Every interpretation of a dream is a psychological statement about certain of its contents. This is not without danger, as the dreamer, like most people, usually displays an astonishing sensitiveness to critical remarks, not only if they are wrong, but even more if they are right. Since it is not possible, except under very special conditions, to work out the meaning of a dream without the collaboration of the dreamer, an extraordinary amount of tact is required not to violate his self-respect unnecessarily.

For instance, what is one to say when a patient tells a number of indecent dreams and then asks: “Why should I have such disgusting dreams?” To this sort of question it is better to give no answer, since an answer is difficult for several reasons, especially for the beginner, and one is very apt under such circumstances to say something clumsy, above all when one thinks one knows what the answer is. So difficult is it to understand a dream that for a long time I have made it a rule, when someone tells me a dream and asks for my opinion, to say first of all to myself: “I have no idea what this dream means.” After that I can begin to examine the dream.

The further procedures to hich Freud subjects the dream-contents I have had to reject, for they are too much influenced by the preconceived opinion that dreams are the fulfillment of “repressed wishes.” Although there are such dreams, this is far from proving that all dreams are wish-fulfillments, any more than are the thoughts of our conscious psychic life. There is no ground for the assumption that the unconscious processes underlying the dream are more limited and one-sided, in form and content, than conscious processes. One would rather expect that the latter could be limited to known categories, since they usually reflect the regularity or even monotony of the conscious life.

On the basis of these conclusions and for the purpose of ascertaining the meaning of the dream, I have developed a procedure which I call “taking up the context.” This consists in making sure that every shade of meaning which each salient feature of the dream has for the dreamer is determined by the associations of the dreamer himself.

I therefore proceed in the same way as I would in deciphering a difficult text. This method does not always produce an immediate understandable result; often the only thing that emerges, at first, is a hint that looks significant.

The examination of the context is, to be sure, a simple, almost mechanical piece of work which has only a preparatory significance. But the subsequent production of a readable text, i.e. the actual interpretation of the dream, is as a rule a very exacting task. It needs psychological empathy, ability to coordinate, intuition, knowledge of the world and of men, and above all a special “canniness” which depends on wide understanding as well as on a certain “intelligence du coeur.”

No sixth sense is needed to understand dreams. But more is required than routine recipes such as are found in vulgar little ream-books, on which invariably develop under the influence of preconceived notions. Stereotyped interpretation of dream-motifs is to be avoided; the only justifiable interpretations are those reached through a painstaking examination of the context. Even if one has great experience in these matters, one is again and again obliged, before each dream, to admit one’s ignorance and, renouncing all preconceived ideas, to prepare for something entirely unexpected.

Even though dreams refer to a definite attitude of consciousness and a definite psychic situation, their roots lie deep in the unfathomably dark recesses of the conscious mind. For want of a more descriptive term we call this unknown background the unconscious. We do not know its nature in and for itself, but we observe certain effects from whose qualities we venture certain conclusions in regard to the nature of the unconscious psyche. Because dreams are the most common and most normal expression of the unconscious psyche, they provide the bulk of the material for its investigation.

Since the meaning of most dreams is not in accord with the tendencies of the conscious mind but shows peculiar deviations, we must assume that the unconscious, the matrix of dreams, has an independent function. T his is what I call the autonomy of the unconscious. The dream not only fails to obey our will but very often stands in flagrant opposition to our conscious intentions. The opposition need not always be so marked; sometimes the dream deviates only a little from the conscious attitude and introduces only slight modifications; occasionally it may even coincide with conscious contents and tendencis.

When I attempted to express this behavior in a formula, the concept of compensation seemed to me the only adequate one, for it alone is capable of summing up all the various ways in which a dream behaves. Compensation means balancing and comparing different data or points of view so as to produce an adjustment or a rectification.

But if dreams produce such essential compensations, why are they not understandable? I have often been asked this question. The answer must be that the dream is a natural occurrence, and that nature shows no inclination to offer her fruits gratis or according to human expectations. It is often objected that the compensation must be ineffective unless the dream is understood. This is not so certain, however, for many things can be effective without being understood.

But there is no doubt that we can enhance its effect considerably by understanding the dream, and this is often necessary because the voice of the unconscious so easily goes unheard. “What nature leaves imperfect is perfected by the art,” says an alchemical dictum.

Coming now to the form of dreams, we find everything from lightning impressions to endlessly spun out dream-narrative. Nevertheless there are a great many “average” dreams in which a definite structure can be perceived, not unlike that of a drama. For instance, the dream begins with a statement of place, such as, “I was in a street, it was an avenue.” Next comes a statement about the protagonists, for instance, “I was walking with my friend X in a city park. At a crossing we suddenly ran into Mrs. Y.”¬†Statements of time are rarer. I call this phase of the dream the exposision. It indicates the scene of action, the people involved, and often the initial situation of the dreamer.

In the second phase comes the development of the plot. For instance: “I was in a street, it was an avenue. In the distance a car appeared, which approached rapidly. It was being driven very unsteadily, and I thought the driver must be drunk. The situation is somehow becoming complicated, and a definite tension develops because one does not know what will happen.

The third phase brings the culmination or peripeteia. Here something decisive happens or changes completely.

The fourth and last phase is the lysis, the solution or result produced by the dream-work. The last phase shows the final situation, which is at the same time the solution “sought” by the dreamer.