Now and again a client will bring in a dream that indicates significant progress in the treatment. I call these dreams “turning-point dreams.” These dreams are often so striking that the dreamer wakes up in the middle of the night and is struck by the vividness of the dream and still under the sway of the deep emotions that fueled the dream.

Such dreams contain material which, when interpreted, show that the client has come to a new place in his therapeutic development. Often they signal a shift in how the client sees some aspect of his life, one that is healthier than before.

Progress in psychodynamic therapy is sometimes hard to gauge. Clients often say, “I don’t feel anything’s happening. I just come in and talk every week but I don’t go away from the sessions with any sense of having gotten anywhere.” However, things are happening on an unconscious level, and subtle changes are occurring of which the client is unaware until he or she encounters a “turning-point dream” or similar evidence.

Such was the case when a client brought in a dream about his father. The client was a young man, who was mistreated both by his father and mother, as well as his older sisters and brother. He had been the scapegoat of the family—a second class citizen who was put down and mocked by everybody and treated as though something was radically wrong with him.

One of the memories that he frequently talked about was how his father had adamantly insisted that he repeat the 4th grade because his handwriting was bad. “You’re having trouble with your cursive. I’m going to have to call the principle about it.” His father, who was drunk, had a double standard with regard to his children. He was supportive of the older brother, going to all his baseball games. But he paid no attention to his youngest son at all, unless something negative came to his attention, such as his bad handwriting.

His mother was no help either. She was overly strict with him, and treated him as if he was a deliberate troublemaker who was determined to make her life miserable. He recalled that one night he didn’t want to eat the string beans she had cooked. She made him sit at the table for two-and-a-half hours while his siblings went to bed giggling. Only when he ate his string beans was he allowed to leave the table. The father and mother ended up snuffing out the boy’s spirit.

For a long time in therapy my client saw his father as a kind of hero. The father was a dentist who had accumulated a lot of wealth. Despite his father’s drunkenness and abuse, my client looked up to him and craved his approval. Recently, when he called his father several times in one day, the father remarked, “How many times are you going to call me in one day?” The father was clueless as to his son’s need for him and his contribution to that need.
After a year of therapy, my client brought in a dream. He said he had awoken in the middle of the night and was crying. Then he remembered the dream and wrote it down.

In the dream he was at a medical convention. He was studying medicine (which was true in real life) and suddenly his father stood on the podium while somebody was speaking. His father staggered drunkenly toward the speaker and demanded to speak. When he did, he was slurring his words, and the organizers of the convention had to remove him from the podium and shove him out of the door. My client felt sorry for and ashamed of his father.
Upon waking from the dream he sat up in bed, sobbed for a while, and then thought about the dream. He had had enough psychotherapy to be able to interpret the dream for himself, and was eager to tell it to me and my therapy group.

“I’ve never seen my father in quite that way,” he announced to the group. I’ve always looked up to him and thought he was a strong man. But he’s not strong. In the dream he was very weak and a stumbling drunkard. And that’s what he really was. He didn’t know what was going on in our home. He didn’t know what was going on period. I don’t know how he made so much money as a dentist. I guess he disguised it at work.”

“I think that dream shows significant progress,” I told him. “As you said, you always saw him as a strong authority figure, whom you wanted to please. In this dream you were ashamed of him. I think this will help you to separate from him emotionally and become more confident of yourself and your own point of view. It will help you to stop looking at yourself from his derogatory point of view.”

Hearing that interpretation brought more sobs from him and the entire group listened quietly as he cried, knowing the significance of this breakthrough.

This dream is from the author’s latest book, The Dictionary of Dream Interpretation (2016).