The Meaning Of Dreams According To Jungian Psychology

Carl Gustav Jung gives us his personal vision of the world of dreams.

From ancient times to the present day, various cultures have considered dreams as a door to a magical dimension that allows predicting the future or communicating with spirits or other immaterial entities. Many of these beliefs are still part of contemporary popular culture even in the West.

In 1900  the creator of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud published his book The Interpretation of Dreams, introducing its study into modern science no longer as a form of communication with metaphysical entities, but as the symbolic expression of the unconscious of individuals.

From Freud’s pioneering research on dreams, methodologies and conceptualizations related to the interior of some psychological schools were developed, such as Alfred Adler’s individual psychology or Gestalt psychology ; however, the Jungian analytic psychology of Carl Gustav Jung is probably the perspective that has come to place the greatest emphasis on the interpretation of dreams as a fundamental part of the psychotherapeutic process. Let’s see how the subject of dreams is approached from this school.

What is the origin of dreams?

In Jungian psychology, dreams are viewed as products of nature ; emanations of that creative force that is implicit in the conformation of cells, in the tissues of tree leaves, in our skin and in cultural and artistic expressions. They are therefore attributed an intrinsic wisdom that is expressed through symbolic images.

For the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, creator of analytical psychology, this creative force makes use of the impressions of the day before, of the diurnal remains and of our vital experiences to construct the images and stories of our dreams.

The matrix of dreams: the archetypes of the collective unconscious

According to Jung, the  Freudian approach to the unconscious as a reservoir of repressed sexual desires was not enough to account for those contents that are not related to the personal history of individuals.

Jung noticed that frequently in the  delusions and hallucinations of his psychiatric patients, as well as in the dreams of people in general, themes, stories and characters emerged spontaneously that, once examined and interpreted, came to bear a surprising similarity with the mythological narratives that have accompanied humanity in different times and places. Jung argued that this similarity cannot always be attributed to a direct or indirect contact between the individual and these ideas during their daily actions, for which he inferred that these stories and symbols emerge from a common creative source, which he called the collective unconscious. .

The typical motifs of mythological narratives, delusions and dreams are for Jung symbolic expressions of universal patterns of behavior and meaning that we human beings as a species inherit, which he called archetypes.

The archetypes are considered the psychic correlates of the biological instincts and would function as mechanisms of self-regulation, integration and promotion of psychic development. They are also seen as containers and transmitters of the wisdom common to all humanity.

Dreams as a representation of the hero archetype

The archetypal myth of the hero’s journey (humble and miraculous birth, individual called on a mission, encounter with the master, interaction with allies and adversaries, trials, fight against evil, descent into hell, treasure encounter, marriage to the princess etc.) found in the structure of many ancient and contemporary stories, is considered the symbolic manifestation of the process of psychic transformation that all individuals are driven to carry out throughout their lives.

This transformation is aimed at the deployment of the unique potentials of each individual, the experience of their most genuine personality, their vocation, their unique contribution to the world. Accompaniment to this transformation process, called the individuation process, is the objective of  Jungian psychotherapy.

From Jungian theory, variations and fragments of the mythical narrative of the hero are represented every night in our dreams through the way in which archetypes are embodied in individuals, that is, affective complexes.

Dreams as the embodiment of affective complexes

Complexes are a set of ideas and thoughts with a strong affective charge that are formed from personal experiences related to the theme of some archetype. The paternal complex, for example, is nourished by personal and unique experiences that we have had with our own father and with other father figures, always under the background of the archetype of the universal “father”.

Always according to Jung, complexes are the constitutive elements of our psyche and they behave as sub-personalities that are activated in certain circumstances of the external or internal world. Thus, an emotion disproportionate to the context ( jealousy, lust for power, envy, infatuation, fear of failure or success) could be the indication that we are acting under the influence of some complex, and that our interaction with reality is is mediated by it. The intensity in the activation of a complex conditions the degree of subjectivity that we project onto people and external circumstances in a given situation.

The role of complexes

Complexes have the ability to personify themselves in our dreams, and are constituted according to Jung in the scriptwriters, directors, actors and settings of our dream world.

While we dream, we can then converse with an old wise man represented by some professor or teacher that we admire; we confront our shadow under the clothing of some acquaintance or neighbor who is irritating to us; we received miraculous help from a silent childhood companion. The archetype of the shaman or healer can be represented by a doctor or by our therapist.

We have erotic relationships with contemporary heroes or heroines. We cross obstacles, we flee from murderers, we are victims and victimizers; we fly, we climb sacred mountains; we get lost in labyrinths, our house is destroyed in an earthquake, we survive floods, we die and sometimes we are also reborn with another body; We return again and again to the university or school to take an exam in a subject that has been pending. All experiences as real as waking life.

It is then considered that in most cases the characters and situations of our dreams represent aspects of ourselves that need to be integrated and recognized.

A constant journey

From Jungian psychology, dreams are the dramatization of our journey to the depths, in search of our treasure, of our most genuine being. It is in a series of dreams, rather than in an isolated dream, that the different stages of this journey are shown.

In addition, Jung realized that the process of psychic transformation, in addition to being expressed in the myth of the hero, also had correspondences in the descriptions of the alchemical transformation, whose images sometimes also emerged spontaneously in dreams.

What are dreams for?

According to Jung’s ideas, dreams allow us to access the deep and symbolic meaning of our life experiences. They would be a symbol, in the sense of re-union, of bridge, with the unique needs of the psyche, and for this reason Jung believed that they transmit possible paths of action in the face of the questions that have accompanied humanity since its inception.

In Jungian psychology, therapeutic work with dreams is proposed as a tool that helps in the identification of our complexes and their gradual awareness. From this current it is believed that working with dreams helps to recognize behavior and relationship patterns that may be problematic.

How do dreams work?

For Jungian psychology, the psyche functions as a self-regulating system with a tendency towards the balance of opposing elements (conscious-unconscious, light-dark, feminine-masculine) in increasingly complex and integrated states. Dreams, like any other expression of the unconscious, like symptoms, would have a purpose and a function within this process of integration and psychic evolution.

In light of the above, Jungian psychology does not focus its attention on the origin of dreams, for example some repressed desire, but on their purpose. That is, it is questioned about what a certain dream seeks to influence in relation to the psychic development of people.

The archetypal dreams

Dreams whose archetypal images are more evident and which have difficulty finding personal associations were called by Jung as big dreams. According to his ideas, great dreams or archetypal dreams usually precede vital circumstances that involve great qualitative transformations such as adolescence, maturity, marriage, a serious illness or death. 

Archetypal dreams can sometimes be more related to collective phenomena than to the subjective life of people.

How are dreams interpreted?

A characteristic of dreams is that they are confusing and irrational to us. However, for Jungian psychology, dreams do not disguise, veil or censor the contents they transmit, as Freudian psychoanalysis considers it, but rather they express deep, complex and paradoxical knowledge that are elusive to the rational approach through metaphors, analogies and matches of your images.

Because it is expressed through symbolic language, its translation or interpretation is necessary. Jung considered that dreams fulfill their function even if we do not remember or understand them, but that their study and interpretation increases and accelerates their effectiveness.

Beyond the literal

The interpretation of dreams implies an opening to symbolic consciousness, also called poetic, which enables access to the deep dimension of events, both in the internal and external world, beyond their literality. This idea is maintained throughout the phases of dream interpretation described below.


Taking into account that the unconscious is considered a compensation factor for our conscious attitudes, the first step to interpret a dream from Jungian psychology is contextualization, which consists of inquiring about the conscious thoughts, values ​​and feelings of the dreamer regarding themes related to sleep.

The associations

Subsequently , the personal meanings and associations that the images of his dream evoke to the dreamer are identified.

The fact that the images of a dream have an individual meaning according to the personal history of each person is reason why, from the Jungian perspective, the use of dream meaning dictionaries is discouraged.

Although there are typical motives in dreams, these must be approached from the particular context of each individual. The schematized meanings, instead of broadening the comprehensive gaze, are usually limited and literalized, which is quite toxic.


The contextualization and identification of personal meanings lays the foundation for choosing symbolic material from mythology, folklore and art that can be conducive to amplifying the meaning of the dream.

Amplification consists of resorting to images of the universal symbology related to dreams, providing meanings that broaden the comprehensive framework of our personal dramas and that provide possible paths of action based on human experience accumulated in thousands of years.

A synthesis

Subsequently, an attempt is made to make a synthesis of the multiple meanings that have emerged during the process. Considering the polysemic nature of dreams, the interpretations are provided as tentative hypotheses that can be more or less confirmed through a series of dreams.

The role of the therapist

In addition to using knowledge in mythology, folklore, comparative religions, and the psychology of peoples, Jung believed that to properly interpret dreams, analysts should undergo a didactic analysis so that their own complexes did not interfere with the interpretations of dreams. of your patients. Dream interpretation is an activity that is carried out jointly between the analyst and the patient and only makes sense within the framework of said interaction.

In the early stages of a Jungian analysis, the therapist tends to play a more active role in said activity, but it is expected that the openness and permeability towards the contents of the unconscious is one of the learning that patients develop throughout the analysis. The symbolic perspective that allows us to understand the messages of our dreams is then considered a resource that patients can count on once the psychotherapeutic process is finished.

Bibliographic references:

  • Franz, ML (1984). About dreams and death. Barcelona: Editorial Kairós.
  • Franz, M.-L. ., & Boa, F. (1997). The Path of Dreams: Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz in conversations with Fraser Boa. Santiago de Chile: Cuatro Vientos Editorial.
  • Jung, CG (1982). Psychic energy and essence of sleep. Barcelona: Paidós.
  • Jung, CG (1990a). The relationships between the I and the Unconscious. Barcelona: Editorial Paidós.
  • Jung, CG (1991a). Archetypes and Collective Unconscious. Barcelona: Editorial Paidós
  • Jung, CG (2001). Complexes and the unconscious. Barcelona: Editorial Alliance

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