John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology


A Dream's Worth

(January 1996)


A picture is worth a thousand words. You've heard it so many times that it sounds trite. But a picture really IS worth a thousand words. And if a dream is a very special kind of picture, how much is IT worth? Maybe more? What about very simple pictures and very simple dreams? No doubt they're worth a little bit less than complex, elaborate ones.

Or are they?

In my psychotherapy course one day, I presented my undergraduate students with these questions. "Here's a very simple dream from a psychotherapy client I worked with years ago. I won't tell you anything about the client. I'll just tell you his dream, and then lets see what we can discover about him by exploring it...... O.K? Here's the dream:"

"I was wearing a white shirt and a purple tie."


The students just stare at me, expecting more to come. "No," I explain, "that's it. That's the dream. Now let's start to explore it."

I then lead them through a group process of free associating to the dream (much like I describe on the Working and Playing with Dreams Page). "Just let your imagination go. Take every element of the dream and just let your mind wander on it. Whatever comes to mind. Don't censor anything, that's important. There is no right or wrong. It can be a fun, playful exercise - although the results sometimes may be serious and powerful. Freud thought that free association bypasses the defenses of rational, logical thinking and unlocks deeper links within the unconscious. It opens one up to fantasy, symbolism, and emotion - the very place from which dreams spring."

Here is a list of some of the associations the students come up with. For the purpose of this article I've organized them somewhat, whereas during the actual exercise the ideas surface in a much more freewheeling stream of consciousness:

white shirt purple tie

PURPLE .... royalty, bruises, choking, holding one's breath, grief, a combination of blue and pink, goes well with black, The Color of Purple

TIE .... formal attire, going to work, phallic symbol, tied up, being tied to something, chokes the neck, confining

PURPLE TIE .... unconventional, stands out, rebellious, showing off

WHITE .... clean, pure, unstained, "good," light

SHIRT .... the top part, covered up, tucked in, stuffed shirt, where are the pants?

WHITE SHIRT.... conventional, boring, going to work, going to church, corporate America

WHITE SHIRT AND PURPLE TIE.... unusual combination, contradictory combination, very unconventional, tie really stands out

DEPLETION?.... there's nobody else in the dream, it's so static, there's nothing happening, where are the feelings?


After we finish this free associating, I then describe the client to the class.

At the time Dan had the dream, he was 23 years old. I would describe him as a quiet, held-back person who was very confined (the tie) in how he talked, behaved, and felt towards others. Put bluntly, people found him rather boring to be with (white shirt). His emotional and interpersonal life were choked (the tie). He had almost no friends and felt little connection to his family (the tie again). Other than going to his tedious job (white shirt) as a low level technician for a computer company, essentially nothing was happening in his static, uneventful life (depletion).

Dan was also very limited in understanding anything but the most surface, top-level (shirt) characteristics of his personality. Although outwardly conventional in how he dressed and acted at his job (white shirt), secretly he felt rebellious against authority (purple tie on white shirt) and generally superior (purple) to most people. He liked to think of himself as a political activist who firmly believed in the rights of abused (purple) people and felt more tied to them than anyone else. Comparing outside to inside, he was a bit of a contradiction (white shirt on purple tie).

But none of these issues is what consciously drove him to therapy. What he most desperately needed to discuss and resolve was the fact that he was homosexual (purple tie). Yet he didn't know whether he wanted to come out of the closet or not (the tie). Part of him wanted to let everyone know, to even show off and parade the fact that he was gay (purple tie on white shirt), to escape the feeling that his identity was being restrained and choked (more tie). His rebellious, unconventional side liked that idea. He sometimes did indeed bravely experiment with revealing his gay identity by wearing a purple triangle, which to him symbolized being homosexual (a combination of pink and blue).

But another side of him (purple tie versus white shirt) was afraid to come out. He sometimes felt dirty, tainted, sick, for being gay. That part of him wanted to be somehow cleansed and redeemed (white shirt). Part of the problem was that sex in general was a very unpleasant issue for him. When he was young he had had surgery on his genitals. He still felt insecure and "bruised" (purple) down there. He was so conflicted about sex that I sometimes wondered if he had been sexually abused as a child (purple tie?, suffocating tie?).

A dream, even a simple one, is worth at least a thousand words. Freud thought that there was no limit to how much you could analyze a dream. You can always go further and further into the symbols, the links of associations, the memories that generate a dream. At some deep unconscious level, any dream fans out into the infinite horizon of emotion and thought that constitute the individual psyche... that even transcends the individual psyche and constitutes us all.