You are going to therapy to address a nagging dissatisfaction with your life. You went to art school and planned on a vibrant artistic career. Reality set in, and now you have a desk job designing publications. You like the artistic elements of the work, but detest doing the layout, which you tend to race through. While you are occasionally complimented on your creativity, your boss would like you to be more conscientious about the layout, which seems to be the priority. You would like to just be paid for being an artist, without having to do all the dreary organization. Today your boss informs you that a publication you designed caused her embarrassment during a meeting, as one of the executives found a major flaw in the layout. She has informed them you would fix it today. Usually a easy going person, you can tell right now, she is miffed. You have no choice but to stay late, after a day so busy, you didn’t even have a chance to have lunch.
That night you have a dream: you are being pursued by a woman who vaguely resembles your mother. She is wielding an axe, which she is swinging. She is wearing just slip and she is barefoot, and it is very cold. As you run away, you realize that you have dropped your mean little rat again, but you can’t worry about that, you need to run. She swings the axe, but misses. She stops suddenly and picks up the rat and hands it to you. “Take care of your rat!” You take the rat and pet it. It is not as mean ugly as you thought. In fact, it is downright cute. You suddenly realize that you have an extra coat. You hand this to the axe-wielder who puts it on and thanks you. She says she got the boots from you too. You notice she is wearing them and they are furry and warm looking.
You wake up puzzled. The feeling is, this is significant, but what does it mean? As your therapist has suggested, you write it down immediately.
Jung believed that dreams are “utterances of the unconscious” without the filters of the conscious mind, “concentration, limitation and exclusion”. This, Jung asserted, made dreams particularly useful to therapy as windows into the totality of the self. Jung believed that dreams often exhibit the latent “inferior” aspects of the personality that have been neglected and undeveloped. In order to be healthy, Jung believed, we need to become as close to a whole “self”as possible. These inferior, often distasteful and/or frightening aspects of ourselves must be investigated thoroughly and integrated. Otherwise, these “snakes in the garden” will rear their heads when least expected in the form of symptoms and problems. What’s more, there are aspects of these parts of ourselves that when integrated, make us stronger. Related to this important aspect of Jung’s overall approach to therapy is the assertion that dreams have a compensatory function; that our dreams are telling us to examine these things/aspects/functions we are avoiding/denying/repressing.
In this framework, Dreams serve the function of revealing these hidden parts in an organic attempt at achieving equilibrium. This is particularly relevant to psychotherapy, since to become what we can be requires an ability to use all our potential. If moving towards equilibrium, individuation – the systematic exploration and development of all parts of oneself, is the “end game” of Jungian-informed therapy, then a main therapeutic purpose of dreaming is to act as a tool to guide this direction by showing us what we are missing in our lives, not paying attention to, or just flat out repressing. These elements are stored deep in the unconscious, but come out in our dreams. In therapy, it can be well worth our while to explore them.
When beginning dream analysis, therapist and patient keep the complementary aspect in mind. Jung would first ask, “What conscious attitude does (the dream) compensate?” He would ask the patient to make associations from what feels to the patient like the most significant images in the dream. Ultimately, these associations are used to understand the dream as patient and therapist use this process to find what is hidden from consciousness. It is important, however, to have established in therapy what exactly the conscious attitude is. Jung states, “…the interpretation of dreams requires exact knowledge of the conscious status quo”; analysis must be accomplished while allowing the conscious personality to remain intact, and the experiences, views and beliefs that the patient presently holds be respected as much as the unconscious elements. Not “either/or”, but “both/and”.
Because the unconscious has its own language and actually, due to the suspension of conscious filters, has access to a broader vocabulary, the images are often perplexing. Sometimes flagrantly obvious, but usually buried in the mud, images in dreams contain pronounced symbolic elements. Because dream symbols have a tendency to represent a psychic element in all its time/space complexity, the symbol is often packed with meaning. The veritable richness of this concentration and potential to hold multi-layered and multi-faceted meaning denotes symbolism as a key element of dreams. Metaphor also, while less dense, can reveal the dynamics and elaborate meaning of dream elements. Flying high can represent a desire for upward mobility or a need to escape, as can running away. Sometimes linguistic metaphors become literally represented: your sadness might be represented by you wearing a blue dress.
So, back to our dream. Armed with this information, let’s play with it. A woman is coming at you with an axe. It’s vaguely your mother someone resembling mother is attacking you. You associate the mother figure with your manager. A parental figure, she was less than nurturing yesterday. She is armed with a powerful axe, and you realize that she can “give you the axe” at anytime. The axe is a symbol of the power this parental figure has to kill your professional self, giving you the axe is a literal representation of that metaphor. Another metaphor, running, feels to you like the demands of the job to “keep running on the hamster wheel”, as is expected of any rat. The woman is underdressed. She only has a superficial garment on in the cold environment.
Now how can this help? What is the compensatory element? Did you discover the rat isn’t all that ugly? You long ago decided “I am not organized, an artist doesn’t need to be!” It was too boring to ever develop that dreary part of you; you weren’t going to be part of the rat race anyway. But do you see the cost of this attitude? As is often the case with people with artistic inclination, your inferior function is your capacity to be conscientious. Perhaps you do need to explore and develop your ability to be moreso. After all, that necessary aspect of your job wouldn’t be as oppressive. Perhaps your boss wouldn’t have to be embarrassed in a cold boardroom in just a slip, leading to her fantasizing about giving you the axe. Instead, she’d be thanking you for the warm coat you provided by your good work. Perhaps if you could integrate a little more discipline and organization into your work, while maintaining the status quo of your creativity, the two could complement each other! Now, the work of therapy – how are we going to learn how to take care of your rat?