Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Dreamer is the Key to the Dream

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

You don’t often hear people talking about dreams in public. It rarely makes it onto the topic list of chat shows. You don’t overhear it in coffee shop conversations between friends. Yes dreams will get a cursory mention here and there but apart from a few details and a shrug that usually suggests ‘how weird is that’, they have almost been relegated to the realm of not really being part of our lives. They happen, they can disturb us but they are ultimately seen as trivial and are quickly forgotten.
Part of the reason for this is that our logical, scientific world has no place for dreams. Dreams do not tell us what it is they are trying to say in any coherent or easily understandable way. And that is enough for them to be ignored.
In contrast, I’m reminded of tribes such as the Sambia in Papua New Guinea, or the Quiche Maya in Central America, or the Aguaruna in Peru and many other indigenous peoples who all view dreaming as an experience of the soul leaving the body at night. Indeed, the Sambia make dream interpretation part of their shared, spoken culture from childhood onwards. As such, the pictures that the ‘soul’ sees on its flight in dreams are to be afforded a respect and an attention that you don’t find in the Western world. We simply don’t believe in any of that.
And yet, psychoanalysis and its understanding of the unconscious was founded on dreams and dreaming by Sigmund Freud. It does not view dreams as the soul leaving the body at night. Rather, it sees dreams as a representation of our inner lives, often disguising our real wishes in order to add to the puzzle they represent.
You will find many therapies today that seek to interpret dreams using various different means in order to crack the code, so to speak. The puzzling nature of dreams is not a good enough reason to ignore them. Quite the opposite, in fact. The can be a valuable route to understanding, or the 'royal road' to the unconscious as Freud once called them.If someone is having difficulty in their lives, the content of their dreams can often give a rare insight into the hidden depths.
I was speaking to a man recently* who said he was having the same dream for a very long time. It wasn’t taking place every night but it always contained the same figures and the same ultimate result: he woke up in a sweat, terrified. He came to me and asked me to interpret the dream. He had heard that dream interpretation was an essential part of the theory of psychoanalysis. He had also heard that it involved listing the elements of the dream and then deciphering what they meant according to a check list of symbols.
There is a form of dream interpretation that uses a check list of symbols but contemporary Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis sees things a little differently. The meaning of any dream depends not on the configuration of symbols and their generally applied meanings. The meaning of a dream depends on who is dreaming it.
So it is less to do with the things that are happening in the dream, although they are important, than on who it is who is having the dream. The man in question was repreatedly having the same very frightening dream and yet his life was effectively trauma free. He had no ugly experiences, nobody had abused him, he was successful in his career and his relationships were solid.
In such circumstances you might ask, how could this be? To get to the bottom of this conundrum, some therapies would probably spend endless hours going over and over the contents of the dream in order to put meaning and sense on them. Instead, our work together focussed not on the dream but on this man’s life. After patient and lengthy work we discovered something in his past that had never been resolved, something he had forgotten about, and something he had only remembered when prompted by an association he had during one of our sessions.
It became clear to this man that he had spent a long time repressing a set of experiences that he had never quite forgotten but had never considered to have had any effect on him. And yet, when he recounted them in our sessions he was aghast at how he could have missed their importance.
The dreams he was having were particularly related to his unique set of experiences in an earlier part of his life. These experiences had been effectively ‘forgotten’ and would have remained that way were it not for the insistence of the same dream occurring repeatedly.
The anxiety that had built up around his earlier experiences had remained untouched and was effectively seeping out into his dream life. His daily life remained unaffected. He had ensured this would be the case when he first believed he had dealt effectively with the original unpleasant experiences. But his dreams were telling him otherwise, in a way that was impossible to ignore.
I mention this example in order to illustrate two popular misconceptions about dreams and their interpretation. Firstly, they are important and while they should not be obsessively attended to, they should not be ignored either. Dreams that affect us should be paid attention to because they occur for a reason that is usually directly related to some part of our inner lives. Secondly, the meaning of any dream is less to do with the 'symbols' and what they purportedly mean and more to do with who is having the dream. The unique and particular details of the life experiences of the dreamer are the keys to unlocking the dream.

*Details of this person have been changed to ensure confidentiality.

Note: The next blog will appear on Tuesday August 30, 2010.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Parents Are Only Human Too

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.


Have you ever considered the popular view of parenting? You find, broadly speaking, there are two sides to it. There are those who love their children to bits, would do anything for them, give them everything they can and who represent a model of family life. The other side of the coin is the parenting style that is abusive, neglectful , and that sees children as a burden to be resented.
There are no prizes for guessing which of the two our society likes to promote. And is it any wonder? Parents who care are to be encouraged rather than parents who don’t. The problem arises with the ideal of good parenting that emerges from this. It follows that to give everything – both emotionally and materially - and withhold nothing is good parenting. It also follows that those who cannot but who might want to give everything materially are somehow disadvantaged in this regard.
While we can argue these ideas at length, there is another point at stake here. It is that the impression is created that we can always be aware of the effects of our actions, our personalities and our responses on our children. That everything being given or withheld is within our gift to understand and evaluate. You will see this philosophy most at work in the plethora of parenting tips that flourish in the media – do this and everything should work, do that and everything should be fine. It is action-based, practical, tangible, observable and ultimately cosily founded on common sense. As if the simple act of carrying out ‘the right thing’ is enough, be it feeding, educating, playing, communicating or any other aspect of raising children.
The thing that never gets represented in any of this is the individual who acts as parent, their history, their own desires, their own failings. My point might be best illustrated by an example. I was talking with a woman* some time ago who told me that her life had been filled with anxiety and anguish despite having had a happy childhood with happy caring parents. How does that work? That is a good question. On the face of it there was no trauma, no abuse, no deprivation of any kind. And yet her adult life was stuck in a cycle of anxiety, sadness, low self esteem and broken relationships.
It was only after some time that she came to ask questions about who these people were who had raised her, yes her parents. And the questions were not around the usual clich├ęd ones like, ‘Did they love me?’ Rather the questions she asked were around the issue of, ‘Who were they before I came along? Who were these people at the time I was born? What were their desires, hopes, fears?’ Even at a glance you can see that framing the questions in this way offered a completely different perspective on something that often gets taken for granted.
When you next look at a glamorised photo of a loving mother with a baby, it might be interesting to do the following exercise. Ask yourself, if one was to include the complexity of that woman’s life into one’s understanding of her happiness, what possible factors would you include? If you assume her to be all-loving and perfect, what factors could have brought that about?
The woman I was referring to above discovered that her mother had actually been engaged to another man before she met her father. This first man died and her mother then met her father and married him. She loved him but the shadow of her first love was always hanging around in the background. And while her mother did everything she could to love her daughter, something of the sadness that she had experienced with the loss of her first love permeated through, almost without realising it.
This is the point I was trying to make earlier about parenting. Parents are people. They have had their own histories before they ever have children. They may well love their children more than anything in the world, but the echoes of an earlier life trickle through. Yes there is an ABC of what to do as good parents. But there is another engine at work also; one at the core of every human being, where their true but often disguised desires and wishes generate ideas, choices, emotions and actions. This is what is continually being put in place up to the moment we become parents. And this is the foundation on which we base our own parenting abilities and style on.
Before our parents ever had children, they already had a rich and complex inner life that brought them to adulthood. And before we, as their children, ever knew anything about it, it was this that formed the backdrop to our experiences of being parented by them.

*This is a composite illustration taken from a number of case histories.