Dreamwork in dream groups and psychotherapy

An exclusive chapter from 'The Psychology of Dreaming' by Josie Malinowski, published by Routledge Psychology as part of their 'Psychology of Everything' series.

The Routledge 'Psychology of Everything' series is publishing its latest wave of titles, and we have some exclusive chapters to share. Read more about the series, and find past chapters on our website, here.

This one is from The Psychology of Dreaming by Josie Malinowski.


‘Dreamwork’ comes in two main formal settings: dream groups, in which a group discusses the dreams of its members; and therapy, in which a therapist discusses a patient’s dream with them. Others have their own ways of exploring and discussing dreams, such as with a loved one or on internet forums or simply dream journalling alone. There are many different methods of dreamwork. In this chapter, I will discuss some of the most well-known and those that have been most researched by psychologists.

Early forms of dreamwork were Freud’s ‘free association’, and Jung’s ‘amplification’. Modern dreamwork, however, breaks decisively from such psychoanalytical methods. Perhaps the most important distinction between them is that in modern dream-work there is an emphasis on the authority of the dreamer. In psychoanalytical dream interpretation, the psychoanalyst was the expert and thus had authority over the dream. If the patient disagreed with the analyst’s interpretation, this could be dismissed as denial. This removes the dreamer’s agency and gives all the power to the analyst. In contrast, a key principle of modern dreamwork is that the dreamer has the final say over their own dream.

Dreamwork in the Here and Now
Nowadays, dreamwork focuses more on exploring rather than interpreting dreams (Ellis, 2019). Dreamwork pioneer Montague Ullman suggested we swap ‘dream interpretation’ for ‘dream appreciation’. Personally, I like the term ‘dream exploration’ as it gives a feeling for the journey that is often undertaken during dreamwork, and the undefined nature of the destination.

Dream exploration is not intended to uncover the ‘true’ meaning of the dream – it is impossible ever to know this, since we still know so little about what dreams are, and no single theory of dreaming is agreed upon. Here are a few different ways in which people work with their dreams (see Pesant and Zadra (2004) and Ellis (2019) for more details):
• Making connections between the dream and waking life. Some- times the connections can be metaphorical.
• Embodying the physical feelings of the dream, getting to its ‘felt sense’, and using this to go deep into the dream.
• Asking dream group members for their ideas about the dream.
• Engaging with each dream element as a projection of aspects of the self.
• Creating artwork from the dream, either for therapeutic or purely creative purposes.
• Rescripting the dream, especially in order to make nightmares less frightening.
• Social dreaming, in which individual dreams are not focused on, but instead collective meaning is found from the whole group’s dreams and dream associations.

There are countless other methods besides these, but for the sake of brevity I will focus on methods that have been systematically studied by dream researchers. I encourage anyone interested in dreamwork to experiment with the myriad methods available (see the end of the chapter for some ideas) and to develop their own methods.

Dreamwork: What is it Good for?

One of the ideas behind doing dreamwork is that dreams are a potential untapped source of insight: they can show us things about our- selves we might not otherwise know. ‘Insight’ refers to increased knowledge and awareness about one’s self and life and the patterns that are being perpetuated, and the discovery of something new. When uncovering an insight, there is often an aha! moment – that feeling you get when something suddenly clicks into place.

Insight from Dreamwork in Therapy
Assessing whether dreams are effective in generating insight is difficult to do in a scientific way because even if we can show that someone comes up with new insights after discussing a dream, it may not be the dream that spurred the insight but simply having the opportunity to talk about their life with a therapist.

To overcome this, Clara Hill, at the University of Maryland, USA, designed her experiments to be able to compare the insight her clients gained from dreamwork-based psychotherapy to the amount of insight they gained from doing psychotherapy without working with dreams. Hill developed her own dreamwork method, the ‘Cognitive-Experiential Model’. Patients are guided through three stages: the Exploration Stage, in which the dream is told and re-experienced, and waking-life associations are made; the Insight Stage, in which the patient is asked to construct some meaning to the dream; and the Action Stage, in which the patient is asked to change the dream in some way and relate this to changes that they need to make in waking life.

Insight was measured with a questionnaire that Hill and her colleagues created. In all her experiments, dreamwork-based psychotherapy led to more insights than psychotherapy without dreamwork. Dreamwork could be effective even in single sessions. So far so good, then: dreamwork is effective as a therapeutic tool. But what about outside of this context – can dreamwork be beneficial for individuals who don’t have a therapist? And what about other types of dream-work – is it only Hill’s method that is effective, or do others work too?

Insight from Dreamwork in Dream Groups
Addressing these questions are a number of experiments that have been conducted by the Swansea University Sleep Laboratory, headed byMark Blagrove, and by myself at the University of East London. In a series of experiments, we have used two different dreamwork methods in dream groups to investigate whether they have similar benefits to Clara Hill’s method in psychotherapy (Malinowski & Edwards, 2019).

The first dreamwork method used was ‘Dream Appreciation’, developed by Montague Ullman. This is one of the most widely used methods of dreamwork and is excellent in dream group settings because everyone in the group gets really involved in the session. There are three main stages: (1) the dreamer sharing the dream; (2) the dream group members sharing their own thoughts about the dream; (3) the dreamer responding to these thoughts and discussing the context of their waking life. The group shares their thoughts by beginning with “If this were my dream . . .”; this ensures that they are not telling the dreamer what the dream means, only what it would mean to them if they’d had it.

The second method is Michael Schredl’s ‘Listening to the Dreamer’. I had seen this method in action when I joined in some of Schredl’s dream groups and was impressed with how many aha! moments there were. In this method, there are four main stages: 1) the group asks the dreamer questions about the dream; 2) the group asks the dreamer to make associations between waking life and the dream;
3) the dreamer identifies patterns in the dream and tries to connect these patterns to waking-life patterns; 4) the dreamer comments on whether they would like to act differently now from what they did in the dream and discusses whether insights from this could be applied to waking life.

In several studies, we found that both Dream Appreciation and Listening to the Dreamer helped dreamers come up with many insights into their own lives. Insight measurements in our experiments were just as high as those in Hill’s experiments. Encouragingly, I also found that people who had never done dreamwork before got just as much insight from their sessions as did people who were more experienced. So if you’re reading this and are inexperienced but curious, you may take courage from these findings and delve in.

Some researchers prefer to focus on well-being rather than insight as an outcome of dreamwork. In another of Clara Hill’s experiments, she found that not only insight but also well-being increased. This kind of research is also conducted at the Dream Research Institute(DRI) in London, UK. Nigel Hamilton, Director of the DRI, has created his own dreamwork method: the ‘Waking Dream Process’. This method focuses on engaging with the dream through the body. David Billing- ton, a DRI-based psychotherapist who uses this method, found that after using this dreamwork process over a number of weeks, well- being improved among his dream group members. It also helped them come to insights about their own lives and also increased their sense of spirituality.

Mental Health Treatment
In Chapter 4, we saw that some forms of dreamwork can be incredibly helpful for individuals suffering with excessive nightmares, such as those with PTSD. Image Rehearsal Therapy and Focusing Oriented Dreamwork – both dreamwork methods that aim to change the narrative of scary dreams – have both been shown to be very helpful in this regard.

At the moment, psychotherapists do not, as a matter of course, work with their patients’ dreams. Much can be gained from it – especially if the patients themselves are interested in discussing their dreams – but dreamwork does not typically form a part of psychotherapeutic training programmes, and until recently there was scarce information on different methods specifically for those working in these settings. Luckily for the budding psychotherapists out there, there is now (Ellis, 2019).

So far, we have discussed dream-sharing only in terms of working with our own dreams, for our own insights or well-being – or simply curiosity and enjoyment. But there’s more to dream-sharing than this. One group of researchers, led again by Mark Blagrove, has shown that when we listen to someone sharing their dream, our empathy for that person increases. Dream-sharing has been practiced by different societies across the world for thousands of years. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that it is a form of social bonding, and helps us to get to know, and empathise with, the inner life of those around us. Sharing dreams with others is not necessarily for our own benefit alone but helps us to bond with others, too, and enables others to feel heard.

Social Dreaming
Dream-sharing, then, is a social experience as well as a personal journey. In another method of dreamwork, Gordon Lawrence’s Social Dreaming, the aim of dream-sharing is explicitly interpersonal, rather than personal; it is about the connections between the dreams of different people rather than the meaning of one person’s dream. In this method, dream group members share their dreams together, but no single dream is explored in detail. Rather, group members associate from one person’s dream to another person’s dream and then another person’s dream and so on. They can even associate from dreams to things from their waking life if they like. As more and more associations are made, aspects of the dreamers’ collective environment coalesce, giving expression to something of their shared realities (political, spiritual, social, and so on).

Why Does Dreamwork Work?
Just how does doing dreamwork give us insights into ourselves, make us feel better about ourselves, increase empathy, and treat nightmares? The honest answer is we don’t exactly know yet; it works, but how is yet to be discovered. In my research, I have found that dream-work helps people to map from the patterns in their dreams to patterns they keep repeating in waking life, and this was a really helpful source of insight to some people. But my dreamwork method explicitly looks for patterns, so this doesn’t tell us much about why other methods work.

Perhaps one of the reasons dreamwork is effective is because dreams unveil uncomfortable, difficult, and often avoided (suppressed) thoughts and memories. As Freud (1900) famously said, dreams may be the “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind”. In Chapter 3, we saw how modern research has supported the idea that dreams picture suppressed material. Could that be one of the reasons why dreamwork is so helpful: it builds a road between our (‘conscious’) waking mind and our (‘unconscious’) sleeping mind, laying bare those unpleasant thoughts we’ve been avoiding?

Another reason why dreamwork is effective could be that it helps us to get in touch with intense emotions. We already know from Chapter 3 that dreams may be working behind the scenes, usually unremembered, to help us process our emotions. Perhaps when we do recall a dream and are able to work through it while awake, this amplifies the emotion-processing work that dreams are already doing.Dreams often picture the same content over and over again – recurrent dreams, repetitive nightmares, or simply the same theme coming up time and again. When dreams do this, it suggests that something is stuck; it’s as if something is repeatedly trying to be resolved but failing. When we work with a dream that has a repetitive theme like this, dreamwork may help this material to become unstuck.

A final thought on this: perhaps dreamwork is partly so powerful because it means working with something that’s full of symbolism (see Chapter 3), and, for many people, has a numinous quality (spiritual, mysterious, or simply awe-inspiring) to it. Like working with the Tarot or other occult practices, perhaps dreamwork appeals and is effective because it allows us to get in touch with what Jung called the ‘archaic language of parable and myth’, which is replete with metaphors and magic. Dreams are an especially powerful tool in this respect since they come from our own minds, so we make up our own metaphors and magic in our dreams.

Do-It-Yourself Dreamwork
If you want to do your own dreamwork but have no idea how to get started, you could try one of the following simple method on your own(or even start your own dream group); each one is taken from a different dreamwork method. The first thing to do is make sure you’re recalling your dreams: you can’t get anywhere without any dream recall. You can even work with very short, simple dreams, or single dream images. If you’re not recalling many dreams at the moment, try keeping a journal: ask yourself every morning what dreams you can recall, and write anything down, even if it’s vague and fleeting. The more you do this, the more you’ll recall.

Make Associations to Waking Life
Once you’ve written a dream down, go through it carefully and consider each element of the dream – each character, place, object, action, feeling, and so on – and ask yourself whether it has any connection to something from your waking life. Even something this simple can sometimes give you insights into what it was in waking life that inspired the dream. Many dreamwork methods start with or include this stage.

Tell an Alien
In Gayle Delaney’s Dream Interview Method, dreamers pretend they are telling the dream to an alien from a planet with no conception of how things are on earth. In this way, dream elements are told in the most basic way, and thus the dreamer learns what personal meaning underlies each dream element. Take an example of a cat in a dream – there are many different types of cats, and for each person ‘cat’ will mean something slightly different. Imagine trying to explain to the alien what a cat is and what the cat in your dream is like – beautiful, independent, hungry, grumpy? This can help to understand what the dream element may be representing.

Ask a Friend
In Montague Ullman’s Dream Appreciation method, the dream group members say what the dream would mean to them if they had had the dream. They do this by starting, “If this were my dream . . .”. In doing this, the group is able to offer their own thoughts without pressuring the dreamer to agree with them. You might like to try a version of this: ask someone in your life what the dream would mean to them, if they’d had the dream, and see if this helps you.

Become a Dream Image
In Gestalt therapy (a type of psychotherapy developed by Fritz Perls), role-play is often used to enable a patient to talk to parts of themselves that they might be hiding from. This can be applied to dreams too. In Bob Hoss’s Scripted Role-Play1 worksheet, you choose an image from your dream that you are drawn to and ask it six questions: what/who are you? What is your purpose or function? What do you like about being who/what you are? What do you dislike about being who/what you are? What do you fear most? What do you desire most? Once all six questions have been answered, imagine it is you who is giving these answers, and see if these answers relate to you.

Draw Your Dream
In some dreamwork methods such as Judy Pascoe’s Drawing in the Night, the dream is recreated artistically. Get some plain paper and some coloured pencils and draw your dream: the whole thing, or just one image, or your artistic interpretation of the dream. If you don’t like drawing, paint it, sculpt it, make a collage of it, dance it, write a poem out of it, turn it into a story, or use it in any other creative way that you want.

Look for Patterns
In Michael Schredl’s Listening to the Dreamer method, dreamers are encouraged to try and find underlying patterns in the dream. Retell your dream in two ways: 1) only telling the actions, such as “I gave someone a present” instead of “I gave my partner a box set of Game of Thrones”; 2) only telling the emotions you felt, such as “I was terrified” instead of “monsters were chasing me”. This will give you the action pattern and the emotion pattern of the dream. See if these patterns are like any patterns from your waking life, especially ones that you may keep repeating or seem to be stuck in.

Change the Ending
In Clara Hill’s Cognitive-Experiential Method of dreamwork, the final stage is to consider how the dreamer would like to change the ending of the dream, if they could. Consider whether you would have liked the dream to end differently. Does this relate to changes you would like to make in your waking life?

Dream the Dream On
In Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing Oriented Dreamwork, dreams are viewed as ‘unfinished’ and dynamic; thus, dreamers are given the option of continuing the dream on from where it ended. If the end- ing is unsatisfying to you, imagine yourself back into the dream, and see if it can carry on with your waking imagination. There’s no need to force it; if it can, it will unfurl naturally before your (inner) eye.

Look for Themes
If you start dream journalling, you will end up with a wealth of dreams upon which to draw. When you have done this for a while, you can start looking for themes that repeat in your dreams. Repetitive dream themes are likely to be able to reveal to you issues with which you haven’t dealt or that are consistently bothering you.

Give Your Dream Some Space
This doesn’t form part of any formally developed dreamwork method I know of, but I find that a little space from the dream is sometimes all I need to understand it better: I might wake up one morning having had a dream and be scratching my head in puzzlement about why I had that dream, but when I revisit it a few days or weeks later, its meaning jumps out at me, so self-evident I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. Don’t just discard the dream once you’ve had it: revisit it days, weeks, months, perhaps even years later, and see if your understanding of it changes.

Develop Your Own Method
Once you’ve tried out a few dreamwork methods and have been journaling for a while, you’ll almost certainly start to tweak, refine, and reconfigure these methods and develop your own way of exploring your dreams. You don’t have to explore your dreams with insight, well-being, or therapy in mind, if this isn’t your interest – these are merely the measurements that have been used in academic research. If you have another interest in dreams that hasn’t been discussed here, develop your own method!

A Final Word
Because dreams may reveal things we’d rather not think about, it’s important to enter the world of dream exploration knowing you might reveal parts of you to yourself that you might not want to see. Any part of any dream could spur an aha! moment – and it won’t always be a moment you enjoy. Remember to practice dreamwork safely, with support in place ideally. Maybe join a group with an experienced facilitator if you can. If this isn’t possible, try discussing them with loved ones.

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