A picture is worth a thousand words. You've heard
it so many times that it sounds trite. But a picture really IS worth a thousand
words. And if a dream is a very special kind of picture, how much is IT worth?
Maybe more? What about very simple pictures and very simple dreams? No doubt
they're worth a little bit less than complex, elaborate ones.
Or are they?
In my psychotherapy course one day, I presented my undergraduate students
with these questions. "Here's a very simple dream from a psychotherapy
client I worked with years ago. I won't tell you anything about the client. I'll
just tell you his dream, and then lets see what we can discover about him by
exploring it...... O.K? Here's the dream:" "I was wearing a white
shirt and a purple tie."
The students just stare at me, expecting more to come. "No," I
explain, "that's it. That's the dream. Now let's start to explore it."
I then lead them through a group process of free associating to the dream
(much like I describe on the Working and Playing with Dreams Page on WWW).
"Just let your imagination go. Take every element of the dream and just
let your mind wander on it. Whatever comes to mind. Don't censor anything,
that's important. There is no right or wrong. It can be a fun, playful exercise
- although the results sometimes may be serious and powerful. Freud thought that
free association bypasses the defenses of rational, logical thinking and unlocks
deeper links within the unconscious. It opens one up to fantasy, symbolism, and
emotion - the very place from which dreams spring."
Here is a list of some of the associations the students come up with. For the
purpose of this article I've organized them somewhat, whereas during the actual
exercise the ideas surface in a much more freewheeling stream of consciousness:
PURPLE .... royalty, bruises, choking, holding one's breath, grief, a
combination of blue and pink, goes well with black, The Color of Purple
TIE .... formal attire, going to work, phallic symbol, tied up, being tied to
something, chokes the neck, confining
PURPLE TIE .... unconventional, stands out, rebellious, showing off
WHITE .... clean, pure, unstained, "good," light .
SHIRT .... the top part, covered up, tucked in, stuffed shirt, where are the
WHITE SHIRT.... conventional, boring, going to work, going to church,
WHITE SHIRT AND PURPLE TIE.... unusual combination, contradictory
combination, very unconventional, tie really stands out.
DEPLETION?.... there's nobody else in the dream, it's so static, there's nothing
happening, where are the feelings?
After we finish this free associating, I then describe the client to the
At the time Dan had the dream, he was 23 years old. I would describe him as a
quiet, held-back person who was very confined (the tie) in how he talked,
behaved, and felt towards others. Put bluntly, people found him rather boring to
be with (white shirt). His emotional and interpersonal life were choked (the
He had almost no friends and felt little connection to his family (the tie
again). Other than going to his tedious job (white shirt) as a low level
technician for a computer company, essentially nothing was happening in his
static, uneventful life (depletion).
Dan was also very limited in understanding anything but the most surface,
top-level (shirt) characteristics of his personality. Although outwardly
conventional in how he dressed and acted at his job (white shirt), secretly he
felt rebellious against authority (purple tie on white shirt) and generally
superior (purple) to most people. He liked to think of himself as a political
activist who firmly believed in the rights of abused (purple) people and felt
more tied to them than anyone else. Comparing outside to inside, he was a bit of
a contradiction (white shirt on purple tie).
But none of these issues is what consciously drove him to therapy. What he
most desperately needed to discuss and resolve was the fact that he was
homosexual (purple tie). Yet he didn't know whether he wanted to come out of the
closet or not (the tie). Part of him wanted to let everyone know, to even show
off and parade the fact that he was gay (purple tie on white shirt), to escape
the feeling that his identity was being restrained and choked (more tie). His
rebellious, unconventional side liked that idea. He sometimes did indeed bravely
experiment with revealing his gay identity by wearing a purple triangle, which
to him symbolized being homosexual (a combination of pink and blue).
But another side of him (purple tie versus white shirt) was afraid to come
out. He sometimes felt dirty, tainted, sick, for being gay. That part of him
wanted to be somehow cleansed and redeemed (white shirt). Part of the problem
was that sex in general was a very unpleasant issue for him. When he was young
he had had surgery on his genitals. He still felt insecure and
"bruised" (purple) down there. He was so conflicted about sex that I
sometimes wondered if he had been sexually abused as a child (purple tie?,
A dream, even a simple one, is worth at least a thousand words. Freud thought
that there was no limit to how much you could analyze a dream. You can always go
further and further into the symbols, the links of associations, the memories
that generate a dream. At some deep unconscious level, any dream fans out into
the infinite horizon of emotion and thought that constitute the individual
psyche... that even transcends the individual psyche and constitutes us all. JS
John Suler is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and practices
clinical psychology in Bucks County, PA. He has published a variety of articles
on creativity, psychotherapy, and eastern philosophy.
His Working and Playing with Dreams Page on WWW is part of his Teaching
Clinical Psychology site - http://www1.rider.edu/~suler/tcp.html