Freud on Dreams

Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung represent strongly contrasting approaches to dream interpretation. Some would say that Freud offers a more superficial or more blinkered approach and Jung a more profound mode of interpretation. Personally, although we share this view to some extent, we think there is a great deal to be learned from both these men and that both should be taken account of, precisely because they are so different from each other.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was the first great modern pioneer of dream theory. His book was first published in 1909, and is the most important of his writings on dreams.

What happens in dreams

According to Freud, in dreams the id (your instincts and desires) tries to communicate with the ego (the conscious part of yourself). When you sleep, the ego relaxes. Sleep is a withdrawal from the external world, so in sleep the ego goes off-duty, as it were. This means that, with lowered resistance from the conscious mind, the contents of the unconscious may begin to express themselves, coming up as dreams.

However, the super-ego also operates largely at the unconscious level and is therefore still on duty when you sleep. Therefore, if what the id is trying to tell the ego is in conflict with the moral/social values embodied in the superego, the latter will intervene and censor the message that the id is sending to the conscious mind. The result is that the message from the unconscious comes through to the conscious mind only in a disguised or distorted form.

Freud distinguished between the ‘manifest content' of a dream and its 'latent content', or ‘dream thoughts'. The manifest content is the actual dream: the characters, scenes and events that make up the dream story. In other words, it is what you would write down when making a record of the dream. The latent content, on the other hand, is what the dream is trying to tell you: the dream's message or meaning.

According to Freud, most dreams are disguised messages and therefore have to be decoded. This is especially the case when the thing that the id is trying to bring to the attention of the conscious mind is a desire that has been 'repressed', that is, banished from consciousness at some earlier date because it offended 'the moral principle', the superego, and caused too much trauma for the ego to handle. For example, a wish for the death of someone close to you (a parent, or brother or sister, or partner) is more than likely to be repressed on account of the guilt-feelings it arouses. Similarly, sexual desires are often repressed because they disgust or offend the superego. When such desires express themselves in dreams, therefore, they may be obliged to disguise themselves as fears: for instance, instead of dreaming of killing someone, you may have a dream in which you are filled with anxiety about that person's health.

The desires we repress are usually quite natural and normal. By that we do not mean to say that an act such as murder is good and permissible. What we mean is that a desire to murder, though it would not exist in an ideal world, may be explicable, given the particular circumstances and our own individual history; and what causes that desire is the frustration of another, altogether good desire, namely, the desire for self-fulfilment. The desire to be oneself, to be one's own person and to have the freedom and independence to fulfil one’s own 'destiny', is a very proper and natural desire, and if frustrated it is likely to produce resentment. For example, pregnant women sometimes wish the child would not be born. This usually means that, although they do want a child, they cannot help feeling from time to time some degree of resentment at the prospect of losing their freedom. Again, it is not sexual desire as such that causes rape; but frustrated sexual desire might well lead to it.

This does not mean that you should give your instincts carte blanche. Rather, you should get to know what is going on in your unconscious, which means bringing the contents of the unconscious into your conscious mind. This is what dream interpretation will do for you. Having done that, you then have to find an appropriate outlet in your life for those desires that have hitherto been kept under lock and key.

Don't be afraid of these 'forbidden' desires. They are to be feared only if they are kept repressed. Allow them a proper mode of expression in your conscious life, and they will actually enhance the quality of your life by filling out your personality and perhaps remedying some previous lopsidedness. Keep them repressed, however, and they may eventually explode, and may even take possession of the whole psyche, with disastrous consequences.

Now do you see the importance of dreams, and how vital it is to take notice of them? Your dreams are messages from your unconscious, telling you what you should be giving your conscious attention to there.

It is well known that Freud tended to think that nearly all neuroses, imbalances or conflicts in the psyche were due to the frustration of sexual desires. This exclusive concentration on sexuality has rightly been criticized, but there were reasons for Freud's over-emphasis and it is important to bear these in mind. On the one hand, the sexual drive is one of the strongest and most insistent of all human drives; on the other hand, it is the one that has the strongest taboos placed on it by society. Therefore, reasoned Freud, it is in the area of sexuality that we can most expect to experience frustration and conflict. It is our sexuality that gives our poor ego the most trouble in its efforts to maintain a precarious balance between the individual's demands for instinctual satisfaction and society's demands for conformity to its codes of conduct.

The desires that express themselves in dreams are, therefore, according to Freud, almost invariably of a sexual nature. If your dreams have a sexual manifest content - if, for example, you see naked bodies and perform sexually with pleasure in the dream - your dream is unmistakably expressing sexual desire. But even if the manifest content of a dream appears to be quite devoid of sex, Freud says you may be sure that the meaning of the dream is sexual. Neuroses, which are always the product of an unresolved conflict between the rival claims of id and super-ego (that is, between instinctive drives and society's prohibitions or 'conscience'), are most likely to have a sexual origin. Therefore, insofar as dreams are expressions of the id and are to be seen as symptoms of neuroses, it follows that most dreams will have to be interpreted in sexual terms. So argued Freud.

However, despite his tendency to see sex in everything, Freud admitted that some dreams do not have a sexual meaning. He also warned against assuming that a dream symbol could have only one possible meaning. Thus, for example, a bridge in a woman's dream is usually - for Freud - a sexual symbol, but he also allows that a bridge image may have non-sexual meanings: for instance, it may symbolize a transition, a passing from one stage of life to another.

Typical Dreams

Freud lists several categories of what he calls 'typical' dreams. For example: dreams of falling or flying or swinging, which express a desire for the freedom of childhood; dreams of being naked, which reflect a nostalgic longing for the freedom from inhibitions which characterizes early childhood; and dreams of the death of a brother or sister, or parent, or child, which express the quite common repressed feelings of jealous hatred towards a brother or sister etc.

In all these 'typical’ dreams there is no disguise: the wish is expressed straightforwardly in the dream story. In the last example, says Freud, the dreamer finds the wish so inconceivable that he or she will speedily dismiss the dream as nonsense - 'just a dream' - and so there is no need for the dream message to be disguised or distorted in any way. Sometimes such a dream is brought about by the dreamer’s actual anxiety concerning the health or well-being of the person who dies in the dream. This genuinely felt anxiety is, nevertheless, says Freud, a way of concealing a more deep-seated hatred for the person, but the dreamer will usually be content with making a connection between the dream and the feelings of anxiety and leave it at that, without probing any deeper.

Another example of a typical dream is failing an examination or test. These dreams, says Freud, express a more or less generalized fear of failure or disaster, a fear which stems from an unresolved Oedipus complex and a consequent continuing fear of punishment. Such dreams are more likely to occur if you have parents who were too strict or demanded that you should conform to impossibly high standards of behaviour.


Many dreams seem to express anxiety. Freud believed that most of these dreams were really distorted or disguised wish-fulfilments. Their distressing manifest content is the disguise forced upon a repressed desire by the internal censor (the super-ego), so that anxieties are wishes in disguise and dreams are disguised fulfilments of a repressed or suppressed wish.

It is important that any element of repressed desire expressed as an anxiety must be identified. For instance, if in a dream you are frightened by a ferocious dog, the dog may symbolize the animal' within yourself -including your sexual desires. And in that case what looks like physical fear is actually a disguised expression of moral fear, which in turn is a cover for a neurotic fear - a fear of something in your own id which has caused you to repress something (sexual desire, or whatever). In other words, what you are frightened of is what your id wants. That means you have a conflict that must be resolved, and that can be resolved only by accommodating in the most appropriate and sensibly balanced way both the super-ego and the id.

In this connection bear in mind what Freud said about the super-ego. An over-developed and dominant super-ego, he warned, is not a good thing. The stronger a person's super-ego, the stronger the instinctive desires that he or she is attempting to keep suppressed or repressed.

Decoding dreams: the dream-work

The problem, according to Freud, is how to decode the dream messages, which have been disguised by the internal censor (the superego). Freud provides some clues in his account of what he calls the 'dream-work' - those unconscious processes that distort the original message of a dream. If we know what tricks the censor uses, we can easily work out what the original message was.

Freud describes three techniques used by the internal censor to disguise the message of a dream: 'condensation''displacement' and 'representation'.


A dream story is usually a condensed or compressed presentation of something that the conscious brain might have to use many words to express. The purpose of this condensing is, according to Freud, to make a more forceful impact on the conscious mind - in much the same way as an arrowhead, by virtue of the fact that it is condensed into a point, has the power to pierce its target.

Condensation may take several forms. For example, a piece of conversation in a dream may have been put together from bits taken from two or more actual and remembered conversations. Similarly, several real happenings or occasions may become fused together into a single event. Again, words or names (of people or places, for instance) may be combined in a dream to make composite words. For example, 'Blakeson' appearing in a dream may be an amalgam of real-life names Blake and Wilson.

Bear in mind, however, that what looks like the opposite of condensation may occur: one item in the dream thoughts (the latent content) may be represented by more than one image in the manifest content. Sometimes, when looking over a series of dreams you will find that a message you were unable to interpret in one dream crops up in a different form with a different image in a later dream.


This is where some change of emphasis takes place between the latent content and the manifest content of a dream. What was the crucial point in the latent content may appear in the manifest content as a purely incidental or peripheral detail of the story, and vice versa.


Ideas in the dream thoughts (latent content) may be represented by visual images in the manifest content (the 'story') of a dream. For example, distance in time may be represented by distance in space. Very small -distant - figures in the dream story may represent someone or something from the more or less remote past.

Where two dream thoughts or ideas in the latent content are logically connected, they may be represented in the manifest dream by two events taking place simultaneously. Where there are two parts of a dream, or two dreams occurring one after the other, the latent content of the smaller one may contain the cause of whatever is depicted in the larger one. Again, where a dream image undergoes some transformation in a dream, whatever is represented by the first form of the image may have to be understood as the cause of whatever is represented by the second form of the image.

Representation by symbols is far and away the best known and also the most controversial part of Freud's account of the 'dream-work' - controversial because of its association with Freud’s alleged tendency to see sex everywhere.

Boxes, chests of drawers, cupboards, ovens, receptacles of all kinds, caves, aircraft hangers, rooms - in fact, anything hollow is to be understood, says Freud, as a symbol of woman. These symbols will normally occur in a man’s dreams.

If a woman dreams of being plagued by vermin, this, according to Freud, is a symbol of pregnancy.

The important thing is to be honest and open when interpreting your dreams. Do not evade or dismiss a particular line of interpretation because you find it unpleasant. The unpleasantness or shocking quality of an interpretation may well he an indication that it is the correct interpretation. After all, if a dream is expressing something you have repressed, you can expect it to refer to something painful or distressing: the things we repress are things that disgust or frighten us. You may find Freud's insistent emphasis on sexuality distasteful, but don’t be too hasty in rejecting any plausible interpretation of a dream. You should never assume that you have got the correct interpretation if you have not seriously considered alternatives.

Sometimes, on waking up immediately after a dream, the conscious or partly conscious mind adds something to the dream. According to Freud, this is always a further attempt at concealing the true message of the dream -though sometimes it may amount to no more than an abrupt dismissal of the dream (as when we wake up and say, ‘Thank God! It was only a dream').

However, conscious or semi-conscious additions made as one is waking from a dream may actually be genuine interpretations of the dream - or at least genuine attempts to interpret the dream. These are not always to be dismissed as just another trick on the part of the censor to mislead you and steer you away from the true meaning of the dream. On the contrary, especially if you have got into the habit of examining your dreams, you may find that what is in your mind as you wake from a dream is, in fact, a correct interpretation. On the other hand, you must not let this serve an excuse for not asking yourself if there might be other -or additional - meanings in your dream.

In this connection it is worth noting that some dream experts actually recommend that, on going to bed, you should resolve to wake up immediately after a dream and, instead of writing down what you can remember, continue the dream in your conscious mind, working out various possible sequels to the plot, or filling it out with further detail.

There's a lot to be said for this technique, but, if you try it, beware of the danger of letting your mind wander. Otherwise, you might find that you have forgotten the dream you started from. This technique can be a subtle trap for those who are too lazy to get up and write their dreams down on paper.

Freud’s techniques of dream interpretation

Freud did not advise people to write down their dreams. In fact, he advised them not to write them down, but instead to tell them to a psychoanalyst (that is, a psychotherapist of the Freudian school).

Freud's technique of dream interpretation is based on what he called 'association'. By this he meant that you should take each item of a dream in turn - each person or object or scene or event or name or colour, or whatever - and tell your analyst what you associate with it. For example, if the dream item is a whale, you must say the first thing that comes into your mind when you think of a whale. Let us suppose the first thing you associate with a whale is the ocean, or deep water. Then you must say the first thing that comes into your head when you think of the ocean or deep water. And so on.

Using the method of association you will eventually, said Freud, reach something that 'rings a bell'. The 'bell' may be an alarm bell - you may uncover something that terrifies you, some emotion or emotionally charged event from your past that frightened you at the time and therefore caused you to suppress or repress it. That is why Freud said that the more you resist expressing a particular association, the more likely it is that the association points to something in your unconscious that you need to face up to. And that would be the purpose of your dream.

This method of association is certainly to be recommended. Even if you are not consulting a psychotherapist, the method can still be effective and successful - so long as you are honest and determined.

The materials and sources of dreams

According to Freud, the various items of a dream - the persons, objects, scenes, events, names and so on - usually come from your recent waking-life experiences, and mainly from the events of the preceding day.

It is all right as far as it goes: many dreams do get their materials from the dreamer's recent experiences, and nearly all children's dreams are a reliving of the day’s happenings, but many dreams contain items from the dreamer's very remote experience, and occasionally dream items may even come from outside the dreamer's experience.

In any case, even where the materials of a dream come from your very recent experience, the source of the dream may lie in your remote past.

Indeed, Freud claimed that nearly all mental conflicts, and therefore the sources of the dreams that give expression to such conflicts, can be traced back to early childhood. Freud's heavy emphasis on the first five years of life as the breeding ground for the vast majority of the neurotic anxieties that plague us as adults has been rejected by many of Freud's followers - the so-called 'neo-Freudians' - as well as by non-Freudian psychologists. What these people say is that the original cause of a mental disorder is just as likely to be found in painful and frightening experiences in adult life. In other words, they object to Freud's exclusive emphasis on early childhood. Some neuroses may have childhood causes, but we should also be prepared to look for other possible causes, such as cultural factors (social or religious taboos, for example) that come to bear on people during and after adolescence, or personal experiences during or after adolescence.

Some psychotherapists advise their patients not to bother about the past at all, to forget the past and live only in the present. Our hang-ups, they argue, originate in our emotional reactions to events in the past. Consequently, as long as we allow ourselves to be tied to the past - always harking back to this or that painful episode, this or that injustice suffered by us, or this or that guilt-producing thing we did ten or twenty or thirty years ago - we are letting our neuroses tighten their hold on us. The only way to get free of our anxieties and depressions and pent-up anger or guilt - and all the other things that make our life unhappy and unprofitable - is to liberate ourselves from the past, by refusing to live anywhere except in the present moment.

Careful and constant attention to the sort of symbols that crop up in your dreams, combined with honest self-appraisal, will usually guide you along the path that is most appropriate for you. Keep an open mind about the actual date of birth of whatever mental trouble your dreams are bringing to your attention. By all means search for the experience that first prompted you to repress this or that emotion, and your dreams may well assist you in this search for the starting-point. However, when you have finally succeeded in identifying and facing up to that experience, what you then have to do is to dissolve it, let go of it. Dwelling on it only reinforces its hold on you. Undissolved fear or anger starts off as a fog that obscures and darkens our view of reality; it finishes up as an encasing and asphyxiating block of concrete.

Once identified, the original cause of your trouble will be seen to be not nearly so bad as you thought. For example, you will realize that that thing you did in your teens which has ever since filled you with guilt feelings and self-hatred, was not so bad after all - or, no matter how bad it was, it was understandable and inevitable in the circumstances. The same applies to that anger that you repressed long ago but has ever since been seething under the surface and perhaps sometimes breaking through the surface in violent outbursts, usually on the most inappropriate occasions and directed against innocent victims. By all means track that anger down to the moment when you first felt it and, being frightened or 'morally offended’ by it, repressed it. But you will invariably find that the anger begins to dissolve once you look dispassionately and objectively at its cause and you are able to acknowledge that no one was really to blame - because everyone involved (including you) was only doing his or her best.

Freud tells us that a neurosis that has its first cause in early childhood may nevertheless remain dormant until some adult experience triggers it off. It is rather like a gun, which may remain loaded and even cocked for a long time before it is actually fired. To that we may add, once an experience has triggered off the irrational tear or guilt-feeling or anger, there is a tendency for further experiences to trigger it off again, until eventually almost any experience can set it off. In this way a neurosis becomes more and more reinforced.

A neurosis is, according to Freud, an inappropriate, distorted and unsatisfactory way of expressing a desire or emotion that you have repressed. Dreams are one form of such distorted, disguised expression. Paying attention to your dreams, therefore, means paying attention to any repressed desires or emotions you may have. It is therefore a therapy, a way of healing yourself, in which the cure consists in first facing and then throwing away your past.

Defence mechanisms

A word about what Freud called ‘defence mechanisms' may be helpful to you in your efforts to achieve the self-scrutiny that is fundamental to correct and fruitful dream interpretation.

We have seen that, according to Freud, some degree of tension is inevitable between what society requires of us and what our instinctive nature demands in the way of self-gratification. Remember that, according to Freud, if the ego is not in control, then either the id will destroy or damage the psyche, or a neurosis will come about as a result of the super-ego refusing to allow the id adequate satisfaction. In its endeavours to maintain inner harmony and reduce the tension between the conflicting demands of society (super-ego) and instinct (id), the ego sometimes resorts to shortterm solutions which in the long run are far from satisfactory. These are the so-called ‘ego-defences’ or ‘defence mechanisms'. Here is a list of them:

1. Repression. This means expelling from consciousness any natural desire that offends your super-ego, which is that sense of right and wrong that you have picked up from parents and, later, from society at large and which you have then internalized ('introjected') as 'conscience'. The unsatisfactory nature of this solution lies in the fact that repressed desires do not disappear: they remain active in the unconscious layers of the mind and, since they are denied even a controlled and regulated expression, they may at any moment explode in uncontrolled and even violent forms of expression.

2. Regression. Adults sometimes behave like children: for example, stamping and screaming as a means of getting their own way; or wives threatening, in response to a minor marital dispute, to go home to mother. As children they may have succeeded by such means in getting what they wanted; but that sort of behaviour in adults suggests immaturity, a refusal to grow up and confront life's problems and assume responsibility for one’s life. Regression is often triggered by some frustration in an adult's sexual life, but any other kind of frustration in a situation or a relationship may have the same effect.

3. Projection. This means treating as external what is really internal. For example, we all tend to disown our faults and see them instead in other people; we accuse others of doing what we ourselves have done or would like to do. An adolescent girl's complaint that boys are always ogling her may just be a piece of (unconscious) wishful thinking. In other words, she may be projecting on to other people a desire she refuses to acknowledge in herself (because some experience has caused her to repress it). Similarly, 'He's arrogant' may really mean 'I feel inferior'.

Projection may result in the scapegoat syndrome, where either the individual or society as a whole puts the blame for all misfortunes on someone else, refusing to look inside for the causes.

4. Rationalization. This means inventing excuses for yourself. For example, a lazy student may come up with the pseudo-justification 'Too much reading is bad for the eyes'.

5. Compensation. This takes place where the natural outlet for an instinctive drive is replaced by some less direct means of expression. For instance, someone who is physically unattractive or who feels unattractive may become a workaholic; for a childless couple a pet dog may be a compensation; over-eating or smoking may be a way of trying to compensate for a frustrated desire for love.

6. Sublimation. This is similar to compensation, but the word is usually used where the substituted outlet for an instinctive drive is a somewhat sophisticated or elevated one.

7. Displacement. This is scarcely distinguishable from compensation. Freud gives rather surreal examples: a person's desire to devour (destroy?) his or her parents may be expressed in eating meat; if the desire has been repressed it may express itself in vegetarianism. Both are cases of displacement. (Incidentally, this would seem to be one of those all too frequent instances in Freud's theorizings of 'Heads I win, tails you lose': since everyone is either a meat-eater or a vegetarian, it would appear that everyone must have an unconscious desire to devour his or her parents. In practice, no self-respecting psychoanalyst would base a diagnosis simply on meat-eating or vegetarianism. If, however, you were a fanatical meat-eater or a fanatical vegetarian, a psychoanalyst might see it as pointing the way to a diagnosis, particularly if there were other characteristics pointing in the same direction.)

8. Identification. This word has become a part of our everyday vocabulary. Identifying with a hero - pop star, film star, footballer or whatever - is a well-known phenomenon. To be identification, however, and not just hero-worship, it must include seeing oneself as the admired person, adopting his or her dress-style, hairstyle, and attitudes and values. Children sometimes imitate their parents as a means of getting what they want, so identification may in some cases be a form of regression.

9. Reaction-formation. This is an attempt to redress the balance in the psyche, but with a vengeance! It is a heavy-handed over-compensation. If a particular instinctive drive produces anxiety, the ego may concentrate on (over-) developing its opposite.

For example, Freud came to believe that there were just two basic and opposed instinctive drives - the life-instinct (which he also called ‘Eros’) and the death-instinct ('Thanatos').

10. Symptoms. Even physical symptoms may be seen as a kind of defence mechanism. Like most dreams, they can be disguised expressions of a repressed desire: for example, a paralysed arm or leg may express a soldier's repressed desire to get away from the front line. In other words, symptoms are attempts to prevent a repressed desire from causing a painful and intolerable disturbance in the psyche.

11. Neuroses and psychoses. May also be seen as defence mechanisms. Freud describes a neurosis as an unstable, precarious attempt to satisfy an instinctive drive or desire that has been inhibited or repressed. For example, a phobia (irrational fear) about knives may conceal deep-seated destructive wishes, for which it provides a substitute obsession.

Further, Freud declares that every neurosis represents a withdrawal from the real world into a world of fantasy. This withdrawal is accomplished fully in a psychosis, which is simply a severe form of neurosis in which the person loses the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. The withdrawal is from a situation or relationship which is felt to be both intolerable and unavoidable: for instance, a woman who is pressed - by parents or circumstances - into a marriage for which she feels unready may (unconsciously) fall into a neurosis as a way of escape.

On using Freud

Take from Freud whatever you find useful for throwing light on your dreams. Always be on the look-out for repressed wishes, especially repressed hostile wishes towards parents, partners, brothers or sisters. On the other hand, do not suppose that all your dreams contain disguised wishes. Some dreams express anxiety, others give warnings, or offer solutions to problems; some may reveal deep untapped resources of your personality. In fact, disguise (as distinct from symbolism) is much less common in dreams than Freud supposed. Some dreams are straightforward representations of recent events (for example, an encounter with your boss, or your father), sometimes with the purpose of urging you to give your conscious attention to the relationship and its problems and tensions; other dreams express some hidden desire without any disguise at all.