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On Deprofessionalizing the Dream

by Montague Ullman

Academy Forum, Volume 25, Number 4, Winter 1981. The American Academy of Psychoanalysis

For the past seven years I have been involved in a project designed to facilitate work with dreams outside of a clinical setting. This work involves a structured approach to dream-sharing in a group. It has turned out to be exciting and rewarding. It has also raised important questions about the nature of our dream life and of our approaches to it. The question I wish to deal with here is whether or not we can deprofessionalize dream work without sacrificing any of the intrinsic value of the dream.

The question assumes that dream work has become professionalized or perhaps always has been. It certainly seems to be true that, historically, there has been an "expert" in the picture whenever there was a dream to be interpreted. The appearance of psychoanalysis on the scene transformed a popular tradition into a scientific claim. Dream work now required expert knowledge and a technique derived from psychoanalytic theory. This was the ultimate step in the professionalization of the dream. It rested on two premises derived from clinical practice: 1) that psychoanalytic theory was necessary to understand the symbols in dreams; and 2) that since our dreams provide a field for the play of id impulses there was always the possibility that, in the hands of an ignorant, clumsy or inexperienced person, some of these impulses could be exposed in a way that would be disastrous to the dreamer.

Freud and Jung both addressed the general public on the subject of dreams. Since Freud presented dreams from the point of view of psychoanalysis he emphasized the unique role of the psychoanalyst. Jung went further in his efforts to orient the public to dreams, but he too felt that specialized knowledge and training are essential. In light of their views, neither could provide the layman with the tools needed to tackle his own dreams. My experience with lay people and professionals in groups has led me to question both assumptions.

On the first issue there is no question that, in working with dreams, another person or persons is not only helpful but necessary. The problem arises in defining the role of the other. That role can be defined in different ways, depending on how one views the dream. The same applies to the issue of intrinsic danger in dream work. That, too, relates to one's theoretical views of the dream.

It seems to me that the essence of the dream is the presentation and exploration in an emotionally veridical manner of a particular issue of one's life that is set off by recent events. The issue is explored in the perspective of one's life history, so that the imagery created brings together a good deal of information that is not otherwise available. Stated another way, a dream starts in the present, moves into the past and assesses the implications of recent events for the future from a more honest and total perspective than can be arrived at by our more narrowly focussed waking consciousness. It is as if we are in a state of temporary disconnect from our social role while dreaming and are able to take a more honest look at ourselves. In doing so we make creative use of metaphor to express the accompanying feelings. The net result, that we call the dream, is a series of moving metaphors that embed these feelings, their derivation, the issues to which they are linked and our ways of coping with them. It is this linkage of present and past as well as the intrinsically honest way in which we view ourselves that accounts for the healing potential of dream work.

In short then, under the conditions of sleep and dreaming, when there is a relative and transitory disconnect from our social role as defined by the conditions of waking life, we lower our strategies of social defense made necessary by the conditions of waking life and take a profoundly honest look at our own subjectivity. It is my conviction that, should we recall the imagery on awakening, we are ready to deal with the information we have produced, regardless of whether we choose to or not. We do not necessarily have to be defended against anything contained in our dreams. The problem is not that we cannot or should not but, rather, that it is difficult to allow this confrontation to occur. When we awaken we are once again social creatures, and difficulties arise when we view the dream from that perspective. Replete with our own brand of social armor, we are in position to shield ourselves from the truths we have come upon in the dream. And this, of course, is where the question of the need for help comes into play.

The critical issue is how that help is defined. In the past the tendency has been to define it as a special role, that of the interpreter of dreams. This separates the dreamer from his own dream by setting up an outside authority over the dream, an authority based in the past on a special knowledge of dream symbols and in recent era on a mastery of psychoanalytic theory.

If, while awake, we are to allow ourselves to see what it is we allowed ourselves to see while we were dreaming, then we have to understand the two main difficulties the dreamer faces as he seeks to repossess his own dream. He is, on the one hand, unable to read on his own the images he has created. On the other hand, sensing their very private nature, he is understandably reluctant to share them with others. While asleep, the dreamer has undressed psychically and has risked taking a hard look at himself in his emotional nudity. In the process of awakening he covers that nudity with a variety of self-protective clothing. Since he is neither aware of what became visible during the period of nudity nor of the clothing that now covers it he is at a loss as how to proceed with the dream.

One does not hesitate to undress physically in front of a physician one trusts and from whom one expects help. The same needs prevail when the issue is one of undressing psychically. Since no one knows what will be discovered in the course of the examination there is always some risk involved. One is not apt to undress in public unless one feels safe in so doing: This is the position the dreamer is in. He is called upon to undress psychically and to view himself in a social arena with the same stark honesty he was able to do at the time he created the images in the first place. He is moving about in a social context where he alone is asked to disrobe. He is not apt to do so unless he can trust the good will and helping capacity of those who will be doing the viewing. The first need then is to feel safe; the second is to get help in understanding what is being exposed. The analogy defines these two needs. I refer to them as the safety factor and the discovery factor.

For a group process to be structured to provide the kind of safety the dreamer needs the control of the process must remain in the hands of the dreamer. The dream is his and it is his psyche that is at risk. He must remain free to invoke any defensive operations he may feel necessary. In practice, this degree of safety is achieved by being very explicit about the controls which are at the disposal of the dreamer. It is his decision and his alone whether or not to share a dream. The dreamer determines the level of self-disclosure he feels comfortable with. The dreamer can stop the process at any time. This is a non-intrusive process which respects the privacy of the dreamer and the authority of the dreamer over his own dream. It is this very respect for the dreamer's privacy that, paradoxically, helps dissolve that privacy in a spontaneously and natural way. By allowing the dreamer free play with his own defenses, and by that I mean never intruding and never challenging any defensive operations, there results a remarkable lowering of defenses. When there is little to defend against in the way of dangers from the outside, these defenses lose some of their value and the dreamer becomes willing to test the situation without them.

The safety factor influences the defenses up to a certain point. But more is needed. Despite the dreamer's trust and willingness to see what there is to be seen, the unconscious operation of defenses may continue to impair his vision. It is in connection with this that a second need must be met. It is based on the premise that the dreamer is apt to let go of these deeper defenses as well if he begins to see the truth that lies embedded in the dream and to experience that truth as more valuable than any personal myths he has evolved to obscure it. A special structure is built into the group process to accomplish this. After a dream is shared, the members of the group take the dream as their own and share with each other their projections, working as if the dream were their own both in terms of the feelings they experience and the metaphorical possibilities they see in the imagery. The dreamer does not participate in this game but is free to accept or reject whatever comes from it. Although this inevitably proceeds in a random way, it usually has the effect of penetrating the defenses of the dreamer in a safe way, safe because the dreamer is free to handle the truth he feels in any way he chooses. He is free to face it or defend against it. Feeling the truth and being safe in his sole possession of it favors his acceptance of that truth. What the group does in this game is to mobilize its collective imagination in an effort to come up with possibilities that may be sufficiently close to the mark to begin to open up the dream to the dreamer. This is what I refer to as the discovery factor. It helps the dreamer trade truth for self-deception.

Since this game-playing is random, its effect will vary and more is needed to help the dreamer arrive at a realistic sense of closure around the dream's content. The game is followed by two important steps. First the dreamer is invited to respond to the work of the group and to share his own associations and connections to the dream. He organizes his response in any way he wishes and is free to determine the level of self-disclosure he feels comfortable with. There is always some movement on the part of the dreamer to feel closer to the dream as a result of all that went before. Then there is a final stage which consists of dialogue between the dreamer and members of the group in an effort to bring the process to a felt sense of closure. The group is instructed that they can ask questions of the dreamer provided first, that they are asked to help the dreamer focus on or clarify something, and second that the questions are related to the dream or what the dreamer has shared with the group.

The ultimate aim is to identify the precipitating life context that shaped the dream at the time it occurred, the main theme or issue being in the dream and the connection of the imagery to the present or past life of the dreamer. The dreamer is informed that he is free to handle any question in any way he wishes. He can respond or not, or he can think about it at his leisure. The end point of the process is not to try to say everything that could be said about the dream-an impossible task at best. Our goal is to help the dreamer find out why he had the dream at that particular moment in his life, to discover the main issues involved, and to leave the dreamer with a feeling of competence should he wish to further pursue the dream on his own. The process is more elaborate than this brief summary.

To return to our original questions, can dream work be entrusted to non-professionals and should it be? Let us examine the first question. If by dream work we mean realizing the healing potential of dream imagery as seriously, as thoroughly and as effectively as possible in a social context, my answer is yes. My experience speaks to this in two ways. In the groups that I have led, once the principles of the process are mastered and the group has had sufficient experience to work within this framework the work of the group can, with very little participation on my part, bring the dreamer into effective and healing contact with his dream. More to the point, perhaps, is that I have trained non-professionals and have seen the skilled, effective work they have done with groups. Working within a structure that is protective of the dreamer transforms material from an unconscious domain to a conscious and public domain and in so doing exerts a healing or therapeutic effect.

The dream as an accessible and ever-available source for self healing is reason enough to generate more interest. Most people are unaware of the remarkable power of their own creative imagination to select and shape images that have so much to say of immediate relevance to their lives.

The second issue concerns the question of danger in placing dream work in the hands of the layman. In my opinion the element of danger is not intrinsic either to the dream or to dream work. I regard the dream as a communication intended to be heard fully and clearly by the dreamer. It contains information that is useful to him at that moment of his life. It requires an appropriate social context and an appropriate social process to help deliver that communication to the dreamer. Any process can be abused and that is how danger can arise. Approaching dreams the wrong way can hurt the dreamer. The rewards of centering serious dream work in the hands of dreamers is generally far greater than the risk.

My work with this process over the past seven years in the United States and Sweden and working with non-professionals as well as professionals has left me convinced of the feasibility of extending serious dream work beyond the confines of the consulting room and of working toward the objective of generating more widespread interest in this powerful, built-in potential healing resource common to all of us by stressing its accessibility and educating the public to the manner in which dreams can be approached.


Montague Ullman is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a member of the faculty of the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy.