Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Vol 18, No 1, 1982, pp. 153-159

1986 W.A.W. Institute

Montague Ullman, M.D.:

On Relearning the Forgotten Language: Deprofessionalizing the Dream

Erich Fromm's blend of scholarship and common sense is no more in evidence than in his small volume entitled "The Forgotten Language". In this book he took a major step toward demystifying dreams and dream work and preparing the way for their more general accessibility. Very early in the book he calls attention to an unfortunate consequence of Freud's classic contribution to our understanding of the dream:

Another limitation is that interpretation of dreams is still considered legitimate only when employed by the psychiatrist in the treatment of neurotic patients. On the contrary, I believe that symbolic language is the one foreign language that each of us must learn. Its understanding brings us in touch with one of the most significant sources of wisdom, that of the myth, and it brings us in touch with the deeper layers of our own personalities. In fact, it helps us to understand a level of experience that is specifically human because it is that level which is common to all humanity in content as well as in style (Fromm 1951).

Not only was it necessary to clear the air, as Fromm did, of certain mistaken notions about dreams and the exclusive position held by the therapist in relation to them, but, what was also needed, was a way of implementing this point of view. Turning his attention elsewhere, Fromm never got back to this task. Freud and later, Jung had addressed the general public on the subject of dreams. Freud emphasized the unique role of the psychoanalyst. Jung went further, in efforts to orient the public to dreams, but he too felt that specialized knowledge and training was essential. In the light of the views they held neither could provide the non-professional with the tools needed to comprehend one's own dreams.

For the past seven years I have been involved in a project designed to facilitate work with dreams outside the clinical setting. This involves a structured approach to dream sharing in a group. It has turned out to be exciting and rewarding and has raised a number of important questions about the nature of dream life and our approaches to it. The question I wish to deal with here is whether we can deprofessionalize dream work without sacrificing any of the intrinsic value of the dream.

This 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 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 the motivation behind them, and 2) that since our dreams develop from the play of id impulses, there was always the possibility that, in the hands of the ignorant, clumsy or inexperienced some of these impulses could be exposed in a way that would be disastrous to the dreamer.

My experience with lay and professional groups has led me to question both assumptions, i.e., the necessity for a psychoanalytic background and the question of danger arising from the intrinsic nature of the dream itself.

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, since that role cart be defined in different ways, depending on how one views the dream. The same applies to the issue of intrinsic danger in dream work. What follows is a brief statement of my view and the process that has developed front it.

It seems to me that the essence of the dream is the presentation and exploration in an emotionally veridical manner of a particular issue in 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 could 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 so doing we make creative use of metaphor to express the accompanying feelings. The net result, which we call the dream, is a series of moving metaphors that contain 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 those conditions and take a profoundly honest look at our own subjectivity. Fromm notes this transformation:

While we sleep we are not concerned with bending the outside world to our purposes. We are helpless and sleep therefore, has rightly been called the 'brother of death.' But we are also free, freer that awake. We are free from the burden of work, from the task of attack or defense, from watching and mastering reality. We need not look at the outside world; we look at our inner world, are concerned exclusively with ourselves. When asleep we may be likened to a fetus or a corpse; we may also be likened to angels who are not subject to the laws of 'reality.' In sleep the realm of necessity has given way to the realm of freedom in which 'I am' is the only system to which thoughts and feelings refer (Fromm 1951).

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. 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 either in ancient or in modern guise. This separates the dreamer from his dream by setting up an outside authority over the dream, an authority based in the past on a special knowledge of dream symbols, and more recently, on a mastery of psychoanalytic theory.

If we allow ourselves to see, while awake, what it is we allowed ourselves to see while dreaming, we must understand the two important difficulties the dreamer faces as he seeks to repossess his dream. On the one hand he is unable to read the images he has created on his own. On the other hand, since he senses their most 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 nakedness. 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. No one is apt to undress voluntarily in public unless he 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 now 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 to provide the kind of safety the dreamer needs, control of the process must at all times remain in the hands of the dreamer. The dream is his and it is his psyche that is at risk. He remains 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 he chooses. The group proceeds in a non-intrusive way 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 spontaneous and natural way. By allowing the dreamer free play of his own defenses, and by that I mean never intruding and never challenging any defensive operation, there results a remarkable minimizing of defenses. When there is little to defend against, in terms 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 front it. What the group does in this way is to mobilize its collective imagination in an effort to arrive at possibilities that may be sufficiently close to the mark to begin to open up the dream to the dreamer. Although the group is working in a random hit or miss 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 spontaneously feels in any manner he chooses. He is free to face it or defend against it. Feeling the truth in his sole possession of it favors his acceptance of that truth. This is what I refer to as Discovery Factor. It helps the dreamer exchange self-deception for truth.

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 a 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 fee closer to the dream as a result of all that went before. Then there is a final stage which consists of a 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 providing: 1) that they are asked to help the dreamer focus on or clarify something, and 2) that the questions are related to the dream or what the dreamer has shared with the group. The dreamer is informed that he is free to handle the questions 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 (Ullman and Zimmerman 1979, Ullman 1979).

To return to my original questions, can dream work he entrusted to non-professionals and should it be? Let me 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, the 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 the unconscious domain to a conscious and public domain and in so doing exerts a healing or therapeutic effect.

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 the 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 he 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 the dreamer are far greater than the risk.

The dream as an accessible and ever available source for self-healing is reason enough to generate more interest in them. 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. Fromm quotes Synesius of Cyrene who urges us on in this direction:

Let us all deliver ourselves to the interpretation of dreams, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, private citizens and magistrates, inhabitants of the town and of the country, artisans and orators. There is not any privileged, neither by sex, neither by age, nor fortune or profession. Sleep offers itself to all; it is an oracle always ready to be our infallible and silent counselor; in these mysteries of a new species each is at the same time priest and initiate (Fromm 1951).

This plea remains timely, even urgently so. Our dreams remain a most valuable but terribly underutilized natural resource. My work with this process during the past seven years in the United States and Sweden, and working with non-professionals and 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.


Fromm, E. (1951) The Forgotten Language. New York: Rinehart & Co.

Ullman, M. and Zimmerman, N. (1979) Working With Dreams. New York: Delacorte/Eleanor Friede.

Ullman, M. (1979). The experiential dream group. In: Wolman, B. (Ed.) Handbook of Dreams. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.