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Gestalt Dream Analysis: A Complementary Tool In Relational Trauma Recovery Work

Gestalt Dream Analysis: A Complementary Tool In Relational Trauma Recovery Work | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

I have a strong journaling practice. 

A lifelong early riser, my schedule works well with my preschooler’s current bedtime routine – she goes to sleep at 8, I go to sleep soon after and wake at 4.

Gestalt Dream Analysis: A Complementary Tool In Relational Trauma Recovery Work | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

Gestalt Dream Analysis: A Complementary Tool In Relational Trauma Recovery Work

Every morning, without fail, before my husband and daughter wake up, at 4am before I start my work day and the mom routine of the morning, I go to my home office, turn on my Deva Premal chanting music, and journal about the dreams I had in the night.

It used to annoy me that every night felt like going to the movies – I dream vividly, often, and in multiple vignettes per night and can almost always recall them (a muscle I’ve developed after years of dream journaling, probably). 

But now, and especially after I learned about Gestalt dream analysis back in the years when I lived at Esalen (veritable ground zero of Gestalt psychology), I’ve used it as a complementary tool in my own psychotherapy and both dream recall and dream analysis have become not only a staple of my morning routine, but also a powerful complementary tool in my own relational trauma recovery work. 

I have stacks and stacks of journals from the last 15 years, all filled with dreams and it’s incredible to read back through them and watch how the themes have evolved, changed, and softened the more I’ve done my personal work and the more empowered I’ve become.

I deeply believe that dream analysis – particularly Gestalt dream analysis – the modality I was trained in – can be a powerful tool and complement to any relational trauma recovery work that we do. 

Indeed, I often talk to my therapy clients about their dreams and in our sessions together lead them through the Gestalt analysis framework to see what their nighttime messages might be trying to tell us. 

It never fails to amaze me (and them!) how spot on and helpful their dreams can be.

Today I wanted to share a background on Gestalt Dream analysis, walk you through how it works, and provide examples of what it looks like. I’ll then provide you with some prompts to analyze your own dreams.

If you’ve ever been curious about dream analysis, particularly using it as a complement to your own relational trauma recovery work, keep reading. 

Gestalt Dream Analysis: A Complementary Tool In Relational Trauma Recovery Work

Dreams have, since time immemorial, been a source of fascination for humans.

For instance, as evidenced by paintings on cave walls from the Neanderthal period and clay tablet journals dating back to 3000 B.C., dreams have been recognized as an important aspect of human experience since the beginning of time.

In ancient Egyptian times, the dream world was believed to exist between the land of the living and the world on the other side, a world inhabited by deities and the spirits of the dead. 

Dreams were seen as communications from these entities.

In Mesopotamia, the first known recorded dreams date from around 2500 BC. The Mesopotamians recognized the value of dreams and took them seriously, even elevating dream interpretation to the status of a religion

Now, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that dreams feel like a religion to me, I do agree with Freud that, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”

And one of the best ways I’ve found to “travel that royal road” is through Gestalt Dream Analysis.

What Is Gestalt Dream Analysis?

Gestalt therapy, developed by psychiatrists Fritz Perls and Laura Posner Perls, views dreams as parts of the personality that have been unexpressed. 

In Gestalt therapy, the dream is understood as something existentially and developmentally important.

And Gestalt dream analysis is implemented somewhat differently than in psychoanalysis and Jungian analysis and other dream interpretation schools of thought. 

Gestalt therapists believe that dreams are existential messages we send to ourselves and that every figure of the dream is an aspect of ourselves.

In Gestalt therapy dream interpretation, every part of the dream, including other people and inanimate objects, relates to a part of the dreamer. 

This means the setting (the house, the middle school hallway, the field of flowers) the dream takes place in is an aspect of self; the people – “positive” and “negative” – who show up in the dream are aspects of self; even pets or inanimate objects like cars or trains, all are aspects of the self.

To understand what a specific dream symbol means, you assess each object for the qualities and characteristics that this figure symbolizes to you, connecting it back to that part of yourself that contains those aspects and qualities.

By doing this, you see what parts of you are attempting to show up in your dream and get your attention.

And then, to deepen your understanding of the dream, you invite those parts, those figures, those aspects of yourself that are showing up to dialogue together. 

You are curious about what it means and represents that all of these parts are showing up and what internal conversation can arise from those parts coming into contact/dialoguing together.

Two Examples Of Gestalt Dream Analysis.

To see how this might play out, let’s imagine a scenario in which a young woman dreams of being in a car with her estranged, harsh father, navigating an unfamiliar country road in the dark with visible signs of anger. 

The key figures in this dream include the young woman, her father, the car, and the unknown rural road.

Applying Gestalt dream analysis, I encourage the client to reflect on the personal significance of each figure: her father, the car, herself, and the unfamiliar country road. 

Following this, I guide her to recognize that the characteristics attributed to these figures represent distinct aspects of her own personality.

For example, if the young woman describes her father as strong, influential, yet harsh and cruel, I suggest that his appearance in the dream may symbolize her own strong, influential, yet harsh and cruel characteristics.

I would then invite her to see if she knows that part of herself, if she can connect to those aspects of herself even a little bit.

In this scenario, let’s imagine she says yes. 

So by adopting this perspective, the father in the dream becomes more than a familial figure, serving as a symbolic representation of specific facets within her and not necessarily a dream about him. 

This technique, viewing each figure as an embodiment of different elements of her own identity, offers a practical and insightful approach to interpreting and understanding the dream. 

It reframes the dream as a symbolic narrative, where characters represent diverse dimensions of her inner world – not just the fact that her estranged father made an appearance in her dream and rattled her – facilitating a deeper understanding of what might be happening in her personal process as she heals and grows more.

And now let’s consider another dream scenario where a middle-aged man dreams of standing at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a vast ocean, while a large eagle circles overhead. 

The dream involves the man, the cliff, the ocean, and the eagle as key figures.

Applying Gestalt dream analysis, I encourage the client to reflect on what each figure symbolizes for him in this dream—himself, the cliff, the ocean, and the eagle. 

Subsequently, I guide him to understand that the attributes of each figure are unique aspects of his own personality.

For instance, if the man interprets the eagle as a symbol of freedom, power, and transcendence, I would ask him if he knows that part of himself – the free, powerful and transcendent part, the part that feels bigger than the daily toil. 

Perhaps he identifies with this part, or perhaps he doesn’t know that part of himself very well (yet).

Either way, expanding this lens to his waking life, we might explore whether the dream reflects a yearning for personal freedom or a desire for empowerment in a specific aspect of his life. 

We could go on based on the qualities he ascribes to each figure…

Does the cliff signify a perceived edge or challenge he’s facing? 

Does the vast ocean evoke feelings of vast potential or uncertainty in his current circumstances?

By considering the dream elements as representations of his internal self, we gain insights into his psyche and potential aspects of his waking life that may be influencing the dream. 

This Gestalt dream analysis approach offers a practical and fresh perspective, centering the client’s agency and wisdom in making meaning of the dream as it relates to aspects of themselves and not just an external therapists’ interpretation or projection of what the dream figures mean.

As a client-centered therapist who believes my clients are the experts of their experience, not me (I’m just the expert in asking the right questions and providing the right tools to help them connect to themselves), I love this approach of Gestalt Dream Analysis.

Gestalt Dream Analysis As A Signal Of Relational Trauma Recovery Progress.

In the context of relational trauma, dreams can serve as dynamic indicators of our personal process in our recovery work.

Analyzing dreams can reveal shifts in our personal beliefs, capacities, and internal conflicts over time, indicating progress and adaptation in response to therapeutic interventions or the personal work we’re doing outside of the therapy session.

Honestly, my favorite part of Gestalt dream analysis is its capacity to suggest evolving narratives of resilience and transformation, especially if we consistently analyze our dreams and look back on that analysis for themes and evolution of themes. 

For example, one of the most important themes I’ve witnessed in my own dream analysis over years and years of journaling involved planes. 

Early in the start of my relational trauma recovery journey I was always on planes that were crashing mid-flight or taking sudden plunges down to the ground. 

Over time, the dreams shifted, and I was in planes that were grounded – no one was there to fly it, I couldn’t get it off the ground and away from the danger that seemed to lurk on the ground. 

Later still, the planes shifted to being in the air, but leaky, broken little puddle jumper-type planes. 

And finally, in the last few years of dreaming, I’m in jumbo airplanes – the kind you take international flights on – and no crashing is happening and I’ve known how to fix and fly the plane mid-flight several times. 

It’s been amazing to experience while dreaming and clinically so interesting to look back on in my volumes of journals to see how the themes have mirrored my own growth and progress.

It’s why I recommend this tool to anyone as a complement to their own therapy.

Prompts To Help You Apply Gestalt Dream Analysis To Your Dreams.

If you’re working with me or one of the therapists at my therapy center, of course we’d love to support you in analyzing your dreams personally.

But if you don’t live in California or Florida and can’t work with us and/or you’d like some prompts to self-apply Gestalt Dream Analysis to your next dream, I’d love to invite you to consider the following:

  1. What is the overall feeling or atmosphere of the dream? Start by considering the emotional tone of the dream. Is it peaceful, anxious, exciting, or confusing?
  2. Identify the main characters or elements in the dream. Who or what is present in the dream? Pay attention to people, animals, objects, and settings.
  3. How do the different elements in the dream relate to each other? Explore the connections and interactions between the various elements. Are they harmonious, conflicting, or indifferent?
  4. What are the significant actions or events in the dream? Look at the key events or activities within the dream. Consider how these actions contribute to the overall narrative.
  5. What emotions are associated with each element or figure in the dream? What qualities and characteristics do you ascribe to each figure in the dream? Consider the emotional responses tied to each person, object, or entity in your dream. 
  6. Now ask yourself if you recognize those aspects in yourself? If you’re stuck here (and this is often the hardest part to wrap your head around!) you can further ask yourself: If you were to interact with each figure in your waking life, how would you feel or respond? Imagine encountering each figure in real life and consider how you might react emotionally. This can provide insights into your current feelings and attitudes. How do these figures make you feel about yourself in the dream? Explore the impact of each figure on your sense of self within the dream context.
  7. Okay, now that you’ve identified what each figure in the dream represents to you consider the following: Do any of these figures represent aspects of your personality or inner conflicts? Consider whether the characteristics or behaviors of the figures align with certain traits or conflicts within yourself. Can you relate to the roles or behaviors of these figures in your daily life? Explore whether the roles or actions of the figures in the dream resonate with your experiences, relationships, or challenges in your waking life. What does it say to you that all of these aspects are showing up in your dream? What does it say about your personal process?

By asking these questions and using these prompts, you can begin to unfold your dream from another perspective and perhaps it will reveal valuable information about where you’re at in your personal process at this time and what may be calling for your attention. 

But, for now, I’d love to hear from you in the comments:

Have you heard of Gestalt Dream Analysis before? If you use these prompts and apply the analysis on your own dreams, did if feel illuminating and helpful to you?

If you feel so inclined, please leave a comment below so our community of 30,000 blog readers can benefit from your wisdom.

And, very importantly, if you would like personal support on your relational trauma recovery journey and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together.

Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and creating a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life and no matter who is in your life.

And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

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  1. DG says

    I have vivid dreams, especially just prior to getting my narcissist abuser to leave. I was raised in a narcissist household with mother and father both alcoholics; my siblings weren’t better off either. At 40 years of age I had never known a day without being abused emotionally or physically. At 40 years of age, I was done, and I drove my narcissist husband out leaving him and his clothing on the curb in front of my house. The dreams I had during that time -the dark golden grizzly bear who stuck its head in the window of my car on that haunted road, the huge white tornado that followed me, the sound of that door slamming shut just before I slept- were all a wake up call. It was like the universe was calling out and I awoke each morning feeling like something beyond myself was opening a door for me to look through. Now, years later, I realize it was not magic but my subconscious working on my behalf; all the years of unexpressed emotions were coming to the surface; I survived. I will never forget the power of the human spirit to take us through the truly rough times. Don’t ignore because “you” are worth it and listening to “you” is the most important work any human can do for themselves. Now 24 years later, I fully realize the power of “me” and where I have taken myself – to better pastures for certain. A rule I use that has been successful in keeping me safe: It’s what you create, promote and allow for yourself. Keep that thought active in life’s moments.

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