mama’s favorite. When she was dying, Mama stated a desire to “take Mary with her because no one else could take good care of her.” Mary recalls that her great-aunt took this seriously, covering the mirrors after Mama’s death in order to decrease the chances of any interactions between this world and the other world.

We look at what the images of “eating with the dead” and “going for a walk with the dead” mean for Mary. Her immediate response is that she wouldn’t be able to get away from them again, i.e. would join them in death. As we tease this out, she describes a process that once begun would leave her control, in which she would lose all volition. As we open this imagery and make it more available to reflection and integration, I note the similarity to themes in mythology and fairy tales. Persephone eats pomegranate seeds in the underworld and ever after is committed to spending half of each year there. Travelers who go “under the hill” in Celtic tales, if they return at all, find that time has passed at a different rate in the conscious world.

In this dream, Mary uses trickery to avoid joining the dead. She tells Mama that she has to go into the kitchen for the main dish, or falls behind to fasten her shoe. Once out of sight, she flees out the door or around the corner.

I reflect this trait of trickiness to Mary. We spend time expanding on it and linking it to her daily life. She tells me how she bargains with the gardener to get him to move her trash cans, how she hunts for bargains and makes use of coupons, or parries suggested visits from family (the living ones) without ruffling any feathers. This gives us a platform from which we can address the relative strength and energy of the ego, and in doing so consolidate them. I also reflect that in a lifetime of having this dream in which the dead invite her to join them they’ve never prevailed. I acknowledge her anxiety about feeling at risk for being “taken” by a process that would decrease her ability to function. That’s scary. But I also note that according to the dream she seems to be a match for the dead. She laughs and tells me it’s touch-and-go sometimes, but seems pleased to let this stand.

The dream expresses anxiety about loss of control that will result in a loss of self. It captures the world view of a 6-year-old. We sketch a rough timeline and note it tends to occur when Mary feels particularly overwhelmed by events. It expresses her concern about sanity and “holding her life together” in the face of heightened pressure. Mary explains that part of her mother’s “living her own life” entailed what was then called a nervous breakdown, which Mary associates to her mother’s style of living.

We identify that dreaming of her husband feels like it will put Mary at risk, that there’s currently a safety switch in place that stops that from happening, and let the matter rest there. Sometime after this, Mary reports the first of a series of dreams about Ben. While these dreams are not without their own anxiety, they provide a framework in which Mary processes the loss of her husband.

Clearly, dreamwork is nothing like a science. Messy, based on associations personal to the dreamer and odd pairings of image and feeling tone, it’s more like weaving a fabric that incorporates both nonrational material and the products of conscious reflection. Yet it can be a place where meaning is made, and thus a practice of value to people in therapy.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Peter Cashorali, LMFT, therapist in Pasadena, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Vince

    January 7th, 2015 at 2:39 PM

    I think that this would be the most awesome thing ever to try, especially if you keep having these same dream over and over and can’t really figure out what they mean in your life. I think that the dreamworld can really tell us a lot about the things going in our every day world, things that we may not want to see or understand maybe.

  • Peter Cashorali, LMFT

    Peter Cashorali, LMFT

    January 8th, 2015 at 8:01 AM

    I think so too, Vince. A lot of people keep dream journals to support them in this kind of work. Best regards–

  • Vince

    January 8th, 2015 at 3:18 PM

    The thing that I don’t quite understand is how can you really ever be sure what these dreams mean? I mean, they could be open to a whole lot of interpretation, right? So how do you know what the real answer is and what answer might just be something that you are grasping for?

  • Peter Cashorali, LMFT

    Peter Cashorali, LMFT

    January 8th, 2015 at 6:47 PM

    You bring up some really good points, which I’ll be addressing in future articles.

    Yes, how can you get to certainty? I don’t know that we can finally exhaust the meaning of the dream, any more than any other aspect of your life. But you can often get to an interpretation that provides a feeling of resonance, that “clicks” for you, that provides an insight into your present situation.

    Yes, if you give a dream to ten different people and ask them to interpret it you’ll have ten different interpretations. So the person whose interpretation I stay closest to is the dreamer’s. Not the therapist’s, not the founding father or mother of psychology the therapist venerates– the dreamer’s. What associations do you make to these images, and, how do these associations seem to link to your current situation?

    Noticing when “grasping” comes into play can be useful. Grasping can mean “getting it”- which if so, terrific. It can also mean “clutching,” either through fear, or covetousness (not that these are necessarily negative), or some other stance that’s informed by the conscious attitude. This response to the dream can be very useful, and incorporated into the work.

    Like when we go to a movie, how can we be sure we’ve gotten everything that the filmmaker intended? It’s usually not an option to question her or him directly. So what we’re left with is what we get on our own, or in dialogue with someone who seems to have a feel for this sort of thing. I hope this is helpful.

  • layla

    January 9th, 2015 at 3:42 AM

    Is there ever a time when you don’t really need to know and just trust that these things will eventually resolve themselves? That the answers may come to you through a series of more of the dreams if you just give it time?

  • stacey

    January 9th, 2015 at 9:14 AM

    I have two things! First I used to have a reoccurring dream, that I was flying ( like the wind was lifting me up). I would be soaring over high buildings. I would look back and some dark shadowy figures would be following. When I focused on them they would almost get me, but just in the nick of time I would focus on my path ahead and leave them in the dust. Do you think this has meaning?

  • Peter Cashorali, LMFT

    Peter Cashorali, LMFT

    January 9th, 2015 at 5:29 PM

    Layla, yes. Each person decides for herself what she needs to know, and when. There are many areas of life that respond to mindfulness, not just dreams. And even those folks who are drawn to dream-tending aren’t obligated to analyze every dream. If you stop to consider that we have 5-7 dreams in most sleep cycles, multiplied by the number of sleep cycles in a person’s life, that’s a lot of dreams. And I appreciate your referring to trust.

    Stacey, I do think your recurrent dream carries meaning. My position is that it carries your meaning– you know: your dream, your meaning. In a future article I’ll be addressing in some detail a how-to of working with dreams. It includes the dreamer’s personal associations to the images, then any broader cultural associations, and then a linking of this material to what is/was current in your life when you had the dream. Again, I hope this is useful.

  • Jim

    January 10th, 2015 at 10:59 AM

    I definitely think that dreams are a way for us to sort out the problems that we could be having on a day to day basis, and not just problems I guess but just the things that interest us or that we may have to leave unresolved until another time.

    I find it fascinating that there could be someone with whom you can work and trust who can help you better understand what those dreams could be all about, so that you not only resolve those issues that you are having in your dream states, but also how this could also improve your waking moments too. Pretty incredible if you think about it.

  • Peter Cashorali, LMFT

    Peter Cashorali, LMFT

    January 11th, 2015 at 2:15 PM

    I think so too, Jim. And yes, you put your finger on it– trust is essential.

  • natalie

    January 12th, 2015 at 3:55 AM

    I guess that I am so bound and determined to talk things through exactly when they are happening (much to my husband’s dismay!) that I have never really had any of these dreams that come to me night after night. I guess my psyche has just given me different ways to work things out.

  • Ferang D

    January 12th, 2015 at 1:40 PM

    I have two things! First I used to have a reoccurring dream, that I was flying ( like the wind was lifting me up). I would be soaring over high buildings. When I focused on them they would almost get me, but just in the nick of time I would focus on my path ahead and leave them in the dust. Do you think this has meaning?

  • Peter Cashorali

    Peter Cashorali

    January 13th, 2015 at 9:25 AM

    Ferang, please check out response number 7 to Stacey, above, which may be helpful. And Natalie, I also think it’s great to recognize and access the gifts of the psyche.

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