Dr. Matthew Paldy
COMPASSIONATE, EFFECTIVE PSYCHOTHERAPY

Dream Interpretation Revisited

By Dr. Matthew Paldy

Freud argued that dreams represent wish fulfillments. I believe this is partly true. It fits well with Freud’s drive-based theories. If dreams represent a window into the unconscious, from Freud’s perspective they would be based on, or greatly influenced by, libidinal and aggressive drives. Because a wish is a form of desire, Freud’s wish-fulfillment view of dreams can be correlated with desire and therefore with the libido. It seems that Freud’s view that dreams are wish fulfillments fits well with his drive-based model. However, modern theorists have viewed dreams in other ways. A study group at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute concluded that dreams have no special significance in clinical psychoanalysis and that all material interpreted from dreams could also be gained from free associations (Blechner). It appears that most psychoanalysts agree that dreams provide a rich material of unformulated experience that can tell us things that words cannot. Dreams are not subject to the constraints of language, although the reporting of dreams is still subject to the limitations of language. Betty Joseph (2013) emphasizes how valuable dream content can be when it appears in the transference when she describes a patient’s dream:

There was a kind of war going on. My patient was attending a meeting in a room at the seaside. People were sitting round a table when they heard a helicopter outside and knew from the sound that there was something wrong with it. My patient and a major left the table where the meeting was going on and went to the window to look out. The helicopter was in trouble and the pilot had bailed out in a parachute. There were two planes, as if watching over the helicopter, but so high up that they looked extremely small and unable to do anything to help. The pilot fell into the water, my patient was wondering whether he would have time to inflate his suit, was he already dead, and so on. I am not giving the material on which I based my interpretations, but broadly I showed him how we could see the war that is constantly raging between the patient and myself.

It appears that dreams involving war and conflict are fairly commonplace because they represent conflicts within the unconscious. Adam Phillips (2010), a British psychoanalyst whose essays I greatly enjoy, describes dreams as places of fantasy and retreat, where we can indulge in excess, referring to Anna Freud’s statement, “'In our dreams we can have our eggs cooked exactly how we want them, but we can't eat them.” Phillips argues that our fantasies and dreams are desires in disguised form that can never be satisfied, and refers to Freud’s statement, "Our desire is always in excess of the object's capacity to satisfy it." He describes sleep as both a way of “getting away from things” as well as reworking them. It is in sleep and dreams that we can tap into what Seamus Heaney called the “pre-reflective lived experience” of childhood. Phillips also writes of the similarities of dreams and worrying:

“Worrying, like dreaming, is born of conflict, and therefore of censorship. It involves the compromise of representation and derives from instinctual wishes. But the dream-work that Freud described is ingenious in its transformation of the forbidden into the sufficiently acceptable. When we lie awake at night worrying, there may be a dream we are trying not to have. … And the ordinary worry that projects a catastrophe into the future can easily be seen as the equivalent in consciousness of what Freud called punishment dreams, which "merely replace the forbidden wish-fulfillment by the appropriate punishment for it: that is to say, they fulfill the wish of the sense of guilt which is the reaction to the repudiated impulse. … Worrying, like dreaming, is born of conflict, and therefore of censorship. It involves the compromise of representation and derives from instinctual wishes. But the dream-work that Freud described is ingenious in its transformation of the forbidden into the sufficiently acceptable."

Interpretation of a dream by the patient or the analyst is limited by language. As Khan writes, “"There is a dreaming experience to which the dream text holds no clue." Interpretation of the dream’s contents allows the patient and analyst to gain insight into what the patient has used the dream-space for: enactments are taking place in the unconscious. Phillips views the analyst as “a latecomer in the process.” Khan considered the dreaming experience as very different from the dream text: “"The dreaming experience is an entirety that actualises the self in an unknowable way dreaming itself is beyond interpretation."

Phillips viewed dreams as a place where obstacles are removed. He states, “So a good question to ask of a dream-indeed a question often crucial to its interpretation-is, What are the obstacles that have been removed to make this extraordinary scene possible?” The unconscious is a world without the usual obstacles that the conscious world of the ego. According to Phillips “interpretation-the linking of these two worlds-becomes nothing more than the addition, subtraction, or modification of obstacles.”

"In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond; And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring. Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity."
- Kalihl Gibran, The Prophet