Interpreting Dreams Through Art

Dreams can tell you a lot about what is going on in your unconscious mind. But how can you decipher what they mean? One way I interpret dreams is to draw or paint an aspect of it that dominates my thoughts (below). Another way is to simply start using colors that represent feelings the dream evokes and let them take their own shape or form, unguided by conscious thought (at right).

By engaging in a creative activity (creative writing, painting, drawing, sculpture, creative dance, creative drama, and musical improvisation), it is possible to gain direct access to feelings which can uncover hidden messages within dreams. Creativity allows us to bypass left brain analysis and the defence mechanism of intellectualisation (employed to protect us from feeling the pain of a past event) to reveal what the dream is saying. This is very valuable when we are stuck at a crossroad in life, have an important decision to make, need to become aware of taking a wrong path or, to identify the obstacles in our path that stop us from moving forward.

In a dream I had in 2003, I was extremely angry at my father for not coming to any of my graduation ceremonies – three in all. I didn’t know why I should have been angry as I only attended one of them myself. In the dream I angrily listed all my father’s failings while anger continuously bubbled to the surface.

To interpret this dream, it was important to put it into the context of what was currently happening in my life. I was studying for a Maters Degree in Art Therapy and was concerned about the bullying way some of the lecturers were treating us, which was causing me to become creatively shut down. Simultaneously, we did a creative intervention exercise that exposed my father’s violence in my family and how it impacted us individually. My anger over the lecturers’ bullying triggered the unresolved anger towards my father, which came out in the dream. I decided to explore this anger to uncover what was hiding within it, selected some oil pastels and began drawing, while at the same time writing down thoughts that popped into my mind.

Aqua: The anger is my talents wanting to erupt! I’m holding them in. Why?
Because I am afraid of their intensity and where they will take me.
Where could they take you?
To freedom…to freedom from pain and torment. To freedom from having to keep secrets. My talents lie in a neglected state; they want to burst through my self-imposed barriers.

Brown: The jigsaw puzzle of the past buried my talents. I am angry at Dad for making me the family’s secret bearer. This resonates…touches the core of my being. The burden of carrying so many secrets weighs heavily upon me…freezes my talents in their embryonic state. A weary tiredness descends upon me like a fog. Sleep wants to come to shut out all the memories.

Red: A kiss woke up the memories – the long, passionate kiss of a man who wanted to forget. It was sustenance for his starving soul. But it woke me up. My father had this hunger.

Now that I am awake, what will I find that I have hidden away?

Once upon a time my father brought home a boy from an orphanage…who was really my brother…

I am so tired I want to sleep, but something wants me to wake up…
My book wants to be written.
There will be peace when it all comes out. I am the family story teller. I need to tell this story otherwise it will be such a waste of a life (black tears in the drawing).

I wasn’t allowed to be angry, so I buried my talents by turning the anger in upon myself.

And that is what caused my depression.

I then blue-tacked the drawing on the wall and stared at it. It prompted me to write…

My Buried Talents

It glows in the light…
the red and aqua.


But now there is a powerful flow
of creativity that wants to surface.

A crack has appeared between oppressive forces.
Nothing stands in its way.

It flows into the light…
the warmth of the sun,
of joy and peace and contentment.

I am on a yacht lazily drifting in the tide,
The sun soaking deep into my skin
To nourish my heart and soul…

I am so grateful for this gift.
It gives me the will to carry on…
To get up from the warm teak deck where I have been lying
And dive into the depths of the aquamarine water once more.

I am drawn to dive deep where long-forgotten treasures lie
Covered in barnacles in a usually silent world.

But I can hear the whale singing the same song over and over again
Like a chant.
It is looking for a mate…
While I want to know what lies buried in my treasure chest.

It won’t open and I surface
Take another breath and dive again.
I scape off the barnacles and prise open the lid.

Inside is a string of pearls…

According to Ann Ree Colton (1973, Watch Your Dreams) a pearl “is a jewel made through irritation between water and sand playing upon the life mass in an oyster. In human life the pearl represents victory over self-made tribulation.” By finding a string of pearls in my treasure chest, I saw that the anger I carried inside me for years acted as an irritation in my life.

Wayne Dyer, in Your Erroneous Zones, defines anger as:

…an immobilizing reaction experienced when any expectancy is not met. It takes the form of rage, hostility, striking out at someone or even glowering silence… Anger is immobilizing and it is usually the result of wishing the world and the people in it were different.

It was a shock to me when I finally realised that I repeatedly attracted men into my life who were like my father, and because they were emotionally distant and unreachable, I became increasingly angry at men. Yet anger can also propel us into action to change ourselves rather than persisting with the impossible task of trying to change others or an unhappy situation. Often I have witnessed how children can become very angry whenever they perceive something as “not fair,” and as their teacher I would tell them that “life isn’t fair,” and we can’t expect it to play according to our rules and perceptions. Instead of feeling the frustration of being powerless, I suggested that they could regain their power instantly by learning something from the “not fair” experience, and bypass an angry response altogether.

Over the years since 2003, this is what I learned about my anger towards my father, and how I changed myself:

  • Wanting to know why my father acted in abusive ways led me to investigate what happened to him as a child, for research shows that when a parent was abused as a child, they are also likely to abuse their own children. I learned that my father’s mother was often angry at her husband and dumped her anger and hostility onto my father as a boy. This is emotional abuse, which my father repeated by dumping his anger towards my mother onto me.
  • I remembered that when I was growing up, children were not allowed to get angry over what adults did to them – even when it was clearly abusive or traumatising – causing them to stuff their anger. Not only did the emotional abuse cause my father to shut down his feelings, but so did the new child-rearing practices of his day. These included four-hourly feeds and not attending to a baby’s crying in-between feeds,  and J.B. Watson’s child-rearing advice to “never hug and kiss” your child and “never let them sit in your lap.” My father was so emotionally distant I could not connect with him as a person, but only with his pain.
  • I couldn’t undo what my father did, but I could learn to treat my own children and my students in loving ways, and allow them tell me when they felt angry over something and be an advocate for them. I discovered that this could completely turn around the worst class in schools, which I often had the daunting task of teaching.
  • I changed my parenting and teaching practices each time I became more aware of the angry child within me and listened to what she wanted to say. In this way I learned to love myself and was better able to listen to children, connect with them, and identify their needs.
  • I began a lifelong study of psychology so that I could understand and write about the developmental needs of children and how important it is for them to have a secure attachment bond with their primary caregiver, identify the damage done through faulty child-rearing practices and what we need to do to correct them, and help others as well as myself recover from childhood trauma and abuse.

It has been a long journey since I dreamed that dream in 2003, during which time I was finally able to feel compassion for my father and forgive him. By taking action to identify the underlying causes of my anger, I was able to identify other painful experiences and learn from them. My reward was not only peace of mind and a feeling gentleness in my heart, but also the gift of wisdom: the string of pearls.