Question: -- Do characters and images in a dream have a general as well as a specific function? Characters in my dreams, on the one hand are actual people I have known, yet on the other hand they seem to have some kind of "generic" function. They seem to have or to represent some kind of "general"issue. For instance, women I have been in significant relationships with keep seeming to appear interchangeably. Sometimes I can't remember who is who. Can you explain this? -- Anonymous

by Paul Vereshack M.D.

(Notwithstanding his M.D. Dr. Vereshack is not a licensed physician)

Before we begin, let me just ask you to go to the Internet and bring up my on line book, "Help Me- I'm Tired of Feeling Bad". Click on the Appendix and read those five pages where I describe the function of dreams, as I see them, in therapy.

In essence the dream is a metaphor, a disguised portrait of what the mind is struggling with in life at that time. Thus the dream has many levels of meaning to exactly match the levels of our existence.

Freud correctly saw, I think, that the dream is usually constructed from things which have passed through our mind in the previous forty-eight hours. He felt that these thoughts and images were not yet solidified into our mental structure, and hence could be used as relatively free floating "bricks" with which to build the "house" of the dream.

  • Thus on level one, we have images of things and situations that are familiar to us, such as an old girl friend or anything else that we already know. In this sense, the dream image is "specific" to our lives.

  • On level two, the image stands for a psychological truth that we are struggling with in the moment. For example, my girl friend appears in the dream. Let us say that she is an aggressive woman, and in some way frightens me. On this level, she stands for women in general and the fear I have always felt for them. The image has a generic function.

  • On level three, the figure of my girl-friend resonates with my frightening mother. In the sense that any woman could have been used by the dream as a significant image to resonate with the past, again the image is generic or general to my life themes.

    Perhaps we should include at level three the fact that other trauma may still lurk "under" this issue. My birth might have been frightening and in fact might have determined a process of fear in me even before my mother started to be scary. Thus, we could say that a dream image stands for multiple psychological determinants. It is therefore psychologically generic or general in the sense that it represents the causal factors in many of my life's overall themes.

  • On level four things get even more general. It is a fact of biological life, that we are physically and emotionally at risk. Human and indeed all animal life are vulnerable. Thus the dream image of the woman who is aggressive, comes to stand for my/our human vulnerability to hurt and to death.

    Any threatening image, therefore, has the exceedingly generic property of representing that which is common to all of us, in this case fear of our ultimate destruction.

  • On level five we are dealing with "meta" psychological issues ie, that which is spiritual or "above" psychology. The female in the dream might be ultimately raising issues of our orientation to the more universal issue of death and mortality. It might be raising the issue of God and calling into question our whole relationship to being and non being. Once again the image is generic.

What can we do about all this?

Well, I suggest that we start unraveling the dream, layer by layer in the order presented. When each layer is given its' due then we may be ready to tackle the next one. It is an old feeling of mine regarding therapy, that we must fully handle the psychological before we can full handle the deeper layers.

If we jump, let us say, to the spiritual layer first, the mind is so relieved to escape the psychological pain, that it often fastens upon the spiritual in a way that seems to be more of a defense than a true awakening.

How we deal with all these things is the subject of Depth Therapy, and can be examined in great detail in my book.

Paul Vereshack M.D.

Other pages on this website about Dr. Vereshack's writings include:

Book Review of Help Me -- I'm Tired of Feeling Bad
The Primal Page's Favorite Quotations from Help Me -- I'm Tired of Feeling Bad
The Primal Psychotherapy Page Interviews Paul Vereshack, M.D.

Return to Index of Dr. Vereshack's Questions

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