In our last entry, we explored the theory of dream and dream interpretation developed by Sigmund Freud. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll explore the thought of a theorist who was at one time Freud’s protegé, Carl Gustav Jung.
What Did Jung Think?
Jung was once a devoted student of Freud and practitioner of psychoanalysis. After several theoretical disagreements between himself and Freud, Jung broke away from psychoanalysis to develop his own school of thought, analytical psychology. Due to its Freudian roots, there exists a great deal of overlap between Jungian and psychoanalytic thought. Both conceptualize the unconscious as having something approaching agency, meaning that it has its own agenda which may conflict with that of one’s conscious motives. In both theories, the unconscious serves as a place to which unwanted thoughts, memories, and feelings are exiled. Additionally, both Jung and Freud believed that a better understanding of unconscious material could, ultimately, decrease mental distress and improve one’s quality of life. However, Jung’s view of the unconscious might be characterized as more positive than that of Freud. Jung placed more emphasis on the role of the unconscious in creativity and growth processes than did Freud. Furthermore, while Freud was interested in uncovering unconscious material in order to relieve his patients’ symptoms,* Jung believed that people could benefit from integrating aspects of their unconscious into their conscious life, leading to a kind of personal evolution.
Jung’s most notable deviation from psychoanalysis was his belief in a collective unconscious. Jung theorized that, in addition to the personal unconscious described by Freud, there is a species-wide unconscious, containing certain themes, images, and ideas common to all human cultures (i.e., recurring motifs or images, such as “the trickster,” “the flood,” “the mother,” etc..). These shared concepts, known as archetypes, show up in myths, dreams, and literature across all human cultures.
Why Bother with Dreams?
Like Freud, Jung believed that dreams could provide clues to the cause of someone’s symptoms. However, Jung didn’t emphasize the role of “uncovering” to quite the same extent. In fact, he believed a patient’s presenting problem could sometimes be resolved without understanding its genesis. Furthermore, Jung didn’t believe dreams were just hints as to what was wrong; he thought they contained clues as to what a person needed to embrace or move toward. From a Jungian perspective, the content of dreams often signals some deficit in the dreamer’s waking life. For instance, if someone is overly cautious in life, they may have dreams of being a daredevil. For Freud, dreams were obfuscations meant to be decoded. For Jung, they were messages meant to be understood—but which had been initially communicated in an unfamiliar language.
Both Freud and Jung utilized patients’ associations to dream elements to extract meaning from dreams. However, Jung thought the free association method of Freud, in which patients would say whatever comes to mind, to be too imprecise. As such, he had his patients engage in a somewhat less free style of association. In Jung’s version, patients would try to keep the associations they generated closely tethered to the element of the dream from which they were associating rather than simply saying whatever came to mind.
When it came to the interpretation, for Jung, context was of paramount importance. He attended to the whole of his patients’ dreaming lives, analyzing whole series of dreams, rather than focusing on particular dreams in isolation. He was interested not only in what a particular piece of dream material symbolized, but why it took the form it did. For example, the fact that feelings of persecution were represented by a hammer coming down, rather than being trapped in a cage, was significant and deserved investigation. Jung, of course, paid special attention to archetypes that might be showing up in dream material. Archetypal imagery might point to information about the patient’s particular situation by reference to more universal motifs. That said, Jung believed that the patient’s unique association to the contents of their dreams were of greater importance to understanding a dream’s meaning than any archetypal association that might be assumed. In fact, he advocated holding all theoretical assumptions lightly when interpreting dreams, as the content and meaning of a dream are highly dependent on the individual dreamer. In other words, there is no codex or algorithm for interpreting dreams—they must be understood on their own terms
Is It Still Relevant?
As was the case with our discussion of Freudian dream interpretation, the relevance of Jung’s method of understanding dreams is somewhat a matter of opinion. However, there is some empirical evidence to support Jung's view that dream content represented some underrepresented aspect of the dreamer’s waking life.** In any event, Jung’s methods continue to inform the practice of many psychotherapists, and may be useful for clients interested in personal development.
In our next entry, we’ll look at some more contemporary theories about the nature of dreams and approaches to using them for therapeutic purposes.
*As noted in our last entry, it is very difficult to discuss Freud without oversimplifying. Incidentally, the same can be said about Jung.
**Bell, A. J., & Cook, H. (1998). Empirical evidence for a compensatory relationship between dream content and repression. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 15(1), 154–163. https://doi.org/10.1037/0736-97188.8.131.52
Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor practicing at Resolution Psychotherapy who provides teletherapy to clients across New York State. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. To inquire about therapy with Thomas, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.