Interpreting Dream Language, I

My previous posts described the nature and content of symbols and archetypes, unconscious material that helps make internal, psychic conflict available and understandable to the individual in whom a psychological crisis occurs. The next two series of posts address how to interpret symbols and archetypes so as to make sense of our unconscious material and begin healing our inner crisis. Jung developed the technique of interpreting symbols and archetypes as they appeared in the dreams of his patients. Active imagination (the manifestation of symbols and archetypes during an individual’s waking state rather than during sleep) may follow similar interpretative guidelines.


Dreams, by their nature, do not freely offer an interpretation of their contents,[1] so Jung found it best to approach a dream as though it were an incomprehensible text in a language he could not read.[2] Just as Jung maintained that no single form of therapy was applicable to all patients, Jung felt that there could be no single theory of dreams generally applicable to all dreamers and their dreams.[3] Employing a single method of interpretation on all individuals would (1) limit the dream before interpretation even began, and (2) possibly find more in the dream than is actually there, which in turn, would (3) reduce the dream’s ability “to offer new points of view” to the present crisis situation.[4] Rather than being a form of preconceived technique applied to dreams, dream analysis takes on the character of a dialogue between two personalities, which mirrors the conflict between two minds (i.e., conscious and unconscious).[5]


Jung described his method of interpretation as a process of “circumambulation” that works around the edges of the dream content and gradually moves toward the center of dream picture, ignoring attempts the interpretation might make to move away from the dream content itself.[6] Jung began his interpretation of dreams by examining the context of the dream content itself.[7] Dream interpretation must “keep close to the dream and its individual form,” Jung wrote, since the dream provides its own boundaries of meaning. This means that any outside material placed onto the dream has the potential to create misinterpretation and may show nothing except neuroses, which may or may not belong to the dream.[8] To keep interpretations within the bounds of the dream, dream analysis needs help from the dreamer to confine interpretation to only the “essential and convincing” meanings of words and images.[9] Placing the dream content into proper context further prepares the interpreter to answer the question: “what conscious attitude does [the dream] compensate” in the life and psyche of the individual to whom the dream belongs?[10]


Because dream content emerges from an individual’s unconscious, we cannot approach a dream with a preconceived notion that certain images elicit certain meanings. To decipher symbols and archetypes, an interpreter must operate with the assumption that each aspect of a dream is unknown, and remain open to the idea that the dream will reveal something unexpected.[11] Dreams must be regarded as “unpredictable as a person you observe during the day.”[12] What comes from an individual is unique to that person, and, while many people have the same problems in life, no two people will have the same dreams.[13] Understanding dream content comes only after considering the context of “the dreamer’s philosophical, religious and moral convictions.”[14] The dreamer is “the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic” of the dream, the dream itself is the venue in which the psychic story is performed,[15] therefore, all archetypal figures are “personified features of the dreamer’s own personality” and all symbolic images reference the individual as well.[16] This means that, whoever or whatever a character is in the dream, the dreamer dreams about her- or himself.[17]


Next Time: Part II of “Interpreting Dream Language”



[1] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), par. 560.

[2] C. J. Jung, Collected Works: Practice of Psychotherapy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 16 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), par. 319.

[3] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 18 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 515-248.

[4] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Civilization in Transition, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 10 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), par. 319.

[5] Jung, CW 18:492-7.

[6] C. G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” in Man and His Symbols, ed. C. G. Jung (New York: Dell, 1968), 14.

[7] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 12 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), par. 48.

[8] Jung, CW 18:433.

[9] Jung, CW 8:539.

[10] C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, trans. W.S. Dell and Caty F. Baynes (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1933), 18; CW 16:334.

[11] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 12 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), par. 48.

[12] Jung, CW 18:248.

[13] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Psychology and Religion, West and East, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 11 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 88.

[14] Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 21.

[15] Jung, CW 8:509.

[16] Jung, CW 8:527.

[17] Jung, CW 10:321.

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