Dreams. What are they? For those of us who know already, dreams are the windows to our unconscious. To fall asleep and dream is to let go of our outer world. In doing so, the life of our inner world takes shape. Since our innermost consciousness is in sleep, separate from our senses that communicate with the outside world, the life of dreams seems to us mysterious: on the one hand, there seems to have meaning in the dreams, and on the other hand the context is an amalgamation of experiences and emotions mixed together and makes little sense. Most of our dreams are forgotten, and if we try to remember them, we cannot be sure if the memory of the dream is even accurate.
The unconscious material in dreams is useful and important for psychotherapeutic work. This is especially so when the dream is a recurring one. According to Fritz Perls (1969):
“(T)he most important dreams– the recurrent dreams. (…) If something comes up again and again, it means that a gestalt is not closed. There is a problem which has not been completed and finished and therefore can’t recede into the background.”
Another proof that dreams are the stuff of the unconscious is proof that in people who suffer from sleep disorders, the problem is the result of the mind not being able to let go of the external world. This is a world of the senses and of spiralling thoughts.
Dreamwork in Gestalt Therapy
Sigmund Freud, in one of his most-read books, The Interpretation of Dreams, gives us an idea of how dreams are interpreted in psychoanalysis (Freud & Strachey, 1964) .
In this article, I focus on the dream work in Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy has a tradition of non-interpretation on the part of the therapist. So how does one work with dreams without interpretation? Much of the recorded dream work of Fritz Perls is found in this book, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Here are case studies of work conducted by Perls in front of a group. On reading this book alone, some colleagues find Perls’ style brash, and some even find it bullying. Before judging, we must ask ourselves if Perls’s work served the volunteer. Mostly it has. The members found greater self-awareness; many have experienced a closed gestalt or an integration of their split parts. Also it is useful to note that Perls’ clients are mostly students of therapy themselves and not “patients” in the true sense of the word.
Below is a video of Perls’ dream work. There is a lot of emotionality that arises from the client herself. Perls as a therapist merely supported her. He does not interpret (or at least that is the intention). What the meaning of the dream really was about is actually not verbalized. The patient derived her own sense of what it meant. She has also experienced the meaning and not only thought about it intellectually.
This non-interpretation is a different attitude from psychoanalysis. In Gestalt Therapy, the client is asked to play component parts of the dream. They may even play the dream itself. For example, the client says “I am my dream, and I am vague, and I am not there for you to remember me…” or “I am my dream, but I am incomplete.”
In the example below, the lady plays the water, “I am the water…”
This is called projection. It helps the client to feel the part of him/herself that he/she has disowned and has projected onto objects of the dream. Disowned parts of the self are in the unconscious, and integration is the work of therapy.
“The dream is an excellent opportunity to find the holes in the personality. They come out as voids, as blank spaces, and when you get into the vicinity of these holes, you get confused or nervous. There is a dreadful experience, the expectation, “If I approach this, there will be catastrophe. I will be nothing.” I have already talked a bit about the philosophy of nothingness.” Perls, in Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (p. 90).
“Every dream or every story contains all the material we need. The difficulty is to understand the idea of fragmentation. All the different parts are distributed all over the place. A person, for instance who has lost his eyes — who has a hole instead of exes will always find the exes in the environment. He will always feel the world is looking at him.”
Gestalt Therapy Dreamwork
This dreamwork is an excerpt from my article in EUJPC. The full article is found here.
Read also: Dreams and Dream Work in Psychotherapy
Freud, S., & Strachey, J. E. (1964). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud.
Perls, F. S. (1969). Gestalt therapy verbatim.