The Art of Dream Interpretation – Carl Jung’s Original Method

Carl Jung’s method of dream interpretation is where his ideas truly come to life however, to fully grasp this method, it’s important to have the basics covered. So I suggest reading at least this introduction on the shadow integration process before continuing.

Shall we begin with a quote from Marie Von Franz:

“The dream one gets at night is always like a letter from the same inner center, from the Self. Every dream is that, and the writer of the letter is always the same: the Self, the one thing, the quid”(Marie Von Franz – Alchemical Active Imagination, p. 67).

Learning how to trust and follow these authentic letters is one of the things that had the most impact on my psychological development. Whenever I’m analyzing my dreams I feel like I’m tapping into this eternal source of knowledge that holds the key to the Self. We must approach it with reverence and learn its symbolic language in order to establish a dialogue with the depths of our being. This profound experience has brought me an immense degree of confidence that I’m on the right path and is constantly teaching me how to solve my own problems. Sometimes I get kicked in the face, while other times I’m reminded of my true capabilities.

The Prospective Nature of the Psyche

“As most people know, one of the basic principles of analytical psychology is that dream-images are to be understood symbolically; that is to say, one must not take them literally, but must surmise a hidden meaning in them” (C. G. Jung – V5 – §4).

Learning to interpret dreams feels like we’re learning a new idiom, in this case, the symbolic and metaphorical language of the unconscious. It’s important to understand that the unconscious isn’t bound to moral standards and the laws of time and continuity as our conscious mind is, that’s why when analyzing its material, we have to hold opposing perspectives. Jung establishes that “When a psychological fact has to be explained, it must be remembered that psychological data necessitate a twofold point of view, namely that of causality and that of finality” (C. G. Jung – V8 – §456).

In that sense, Jung proposes that we must hold the paradox why and what for?: “In psychological matters, the question “Why does it happen?” is not necessarily more productive of results than the other question “To what purpose does it happen?” (C. G. Jung – V8 – §530). This means that we can’t interpret unconscious images solely based on causality, that is, seeking to understand the origin and the story behind it, this is only half of the equation, and often gets us stuck in the past, and promotes a regressive attitude.

By working with these two points of view, Jung was able to incorporate both the Freudian and Adlerian perspectives into his psychology, as the basis of the individuation process also lies in the prospective quality of the psyche, that is, there’s a sense of purpose and a goal to be achieved by the unconscious and the Self. In a sense, the psyche creates its own future. “The causal standpoint merely inquires how this psyche has become what it is, as we see it today. The constructive standpoint asks how, out of this present psyche, a bridge can be built into its own future” (C. G. Jung – V3 – §399).

Working with this paradox is one of the things that make Jungian Psychology so unique, and putting this into practice can be really simple. I had a patient who had many dreams revolving around the military and every time he had a visceral reaction of disgust. This is not a surprise, since his father was absent and worked for the police force. Simply put, they didn’t get along well and he was carrying many wounds from this relationship. Now, interpreting the military symbol through the reductive perspective invariably takes us to his father complex, to his past all the stories and memories associated with it. This is an important step to understand how our internal dynamics were formed and how they’re operating, but it isn’t enough.

At that moment, he was still living with his mother, was struggling to build discipline, and truly commit to finding his own path in life. He was hesitating to become an adult and the qualities that would help him move further were all present in the military symbol. There’s an interesting thing that happens, when we can only appreciate something negatively we also can’t incorporate the positive traits of it. The military can be seen as hostile, violent, and tyrannical. However, in his case, it was compensating for his lack of attitude, discipline, and seeking to become independent.

As the months passed, his perspective about the military symbol started to shift and with it, he also experienced changes in the real world. The prospective portion of the military symbol was propelling him to grow and overcome his father complex, it anticipated a development of his personality. After two years of working together, he had become independent, disciplined, and committed to his craft. Before, he could only appreciate authority in a negative way and this also prevented him from occupying any leadership position. Once he integrated this military symbol by transforming his conscious attitude, he was able conquer authority over his own life, he was finally able to bear more responsibility and become a leader in his work. At last, he overcame his father complex and became independent.

The Mechanics of Dream Interpretation

Now let’s move to the mechanics of dream interpretation. One thing that we must always have in mind is that the relationship between conscious and unconscious is compensatory/ complementary. Also, the conscious attitude acts by selecting – directing – excluding, and everything that is incompatible with conscious values will either be repressed or simply remain unconscious. These incompatible contents are precisely what will appear in dreams, as everything that was forsaken has the mission to balance our conscious attitude. If this process isn’t clear to you, I strongly recommend that you pause and go back to the first chapter on psychodynamics.

Dream Interpretation Phases

“[…] The dream is a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious” (C. G. Jung – V8 – §505).

Now it’s time to go through the process of dream interpretation. In this light, I brought a very simple structure Jung proposes in Volume 8 to analyze dreams:

  • Dream phases:Introduction (exposition) – Peripetia – Lysis (culmination or ending).
  • Important elements: Local and Dramatis Personae.

When interpreting dreams, we have to pay close attention to the story that’s being told. It helps to envision them as if we were watching a play unfolding in our minds. It’s crucial to understand the narrative and have a clear storyline. Understanding the right sequence of events and the exact steps each character takes is key. It’s interesting to write dreams as if they were separated by different acts, try to be as thorough as you can with your descriptions. Here, is important to remember that our psyche is structured around four different functions, so seek to engage your thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition when describing the scenes and characters (here’s an article on the psychological types).

The first act is the introduction, and we can pair it with describing the local where everything takes place. What is the first thing you remember? And how’s the environment of this dream? The second act is the peripetia, in other words, what actually happens in the dream. What adventures or misadventures you’re engaged in? The third and final act is the lysis. This is the most important one, as it will reveal what the dream is compensating for. In other words, in which direction the Self is trying to take us in order to establish the right balance again.

The First Step

Jung says that  “When we take up an obscure dream, our first task is not to understand and interpret but to establish the context with minute care. By this, I do not mean unlimited “free association” starting from any and every image in the dream, but a careful and conscious illumination of the interconnected associations objectively grouped around particular images” (C. G. Jung – V16.2 – §319). He continues by saying that “Free association will bring out all my complexes, but hardly ever the meaning of a dream. To understand the dream’s meaning I must stick as close as possible to the dream images“ (C. G. Jung – V16.2 – §320).

The first thing we ought to do is to gather our personal amplifications (aka associations), following a circumambulatory process. For instance, let’s say there’s an important sword in the dream. What do you think about this sword? What emotions or personal stories are associated with it? What is the material and the design? How do you perceive this sword in the dream? What is the particular meaning this sword has to you? We have to follow this process with every single image and character in the dream. That’s why seeking recipes and meanings on Google is nonsense. The true meaning always lies within and is unraveled by following this process.

Marie Von Franz on amplification:

“Making associations around a theme means plunging it back into the unconscious for a brief moment […] The main point is to focus especially on emotional qualities and sensitivity, not definitions. […] you need to really try to rescue the original richness of what that image conveys. That’s why we amplify, and that’s the right way to go. Amplifying means going back as far below the threshold as possible, and reliving those pervasive emotional ideas, sensations, and reactions we have about something”.

When we’re amplifying we have to be constantly looking at the dream images and seek to understand how they relate to one another. It’s imperative to be careful to not get sidetracked by unrelated stories or generic meanings. It’s only when we’re out of personal amplifications that we can start looking for more collective understandings, so as to enrich our interpretation, such as mythological and archetypal motives.

Jung also explores the notion of relatively fixed symbols, this means that certain images have the tendency to point to a particular meaning. For instance, the child tends to symbolize renewal, potential, possibilities, and the birth of something new. However, this is rather vague, even though the symbol of the child might bear this meaning, what’s important is to understand how this fits a particular situation. Saying that such a symbol means this or that is just a lazy interpretation, and that’s why dream analysis tends to have a bad reputation. Even though we have relatively fixed symbols, we have to uncover their meaning for a particular person and how they’re operating in their psyche.

Subjective x Objective Interpretation

The next step is figuring out if the images should be interpreted on the subjective level or the objective level. In other words, when we’re supposed to interpret the images as a subjective part of ourselves or a concrete relationship with the outer world. For instance, when we see our best friend in the dream, do I interpret it as a part of my personality? Or as my actual friend in real life? 

Well, Jung says that in about 90% of the cases, dreams should be interpreted on the subjective level, and that objective interpretations only become more frequent when someone is really advanced in their individuation process. However, sometimes we can have a mixed interpretation, this tends to happen when the character in the dream is close to the dreamer. In this situation, it’s important to uncover the projections that might be happening, and at the same time, find guidance in how to deal with said person. Archetypal dreams, or big dreams, are also rarer. When we’re confronted with images from the collective unconscious, we’ll need knowledge of mythological motives. But even though we’re dealing with collective and primordial images, it’s imperative to understand what role they’re playing in a particular individual. So, in a sense, the interpretation will also be individual.

The Inner Theater

For the majority of dreams, we should follow this:

“The whole dream-work is essentially subjective, and a dream is a theatre in which the dreamer is himself the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic. This simple truth forms the basis for a conception of the dream’s meaning which I have called interpretation on the subjective level. Such an interpretation, as the term implies, conceives all the figures in the dream as personified features of the dreamer’s own personality” (C. G. Jung – V8 – §509).

Continuing the “play” metaphor, in order to properly interpret a dream, we have to first understand its story. Right after, we have to gather our personal amplifications of every image and character in the dream. We must take these images with absolute seriousness and as parts of our personality.  These characters are also known as complexes, which are “The architects of dreams and every symptom” (C. G. Jung – V8 – §210). As we’ve already seen, complexes are the real puppet masters behind every neurotic symptom, misunderstandings in relationships, and repeating patterns.

During our sleep, we get to watch our own internal dynamics unfold before our eyes, where every character portrays our psychological tendencies. The way we react and the choices we make reveal how we’ve been dealing with or how we should’ve been dealing with the matters presented. As Jung says, dreams “Show the inner truth and reality of the patient as it really is: not as I conjecture it to be, and not as he would like it to be, but as it is” (C. G. Jung – V16.2 – §304).

In this light, dreams, through a symbolic language, will give us an objective view of ourselves and the situations we’re currently experiencing. As the unconscious contents are so contrary to our conscious values, there’s always the tendency to dismiss it, appreciate it only negatively, or even distort its message to fit our narratives. That’s why dream interpretation demands courage and humility to see the raw reality of who we are.


“If we want to interpret a dream correctly, we need a thorough knowledge of the conscious situation at that moment, because the dream contains its unconscious complement, that is, the material which the conscious situation has constellated in the unconscious. Without this knowledge, it is impossible to interpret a dream correctly, except by a lucky fluke” (C. G. Jung – V8 – §477).

Lastly, after we’ve gathered all the information we need, such as personal and objective amplifications, and the context has been established with minute care, it’s time to understand what is the dream compensating. Let’s remember that the relationship between conscious and unconscious is compensatory/ complementary.

Jung says that “The essence of the individuation process, which, according to all we know, lies at the base of psychological compensation” (C. G. Jung – V8 – §553). In this light, dreams are already a healing attempt and they’re constantly seeking to correct our conscious attitude. By attitude, we can also understand the way we’ve been going about life and how we’ve been treating our inner and outer life, this will always be the single most important piece of information for interpretation to take place.

The Psychodynamics of Dream Compensation

“From all this it should now be clear why I make it a heuristic rule, in interpreting a dream, to ask myself: What conscious attitude does it compensate? By so doing, I relate the dream as closely as possible to the conscious situation; indeed, I would even assert that without knowledge of the conscious situation, the dream can never be interpreted with any degree of certainty. Only in the light of this knowledge is it possible to make out whether the unconscious content carries a plus or a minus sign“ (C. G. Jung – V16.2 – §334).

It’s only after we have a thorough understanding of the conscious attitude that it’s possible to properly interpret a dream. We also have to work with the premise that we do have an optimum vital point. This happens when consciousness is at the perfect balance between the demands of the outer world (persona) and the demands of the inner world (individuation). Therefore, compensation means, equilibrating or substituting our conscious attitude, by comparing different data or points of view, so as to produce an adjustment or a rectification.

Finally, knowing that the relationship between the ego complex and the unconscious is compensatory/ complementary, we have three possibilities (C. G. Jung  – V8 – §546): 

  • If the conscious attitude to the life situation is in large degree one-sided, then the dream takes the opposite side.
  • If the conscious has a position fairly near the “middle,” the dream is satisfied with variations.
  • If the conscious attitude is “correct” (adequate), then the dream coincides with and emphasizes this tendency, though without forfeiting its peculiar autonomy.


To illustrate this, Jung gives us a very simple example in Volume 16.2. Pay close attention to how the interpretation changes depending on the conscious attitude. First, a young man dreams of a horse jumping over a ravine. His conscious attitude is always hesitant and he’s scared to pursue his own path in life, so the dream is telling him to be bold and take risks. After all, the first half of life is meant to seek expansion and strengthen the ego complex. Now, a man in his mid-50s has the exact same dream, but his conscious attitude was always courageous and he was able to conquer his life. This dream is showing him how he’s been acting and the origins of his neurosis, now it’s time to leave this youthful attitude behind. In the second half of life, energy must be directed to enrich his inner life.


“For dream-contents to be assimilated, it is of overriding importance that no real values of the conscious personality should be damaged, much less destroyed, otherwise there is no one left to do the assimilating. […] We must see to it that the values of the conscious personality remain intact, for unconscious compensation is only effective when it co-operates with an integral consciousness. Assimilation is never a question of “this or that,” but always of “this and that” (C. G. Jung – V16.2 – §338).

Interpreting dreams is always a challenge to our conscious attitude, and maintaining our ground can be difficult at times. But we always have to remember that dream analysis is a dialectical procedure between our conscious values and the perspective of the unconscious. Integrating the message of a dream requires a moral confrontation since the unconscious isn’t bound to any morals or the laws of time and continuity.

Many times the dream will show something completely exacerbated “to make a point” and we can’t blindly follow that and completely abandon our current values. We always have to find the middle ground and understand how these symbols fit into our lives. The Self only points in the right direction, but the conscious mind has to direct the process, plan, and make decisions.

General Guidelines

“Analysis consists of educating people to be able to hear their inner voice and to follow it with the help of dreams” (Marie Von Franz).

Dream interpretation is an art and only practice can make you good at it. The way I learned to interpret dreams was by first working with an analyst myself, devouring Jung’s collected works, and then interpreting countless dreams of my patients. Nowadays, I’m confident interpreting most of my dreams and they have become a valuable compass on my journey. But every now and then, I still have some dreams that get me absolutely puzzled for days and I have to seek help. After all, dealing with the unconscious is a lengthy and laborious process. Von Franz also used to say that trying to interpret our own dreams is like trying to see our own backs, as dreams always come from our blind spots and reveal what we don’t know. Rushing with interpretations is often a sign that we interpreted them through the lenses of our neurosis. That’s why a thorough understanding of our conscious attitude and psychological tendencies is imperative, otherwise, you’ll just remain with neurotic interpretations.

That said, I’ll leave a few extra tips for interpreting dreams:

  • Always interpret the characters subjectively first, as there’s a great chance you’re watching your own complexes.
  • Always interpret dreams in a positive and a negative light, be careful if you’re enamored with one perspective.
  • Always interpret dreams through a reductive and prospective perspective – “Why and what for?”.
  • In the beginning, don’t make any major decisions, rushing can be a sign of a neurotic interpretation.
  • Always remember that dreams come from your inferior function and interpreting it only with your main function will be a neurotic interpretation.

Lastly, Jung used to say that the only criteria for a dream being successfully interpreted was if it helped the patient move forward. In other words, if the interpretation unlocks new perspectives and a new attitude that can solve the matter at hand. Plus, a degree of certainty only comes after analyzing a series of dreams. 

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