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Dreamwork case-study

I will now present an example of dreamwork drawn from research with recent dreamwork groups that I co-facilitated with a colleague, a female freelance groupworker, in Newcastle in 1989-1990. The overall research aim was to analyse how group members made, through the group process, cultural and personal ‘sense’ out of the phantasmagoric ‘nonsense’ of dream imagery. The example I give shows the generation of a feminist ‘sense’.
These dreamwork groups that I will now refer to consisted of three ten week groups of approximately two to two and a half hours duration. Recruitment was by local advertising, word of mouth and through a local independent training agency. The groups were held in that agency’s premises. Group size was between six and twelve. All the group members were white; there was a majority of female members and most members were employed, many in social work or counselling or teaching settings. The group started the evening by each person saying how they felt in general and whether they had a dream to share. During the evening typically two or three dreams would be selected to be ‘worked on’. Having a dream ‘worked on’ meant telling the dream and any real life context and references that the dreamer was aware of; thereafter group members discussed possible ways of understanding the dreams; often dream images were imaginatively identified with, as in gestalt practice, or dramatised as in psychodrama; painted or became the basis for a separate imaginative journey (imagework) (2). Dreams were prioritised for being ‘worked on’ if they were repetitive, felt urgent or particularly powerful as with a nightmare, or if the dreamer had not ‘worked on’ a dream for a while. All such ‘working on’ was of course voluntary.
I will now present three examples of dreamwork, mainly from the first group. Anonymity will be preserved through minor changes to place and person. I will try to distinguish three interacting levels within the analysis, that of the personal, the group and the social.

sherry glass dream

The first dream image I will discuss is that of a woman who had sherry glasses in her hair as hair rollers! This was part of a longer dream involving a walk in the country with a male friend and seeing a kind of Victorian theatre performance in a barn. During the session the woman did a gestalt identification with ‘being the sherry glass’ and talking to the group from that imaginative position. On a personal level feelings of fragility, age, being valued and long used sprang up through this exercise. These were immediately related by her to her current emotional situation of coping with recent divorce and separation. Issues of power and the use that is made of someone were facilitated through later discussion as were current feelings about herself. Personal meaning of the hair symbol was sought through spontaneous association and insight into metaphorical language use such as the sexualised meaning of ‘letting your hair down’. The dreamer later related her hair image to the Samson myth of the vitality and strength of hair.
On a group level there was firstly a humorous preoccupation with the gendered sexual symbolism of the sherry glass and its being filled with golden liquid contents, and secondly an awareness by female members of their ‘being used’ by other people, particuarly men On a social level we can see perhaps a rather class and gender based appropriation of the sherry glass symbol both within the dream narration and the subsequent interpretative process. The female is defined as a passive and decorative container who exists for the pleasure and gratification of others, usually men, who will fill and enrich her emptiness. The use of the Samson and Delilah myth can fix female sexual power within an imaginative order that affirms male virility and feminine deceit.
The dialogue between personal image and potential social meaning as evidenced in the metaphors of ordinary language, such as in ‘letting your hair down’, became a feature of group members ‘making sense’ of their dream imagery, as will be further shown in the next example.

loaf dream

The next dream reflects another woman’s concern with her current job situation and an impending interview. The dream in summary concerned this woman going for interview in a bookshop. She was carrying a large loaf of bread in her arms. There was icing on top of the bread which suddenly started to drip off. Her ex-partner and his girlfriend were also there. The unpacking of meanings from this dream imagery was long and complex and involved the member reflecting on her present job situation and feelings about current and past key relationships. Overall the dream reflected her anxiety and fear of assessment linked to a present fragility of self image in the domestic sphere. By doing a gestalt identification with the icing on the bread she got in contact with very basic feelings and perceptions about her mother and her mother’s expectations of her. Throughout the discussion and exercise a powerful theme for the group was the spontaneous discovery of the various metaphors of bread embedded in ordinary language use such as ‘using your loaf’, being ‘kneeded’, being ‘proved’, ‘being good enough to eat’, a ‘bun in the oven’, and ‘loafing about’. These became both humorous asides but also powerful metaphorical summaries, via the puns on for example “being needed” and “being proved”, of the dreamer’s self state.and current self image. She ,during this session, developed an identification with the bread symbol which became a multi-vocal symbol of the self capable of many different amplifications of meaning.
Such meanings are derived from this dialogue between self and group, and elicited by reflecting on how we derive our dream imagery from our culture, and then in turn understanding our dream imagery by considering the use of metaphor in everyday language.
Whilst the group in this session was focussed on assisting the dreamer narrator and playing with these ‘bread’ metaphors, the issues arising from the discussion again are reflective of structural, in this case patriachical, aspects of culture. The dreamer identified the linking of the bread and the icing and the interview with her concern about maintaining her physical attractiveness and avoiding her male partner’s rejection if she became overweight. The group on this occasion focussed on affirming the innate attractiveness of the dreamer, without reference to male expectation, and the ability of the dreamer to define herself – to become “her own loaf”!
The third example is a ‘button’ dream. In part of this dream another female member reported a dream of a beautiful art deco button in a shop and herself as having a button hanging loose from her coat. Discussion of this dream led onto the woman revealing major life preoccupations. The art deco button came to represent the dreamer’s conflict between clothing and dress accessories as being for display or for utility. Latent feelings of having to always meet her own needs last and feelings of low self-esteem were expressed. She identified the loose button as representing a much greater impending personal loss in her life, that of her partner. As in the other two dreams the button symbol’s potency was explored through the spontaneous consideration of the idiomatic usage of the ‘button’ and ‘thread’ symbols, such as in phrases as ‘bright as a button’ , ‘buttoned up’, ‘unbuttoned’ and ‘hanging by a thread’. At a social level the revealed interpersonal and sexual symbolism of buttons in this culture became a vehicle for developing personal understanding. Such a discussion of both learnt and experienced symbolism again gave the group the opportunity to critically reflect on questions of gender roles, socialisation and opportunities for empowerment by women.
Through the brief examples from these three dream narrations and discussions we can see how the dreamer and the group use significantly gendered and sexual symbols both unconsciously in dream material and consciously in group dialogue. The examples show that dream data consists of sets and sequences of images that are derived from everyday life and can reflect current concerns of the dreamer.
If you wish to read about these examples in more detail then go to