When Your Client Dreams about You By Leslie Ellis, PhD on 6/5/18 - 11:33 AM

Things were not all good between my client and me, but I had no idea. She showed up promptly and consistently, seemed to like me, at times even told me how much the therapy was helping her. Yet she often seemed uncomfortable, preferring to fill the session with detailed accounts of her life rather than engage in the directly experiential way I like to invite. My role became that of a witness, a compassionate listener for sure, but rather a passive one. I thought, okay, this is our dance-step.

Then she brought the following dream: I was cleaning her house and had done rather a cursory job of it. The house was still so incredibly unkempt she had rolled up her sleeves and was tackling the lion’s share of the job herself. Later I show up with a flashlight and am opening up rooms she never visits, illuminating darkened corners.

The metaphors here are pretty darn obvious, so I won’t belabor them. If we read the dream as a commentary on the therapeutic relationship, I am clearly getting a mixed review – leaving her to clean up her own house because I’ve done such a bad job of it, but also encouraging her to look into areas (inside herself or in her life) that she would otherwise not visit.

What I love about this example is that the dream becomes the vehicle for the client to comment on the therapy process in a way that she would never have done otherwise. I try hard to level the playing field, be open and immediate with my clients, invitational, friendly, casual – in all ways endeavor to make the therapy relationship feel safe enough for clients to say anything. But often it’s only through dreams that I hear truly honest commentary on the things that don’t sit right with them about my job as their therapist.

This argument for listening to dreams extends further. In my personal experience as a client, I have found dreams open up avenues I would otherwise not walk down. The unflinching honesty of dreams at times makes me cringe – they are like that good friend who will tell you when you have spinach in your teeth or have behaved badly.

The most profound therapy session of my life was precipitated by a dream. I was born very premature and in the germ-phobic mid-60s, so I was kept sealed off in an incubator, touched only as needed for the first six weeks of my life. I had another near-death experience as an adolescent, when, convinced I was invincible, dove under a waterfall and then got carried deep underwater by the powerful current, nearly drowning before I resurfaced.

I had a powerfully scary dream that wove these two events together, and because I was seeing a Jungian analyst at the time, naturally I brought the dream to our session. We revisited the dream material, re-entered the dream, sketched it… but all this did was underscore the profound sense of aloneness contained in the dream. Then my therapist asked me to re-enact a part of the dream where I reach out and no one is there. In that moment, he grabbed my outstretched hand firmly and looked me right in the eye, reaching back across the years to provide a firm supportive presence to that lonely baby and that teenager. It was so unexpected it sent a kind of shock wave through my body.

This profound moment had ripple effects that ultimately shifted my sense of self and relationship. Yet I would not have brought the topic up had I not had that dream. I have now been working with dreams, my own and those of others, for more than 20 years. Sadly in that time, I have seen dreamwork fall out of fashion. I am hoping the examples offered here show that dreamwork is not just some quaint antiquated practice but one that has current relevance: we all dream about things that are deeply authentic and that are too often left out of the therapeutic conversation.

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