We often dream about what we’ve been doing and who we’ve been with, so it should come as little surprise to discover many psychotherapists dream about their clients. In fact a new study reports that nearly 70 per cent of thirteen participating therapists said that they’d had such dreams.
Psychologist Clara Hill and her colleagues asked the 13 student psychotherapists to keep dream journals for the duration of the time they worked at a community clinic – either one or two years. The number of dreams recorded in the journals ranged from 6 to 150 per year, and the proportion that were about clients ranged from 0 to 0.19 (average 0.06). Also, at the end of a period of therapy with a client they’d dreamed about, the therapists took part in an interview with the researchers about their dream experiences and what they’d gained from them.
The student therapists described their dreams about clients as disturbing and directly related to the therapy, often depicting the struggles involved. “Dreams appeared to function as a means for therapists to process difficulties they were experiencing in the therapy with these clients,” the researchers said.
Although unpleasant, the dreams about clients appeared to be beneficial. Therapists described how the dreams of clients led to useful insights. To paraphrase one example, a female therapist dreamt of being in a circus and her client appearing on the back of an elephant, and remaining in the middle of the ring even as the other riders and their elephants left. The therapist said her client looked liked a mannequin and just sat their not interacting with the audience. The dream led the therapist to think about her client’s depression and the possibility she might have been forcing happiness and optimism on her. It also made the therapist realise that she cared for her client, that her client was willing to try new things, but that she (the therapist) needed to adjust her pacing and tone.
“In this rich qualitative examination of these therapists’ dreams, then, we learn that such dreams, though clearly distressing … nevertheless yielded helpful lessons that therapists then effectively applied to their continued clinical work,” said Hill and her colleagues.
There was little evidence that therapists discussed their dreams of clients with their supervisors. Given the apparent insights derived from client dreams, the researchers suggested that therapy training programmes incorporate more focus on working with dreams in supervision. They also suggested expanding this line of research to see whether therapists using other approaches (e.g. CBT, psychoanalysis) also dream of their clients, and whether they too find it beneficial.
The researchers acknowledged some limitations of their study including the small sample size and the fact that keeping dream journals may have encouraged a greater than usual focus on dreams among the participating therapists. However, the researchers didn’t show any scepticism towards the therapists’ claims that their dreams had been beneficial for therapy. Readers of a more scientific persuasion will no doubt demand more rigorous evidence before believing this is really true.
Hill CE, Knox S, Crook-Lyon RE, Hess SA, Miles J, Spangler PT, and Pudasaini S (2014). Dreaming of you: Client and therapist dreams about each other during psychodynamic psychotherapy. Psychotherapy research : journal of the Society for Psychotherapy Research PMID: 24387006
When therapists have the hots for their clients