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Nov 2014 by PCI College

Why should therapists know how to work with dreams?

Mike Hackett says 'Freud’s ‘Royal Road to the Unconscious’ has become a psychotherapeutic dirt-track; as therapists we need to make it a super-highway!'.

Psychoanalysis is now over one hundered years old. And in that time, the profession of counselling and psychotherapy as changed in innumerate ways. From the psychoanaltyic school, to the second era of behaviourism and the humanistic revolution of the 1950s, literally hundreds of models/interventions and theories have come into existence. This explosion has meant that some of Freud’s most exceptional therapeutic insights have been lost to the constellation of ‘therapeutic rock-stars’ who have emerged in the last hundred years.

Freud’s central belief that dreams are the ‘Royal Road to the Unconscious’ has today become a dis-used dirt-track in the therapeutic practice of modern therapists. A straw poll taken amongst Irish therapists working for two years or more post graduation suggests that; unless they have specialist psychoanalytic or psychodynamic training or use dreams in their personal development, they seem unwilling or unable to work with dreams in the therapy room. For many, the root of this grows from the apparent bizarreness of dreams, their complex language of imagery/metaphor/myth, the absence of a clear (simple)  model for working with them and the demand from clients of their therapists to ‘tell them what it means’, all of which leaves both the dreamer and the therapist stuck (but curiously interested) in what the dream has to offer.

However, our clients and ourselves spend one third of our lives asleep! Of this time, we spend approximately one quarter of that in a dreaming (REM) state. We dream every night, several times per night. Our dreams contain a mix of elements; our mind’s attempt to integrate and make sense of our lives as we experience the world, the people, the places and the events as they affect us. They offer us an opportunity to rehearse difficult or risky situations which communicate our present state. They speak to our past, present and future relationships, what we’ve had, what we want and our wishes which may yet be unfulfilled.

Dreams in therapy offer even more rich material as Siegel (2002) notes that “Psychotherapists who have been trained to work with dreams will look carefully at the dreams presented in each stage of psychotherapy, the dreams that apper to relate to the progress of treatment, and the relationship between therapist and patient” (p. 241). Further, Pesant & Zadra (2004) demonstrate through clinical observations three distinct types of improvements when a space was made for dreams in the therapy room;
a)    Improved client insights – the client experiences enhanced client self-knowledge, self-understanding or self-awareness,
b)    increased involvement – in the therapeutic process
c)    a better understanding – by the therapist of the client’s inner world

Today, dream work has been integrated into Cognitive Behavioural methods (using the Hill Method of Exploration, Insight & Action), into Gestalt (using the Gendlin – ‘Let your body interpret your dreams’ method), into group process (using the Ullmann Dream Appreciation Method) as well as their central role in the Freudian Psychodynamic approach of Interpretation (including their modern equivalents) and the classical Jungian Analytic approach of Amplification. There is therefore a place for dream work in every modality, for every practitioner. I wonder with all of what is available then is it actually possible to not work with dreams as a therapist, not matter what school or orientation you represent.
Not only are dreams potentially useful in the contexts above, but academic research offers us excellent insights into the effectiveness of working with dreams in therapy. Dr Clara Hill and her colleagues in the USA, are perhaps the most highly regarded practitioners and scientists on the subject of modern dream work. To date, dozens of studies have been published focussed on a simple, accessible, therapeutically effective model for therapists who wish to work with dreams. You will find my review of Dr Hill’s work in the Bite-Sized Book Review section of this site for further information on the model in her book ‘Dream Work in Therapy – Facilitating Exploration, Insight and Action’.

In my own work as a therapist, I have first hand experience of using dreams in the therapy room. I have noticed that the clients who present dreams in our work provide me with enormous insight into their inner world, allowing me to connect to their struggles, fears and hopes quickly and thoroughly, facilitating greater empathy and developing an effective therapeutic alliance more quickly than those who discount their dreams.  I have also used my own dreams to hint at my own therapeutic blind spots e.g. counter-transference, in those situations, I’ve brought my dreams of my clients to my supervision. I have facilitated small dream groups (and though not directly therapeutic) have been witness to life changing insights and shifts in group members come about in those who have met their dreams with faith and courage.

In my own process as a person, I have recorded my dreams since I was in my teens and listened out for the potential contained within to communicate something my ego and conscious awareness is unable to permit in my waking life, whether those have been painful realisations, awe inspiring moments of hope or stomach churning anxieties about my current life’s situation. I have reflected on how my dreams have taught me much about my ego and my self. I have wrestled with the associations, images and the creatures and situations which show up in my dream life and have been truly convinced of the importance of ensuring my own road is not ‘less travelled’ but for me has become a ‘super-highway’ to growth, insight and healing.

It is my wish therefore that we as therapists and individuals reclaim our night-time adventures, attend to the messages springing up from within us, honoring them by acting in our lives and that ultimately, that the ‘Royal Road to the Unconscious’ becomes a high-speed motorway connecting the lives of therapists, clients, families and communities everywhere.

Mike Hackett, MIACP (November 2014)
PCI College Lecturer & Counsellor


Mike Hackett will facilitate a two-day CPD workshop 'Using Dreams in Private Practice, Groups and for Personal Development' in Dublin City Centre on Saturday 28th & Sunday 29th March.  Full details and booking is available on our website now at http://www.pcicollege.ie/dreams-private-practice-personal-develoment-workshop  Places are limited, so book now to guarantee your place.


Hill, Clara E., (2004), Dream Work in Therapy – Facilitating Exploration, Insight and Action, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, USA.

Pesant, Nicholas & Zadra, Antonio (2004), Working with dreams in therapy: what do we know and what should we do? http://sbmupsychology.yolasite.com/resources/draem%20in%20therapy.pdf, last accessed 28th October 2014.

Siegel, Alan (2002), Dream Wisdom; Uncovering Life’s Answers in Your Dreams, Celestial Arts, PO Box 7123, Berkley, CA, USA.

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