Soul Metaphors: Contents

Chapter 11

Chapter 13


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Chapter 12: Dream Interpretation: Adler's Way

            In more than one place in his writings, Adler elaborates upon the differences between the approach to dream interpretation in Individual Psychology and the approach in older methods such as in the Bible or in ancient Greek culture. Many traditional approaches, Adler notes, tend to view dreams as prophecies. He also points out that his theory contrasts sharply with Freudian psychoanalysis where dreams, the product of the unconscious, can represent impulses contrary to the will of the conscious mind. For Adler, even in dreaming, the individual remains a unity.

Even in dreaming, the individual remains a unity; dreams are also expressions of the lifestyle.

            Dreams, in fact, play a role far subordinate to early memories in Adlerian lifestyle interpretation. The interpretation of dreams is not necessary for the interpretation of the lifestyle – but it can, at times, help to confirm patterns revealed in early memories. It therefore seems worthwhile to provide a brief overview of Adler’s theory of dreams here.
            “It has long been maintained,” writes Adler, “that one could draw conclusions concerning the personality-as-a-whole from the dreams of an individual…. This is saying a little too much.” Adler maintains that interpretations of a person’s character may only be made by finding parallels in more than one psychic phenomenon: “We therefore will draw conclusions concerning his character from the dreams of an individual only when we can find additional supporting evidence in other characteristics.”[1]
            In all aspects of Individual Psychology, the human being is a unity. Thus, her dreams, just like her waking hopes, ambitions, fears, thoughts and feelings reflect the uniqueness of her lifestyle: “Everyone has the same underlying goals in their dreams as they have in waking life, as if they have to strive for superiority in their dreams as well. The dream must therefore be a product of their life style, and be consistent with it.”[2]
            For Adler, dreams are psychic phenomena that serve to capture and amplify the feelings of the lifestyle. Recall that in Chapter 2 we discussed Adler’s interpretation of the man who dreamt repeatedly of catastrophe: “The world is coming to an end, and I wake up in the middle of the night to find the sky bright red with fire. The stars all fall, and we collide with another planet. But just before the crash I wake up.” This same individual also had a catastrophic first memory of falling out of a pram. From these two examples of the man’s psychic behavior, Adler concludes that his lifestyle is constantly to expect impending disaster.[3]

Dreams capture and amplify the feelings of the lifestyle.

            Adler observes:

The following consideration immediately helps to clarify the purpose of dreams. We dream, and in the morning we generally forget our dreams. Nothing seems to be left. But is this true? Is nothing left at all? Something remains: We are left with the feelings our dreams aroused. None of the pictures persist, no understanding of the dream is left – only the lingering feelings. The purpose of dreams must lie in the feelings they arouse. The dream is only the means, the instrument, to stir up the feelings. The aim of the dream is the feelings it leaves behind.[4]

            In another example of a dream reinforcing the feelings evoked by a lifestyle, Adler discusses a woman whose first memory was of having a wooden spoon that floated away. As an adult, the woman constantly worried that something could go wrong. Similarly, she dreamed about her husband forgetting about her wedding anniversary; her husband had never forgotten, yet the woman worried that he could forget, that something could go wrong. The same woman had dream of climbing up the stairs, and the stairs became too steep and she fainted; again, echoing anticipation that something could go wrong.[5]

A person who believes that life is full of catastrophes will also dream of catastrophe.

            Just as dreams mirror early memories, so too do they mirror the feelings evoked by one’s place in the family constellation. In his work, Adler observed that older children often dreamt of falling: “They are on top, but are not sure that they can keep their superiority.” The older child has weathered the experience of “dethronement,” of being usurped by a younger sibling, and her dreams reinforce this feeling. “Second children,” writes Adler, “often picture themselves running after trains and riding in bicycle races. Sometimes this hurry in his dreams is sufficient by itself to allow us to guess that the individual is a second child.” The younger child, who constantly strives to keep up with older siblings in waking life, also experiences this striving in his sleep.[6]
            Chapter 18, which presents a series of questions for conducting a full lifestyle interview, includes an interview question on dreams. When interpreting the lifestyle, it is sometimes useful to ask if a person has any recurring dreams or if he has experienced a particularly vivid dream. Such a dream should not be interpreted as a prophecy or as a wish fulfillment. Indeed, dreams should not be interpreted on their own at all. Instead, you, as an interpreter, should look for ways that a dream reinforces the thoughts and feelings of a person’s earliest memories.

1. Understanding Human Nature, 92.
2. What Life Could Mean to You, 79.
3. What Life Could Mean to You, 15.
4. What Life Could Mean to You, 79.
5. Understanding Human Nature, 93-94.
6. Individual Psychology, 379.


(Copyright Ellen Alderton, www.WeLoveAdler.net)