Using Dreams in Therapy: Comparing Freud, Jung, and Perls

Deam work

Having studied a fair amount of dream analysis and utilizing various forms in therapy, I thought it would be fun to write a quick review comparing and contrasting the three figures with whom I have the most experience: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Fritz Perls.

This article is primarily aimed at therapists in the counseling field who have little or no experience with dream work in therapy (and hoping non-clinicians will find it interesting as well).

This brief review and judgments are my own. I do not claim extensive knowledge or expertise in dream analysis and I am far from mastering the work therapeutically. That said, here’s a summary of each figure concluded with my personal, thoroughly unauthoritative ranking:


Sigmund Freud

Dream Freud

Freud’s main contribution to the subject is found in his unpredictably entitled work, “The Interpretation of Dreams.” The book is a 600 page bruiser which sketches Freud’s brilliant theory and poses many challenges for the ambitious reader who desires, at a minimum, to merely keep up with his thought (cocaine use is not recommended, but certainly helped Freud in composing this literary mammoth). It’s the sort of book that when you finish you’ll wipe the sweat from your face and say to yourself, “phew, glad that’s over.”

The Basics

Without going into great detail, Freud believed that the “manifest content” of dreams (the stuff remembered) only symbolizes the true content lying below the surface of consciousness – the “latent” material (the stuff censored from conscious awareness). This latent material consists mostly of childhood repressions and instinctual drives (sexual libido) which have been repressed for one reason or another. If the analyst is skilled he or she would eventually discover, through properly interpreting the manifest content, the patient’s unconscious wish. This wish, which cannot be fulfilled in real life, is fulfilled through the dream, thus satisfying the unconscious’ need for expression. Freud described dreaming as, “a safety valve” to discharge the “unconscious excitation.”

Freud’s theory of wish fulfillment in general, and his emphasis on sexual libido in particular, came under fierce scrutiny when The Interpretation of Dreams was first published and the scrutiny continues to this day, over 100 years later. It is still regarded by many in the field as highly suspect to the point of almost universal disregard (not rejection, per se).

My Impression

In studying Freud’s method I was immediately struck by two things: (a) Freud’s unmistakable genius, and (b) the sheer impossibility of ever understanding and utilizing his method to the full. Again, that’s for me. Maybe it takes a genius to master the work of a genius, and a genius I am not. Regardless, I dock Freud points simply based on the complexity of his dream analysis and the narrow framework with which he works (plus being able to dock him just makes me feel good). Though his theory is applicable in some cases, I find the view that neurosis is primarily reducible to repressed sexual libido an extremely narrow view of the human condition. Thus, even if I were able to master his method I would be suspicious of its long-term therapeutic value for my patients. On this point I side with one of Freud’s main nemeses, Otto Rank, who claimed that merely bringing unconscious material to the light of consciousness is not typically therapeutic in itself, and often only served to fortify a patient’s neurosis.


In summary, I find Freud’s theory incredibly interesting, but highly difficult to utilize and of low therapeutic value.

Interesting – 5 stars
Practicality – 2 stars
Therapeutic Value – 1.5 stars

Overall rank: 2.8 out of 5 stars.


Carl Jung

dream jung

For many, Carl Jung is an oddly familiar figure. Some know him for his contribution to the Myers-Briggs personality test, some for his theory on the collective unconscious, but I estimate his contribution to dream analysis as one of his primary achievements.

The Basics

 Jungian dream analysis is based on two critically interlaced elements. Jung was convinced that dreams were largely a matter of “compensation” working to achieve “individuation.” When sleeping, the unconscious is uninhibited by the waking ego and therefore able to bring affect-filled images to the surface of consciousness which the ego, for whatever reason, found necessary to repress.

Similar to Freud’s idea of the unconscious having a built in “safety valve,” Jung believed the unconscious ego struggles against the conscious ego in this compensatory way to keep the psyche in balance. When the waking ego begins to focus on a single aspect of life, or of the self, to the exclusion of all others, the unconscious ego strikes back through one’s dream life in order to even the score, so to speak. This balancing act is animated by the psyche’s need to be true to itself, united in itself – that is, to become “individuated.”

If the analyst is doing things right, he or she will be able to accurately interpret the archetypal significance of the elements in the dream. In doing this it is believed that patients will be able to overcome psychic complexes and move to higher levels of individuation by virtue of the fact that the analysis has granted them greater understanding of their unconscious world. If an analyst is really advanced he or she should be able to diagnose various neuroses and even psychosis and physical problems through dreams. But at that point we refer to them as warlocks and witches (more befitting for such magical powers) rather than analysts.

My Impressions

Of the three methods discussed in this article I have the most personal experience with Jungian analysis. Until about 6 months ago I was training to become a Jungian analyst and it was during my own analysis process with a licensed Jungian analyst that I discovered its inherent weaknesses.

If simply gaining understanding about your own psyche was all it took to overcome psychic illness then Jungian analysis would be the beginning and the end of all psychotherapy. In my estimation, there has never been a theory more entirely comprehensive of the human psyche as Jungian theory. To say it is complex is the epitome of understatement – Freud never dreamed of such complexity. That said, and with all due respect to Jung’s genius, it is my experience that psychological pedagogy is a lousy method of psychotherapy. Jungian dream work is interesting as hell, but not particularly curative. I believe this is demonstrated in the fact that Jungian analysis is never finished. It is a life-long commitment, which raises its own issues as far as how much time and money a patient must invest in the process. Often it is simply impractical.


In summary, Jungian theory is perhaps the most fascinating theory I have ever explored. It will easily challenge the inquirer for years and years. However, the time and expense of the process of analysis is something relegated to the rich and retired. Therapeutically I believe it has much to offer if used alongside other methods, but dubious if used in isolation.

Interesting – 5 stars
Practicality – 2 stars
Therapeutic Value – 3 stars

Overall Rank: 3.3 stars


Fritz Perls

dream perls

Most therapists are familiar with Fritz Perls, but if the reader is not, Perls is credited with the development of a form of therapy called Gestalt. I like to think of Gestalt as what would happen if existential philosophy and practical therapy got together and had a baby.

The Basics

To understand the methodology of Gestalt dream work a basic understanding of its main premises is necessary. Gestalt holds a holistic view of man, denying the classic belief in mind-body split – it seeks to involve the total person in his or her healing process: thoughts, behaviors, body, and, most importantly, emotions. The Gestalt therapist uses every possible means of helping the patient gain awareness, which Perls defines as “a relaxed perception by the whole person.” The theory lives or dies on the view that pedagogy only reaches part of the person, that what is needed for healing neurosis is a living experience in the here and now with full awareness of oneself.

Following this model, awareness is much more than knowing facts about oneself: one’s personal history, emotional triggers, likes and dislikes, etc. Awareness is the ability to be present with oneself in the moment – the ability to experience life in its immediacy without “interrupting” oneself with emotional defense mechanisms, which come in many forms (I’ll resist getting into them here, though I really, really want to).

When applied to dream work the Gestalt therapist attempts to use the dream images as a way to experiencing the feelings attached to them. Perls agrees with Freud and Jung that the content of dreams are aspects of the dreamer’s own psyche, but instead of attempting to discover the “latent content” or the “archetypal” significance of the images, the Gestalt therapist goes straight to the affect, or emotion, attached to each dream image. For example, if one dreams of walking along a deserted road the therapist might ask the patient to ‘be the road’ and express how the road feels in the dream. If there are trees near the road the patient might be asked to ‘be the trees’, etc. His method is difficult to describe, but luckily he has some videos of session where he demonstrates his method. Here is a YouTube clip of one of Perls’ sessions (watch from the start or at around 6:30 if you only want to see his working with dreams).

My Impressions

I was a fan of existential philosophy long before becoming a therapist, and was convinced of its basic tenets long before seeing it applied in the therapy room. But having been a therapist and experiencing human nature on a different level I am even more convinced that the best chance of conquering neurosis is by involving one’s whole being in the process. The reason for this is difficult to summarize in such a short space, but if one conceives of neurosis as a split within the personality – parts of the self disconnected from the whole self – then the involvement of the whole person is a logical straight shot to destroying neurosis at its root; something pedagogy alone simply can’t get at.

Gestalt dream work uses all of this. Having extensive theoretical knowledge of dreams and their meanings is unnecessary in Gestalt since interpreting the symbolic dream content is irrelevant. What is relevant is the affect or emotions that spring from the dream images. The process of becoming acquainted with these emotions draws the patient back into himself where he is able to become a whole person, warts and all. I have used both Jungian and Gestalt methods with my patients and Gestalt never fails to provide deep therapeutic value.


Clearly I’m bias here concerning the overall methodology of existential therapy, but the practicality speaks for itself and the therapeutic value seems supported by current literature in the field. However, I would rank Gestalt less interesting than the previous two simply because it makes no attempt to dazzle the intellect. It’s not a theory that one need study for years in order to use effectively.

Interesting – 3 stars
Practicality – 5 stars
Therapeutic Value – 5 stars

Overall Rank – 4.3


Scientific results

 Gestalt rules. Psychoanalysis drools.


Thanks for reading.



11 thoughts on “Using Dreams in Therapy: Comparing Freud, Jung, and Perls

  1. I find the three of them interesting. They were certainly smart men, and I think they were each correct in their own way. Dreams are a big subject. Since I was a little boy of about seven – and that is a few years ago now – dreams have been important to me. They are like the days of a parallel life that integrates with daily life. I have my own way of understanding them though.

    Sometimes a client tells me their dream. I have a knack of seeing what their dream pertains to but I rarely tell them. The dream does its own work, even without the client being conscious of it. I just listen, and watch them think about it as they tell it. I usually do not even ask them what they think it means. I just stay quiet and let it do its work as they remember it.

    • No I have not used his method, nor the other two, not with clients or myself. I don’t think I have used as such, anyone’s method except my own. I am an odd one, as you know. Of course I learnt about them in training. Perls as I recall was about awareness of one’s surroundings, and all one’s layers, physical, emotional, mental, and being aware of one’s own central awareness too. All of which I think is a good start, a sort of foundation from which to do more. And he had a bit to do with the Gestalt business, but I can’t recall what, and that is considered “holistic” too, I think. Am I recalling correctly?

    • Yah, Perls is the founder of Gestalt and his dream work is pretty amazing. I posted a link to one of his videos in the article. Check it out, its pretty amazing. There are other videos too with him demonstrating his method in dream work, but I was in a rush last night and didn’t post them. You’re approach is what I would consider a classic existential approach, which I’m a fan of. I think it gets a person closer to the goal than classic psychoanalysis.

    • I’ll check out the videos.
      I think of my approach as a cautious approach. I like to avoid errors. Especially errors that effect others.
      I think it is also a faithful approach.

  2. The interpretation of dreams carried out by Freud has certain valid points so as to study the way in which human mind works. He elucidates that the dreams one sees has direct connection with the inner working of the mind. Most of the findings of Freud are closely related to the real experiences of man.

  3. “Most of the findings of Freud are closely related to the real experiences of man.”

    I think so, but specifically his findings reflected what he found in isolation, i.e., early 20th century Vienna. His hyper-attention on sexual themes is the prime example. One doesn’t get too far into Interpretation of Dreams before realizing that if one uses Freud’s approach exclusively perhaps 90% of all dream content was sex related.

  4. I see that you enjoyed Fritz, I like his dream analysis too and have found much success in his approach. What I enjoy more is Adler’s perspective on dreams. As he believes that the unconscious/subconscious and the conscious work towards the same goal, he sees dreams as practice for a future event. Here is a short primer:

    BTW – I’m curious…what is the reference for “90% of all dream content was sex related”? Is that stat proven thru research on Freudian dream analysis or just from your perspective?

  5. I enjoyed your discussion of these three. I knew Perls personally. He did his last full training at my home. I am a Gestaltist by nature and used it as a therapist and also in my life in many ways. I also discovered, and love, the work of Arnold Mindell (neo-Jungian process psychologist, physicist, shaman, author of many books) and wife, Amy, (also a writer, plus dancer, artist, musician). This approach is a great integration of the best of what psychological work has to offer!

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