If this were my dream; Projective Dream Analysis

The late Dr. Montague Ullman’s approach, commonly referred to as the “If this were my dream” method is what I want to discuss in this article. Dr. Ullman, like all of us, was faced with a dilemma when working with a group of people doing dreamwork, a situation he found himself in constantly. His wonderful approach is today, a standard practice in respecting the boundaries of the dreamer, making sure the dreamer’s meaning of their dream remains theirs to decide!

Before explaining Ullmans’ method, let me preface by saying this: Our unconscious mind is filled with every single memory and association we have had since we are born. It’s like what the computer generation would call the motherboard. Those of us over fifty call it a filing cabinet! When you want to say something to yourself, the filing cabinet opens and you choose a metaphor, symbol, mood or location all based on your own personal life experiences.

So in other words, a cat in my dictionary means something/someone I am not comfortable with. In my personal experience and associations, a cat also means “aloof” and “independent”. So if I dream about a cat I’d be asking myself who in my life this week is behaving in a particularly aloof and independent way and I am feeling uncomfortable with them… Or maybe the cat in my dream is the solution to my current situation and it is me who needs to be behaving in a more aloof and independent way.

If my daughter Emma-Jo is dreaming about a cat she’d be asking herself who in her life this week does she think she loves but is really not good for her. That’s because Emma-Jo loves cats but can’t stay around them because she’s allergic.

Our associations are as unique to each of us as our fingerprint. It is why we can’t say for sure what someone else’s dream is about. Yet there is nothing like the rich experience of a dreamer hearing other people’s projections about their dream’s meaning.

That’s where Dr. Ullman comes in.

I am writing this article because a group setting leads to greater opportunities for dream analysis. As long as the members of the group remember that they can say only under what circumstances they would have a dream such as the one the dreamer has described. The larger the number of people in the group the greater the wealth of opportunity for the dreamer. 

While the examples I am giving you here, for the purpose of illustration, take place in a room with group members sitting in a circle, the same principle is best also applied to giving feedback or “comments” to people who journal their dreams on the Internet. That said, here’s how it happens when it’s in person.

Montague Ullman’s Basic Method 

The dreamer tells his or her dream. After the other members have a chance to ask some “clarifying questions”, the group takes turns beginning their sentences with, “If this were my dream it would be about…” When you are hearing other people’s projections and ideas about your dream, it’s important to remember that no one knows what your dream means except you. You must allow yourself to feel comfortable enough to say what fits for you and what does not. The dreamer always has the closest access to his or her unconscious and of course, what he or she is trying to say using the very personal metaphors of the dream. It would be very convenient if we could read each others’ minds, but unfortunately, we cannot!

Clarifying Questions 

An example of a clarifying question to the dreamer is if there is a woman in the dream, people may inquire if the dreamer knows her, and in what capacity. Or if the dream takes place in a house they can ask whose house it is.“If this were my dream” 

The next step is for people to reveal under what circumstance they might have a dream like the one described. They begin their sentences with “If this were my dream”. All the while, the dreamer is listening to other people’s projections about his or her dream.

Finally, we go back to the dreamer himself to discover what his or her dream was really about. What connections did they make from hearing everyone’s projections? The dreamer has the opportunity of hearing the dream from different perspectives, and all the while, the dreamer’s uniqueness has been respected.

I have participated both as a leader and as a group member in this kind of group work, and each and every time it has been a very rich experience for me. Hearing other people’s projections, I always learn something new about myself and pick up another way of looking at a situation.

Example: Jennifer’s Splinter Dream

Jennifer dreams she feels a splinter in her foot. She is in her panties, and sits down on the edge of her bed to try to find and squeeze the splinter out. She feels it and squeezes. Not only does a piece of glass come out, but behind it, she describes, “Bugs fell out in a pile on the bed!” She is backing away frightened of the bugs.

“If this were my dream” 

After hearing Jennifer’s dream, one person shares, “If this were my dream, it would be about something that is hurting me. Something I can’t quite put my finger on, but I am sure I feel bad. That’s what comes to my mind when I think about a splinter. You can’t see it, but you know it’s there.”

Another listener shares, “If this were my dream, it would be that I got hurt unexpectedly as a result of something else. I say this because usually I get a splinter while in the process of trying to do something else. Like I’ll lift a piece of wood to carry it and suddenly the hurt. I have a splinter.

Using play on words and puns as a starting point, a third shares, “If this were my dream, it would be about something that’s “bugging” me!”

A fourth shares, “Yes! If it were my dream I may have been letting the things that “bug” me ‘pile up’!”

Hearing these perceptions, we saw Jennifer, a producer, click on her dream being about how she felt insulted and “bugged” by the fact that her husband had not thanked her at a business meeting they had the night she had the splinter dream. More importantly, the fact that the bugs were “piled up” as they fell out of the splinter in her foot mirrored how it was not the first time that she has felt hurt by her husband in this way.

As Jennifer explained, she linked the fact that in the dream she squeezed the splinter out while sitting on her bed, already undressed, because in fact, it was when they got into bed that night, she had expressed these feelings that had been “piling up” to her husband.

The solution/learning/strength to the dream 

The solution or learning in Jennifer’s dream has to do with her saying she awoke frightened of the bugs, and more importantly, “backing away” from them. Now that Jennifer had successfully defined that the bugs were a metaphor for her feelings, the lesson of the dream was to call her attention not to feel so afraid of them and maybe as a result not allow the things that “bug” her to pile up so high!

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