If This Were My Dream – Projective Dream Work

The late Dr. Montague Ullmans’ approach, commonly referred to as the “If this were my dream” method is what I want to discuss in this article. Dr. Ullman, like all of us, was faced with a dilemma when working with a group of people doing dreamwork, a situation he found himself in constantly. His wonderful approach is today, a standard practice in respecting the boundaries of the dreamer, making sure the dreamer’s meaning of their dream remains theirs to decide!

Before explaining Ullman’s’ method, let me preface by saying this. Our sub-conscious is filled with every single memory and association we have had since we are born. It’s like what the computer generation would call the motherboard. Those of us over fifty call it a filing cabinet! When you want to say something to yourself, the filing cabinet opens and you choose a metaphor, symbol, mood or location all based on your own personal life experiences. So in other words, a cat in my dictionary means something/someone I am not comfortable with. A cat also means “aloof” and “independent”. So if I dream about a cat I’d be asking myself who in my life this week is behaving in a particularly aloof and independent way and I am feeling uncomfortable with them……Or maybe the cat in my dream is the solution to my current situation and it is me who needs to be behaving in a more aloof and independent way.

If my daughter Emma-Jo is dreaming about a cat she’d be asking herself who in her life this week does she think she loves but is really not good for her. That’s because Emma-Jo loves cats but can’t stay around them because she is very allergic and has a bad reaction, which doesn’t make her feel good. Our associations are as unique to each of us as our fingerprint. It is why we can’t say for sure what someone’s dream is about. Yet there is nothing like the rich experience of a dreamer hearing other people’s projections about a dream’s meaning. That’s where Dr. Ullman comes in.

I am writing this article because a group setting leads to greater opportunities for dream analysis. As long as the members of the group remember that they can only say only under what circumstances would they have a dream such as the one the dreamer has described. The larger the number of people in the group the greater the wealth of opportunity for the dreamer. While the examples I am giving you here for the purpose of illustration take place in a room with group members sitting in a circle, the same principle is best also applied to giving feedback or “comments” to people who journal their dreams on the Internet. That said, here’s how it happens when it’s in person.

Montague Ullman’s Basic Method

The dreamer tells his or her dream. After the other members have a chance to ask some “clarifying questions”, the group takes turns beginning their sentences with, “If this were my dream it would be about…”

When you are hearing other people’s projections and ideas about your dream, it’s important to remember that no one knows what your dream means except you. You must allow yourself to feel comfortable enough to say what fits for you and what does not. The dreamer always has the closest access to his or her subconscious and of course, what he or she is trying to say using the very personal metaphors of the dream. It would be very convenient if we could read each others’ minds, but unfortunately, we cannot!

Clarifying Questions

An example of a clarifying question to the dreamer is if there is a woman in the dream, people may inquire if the dreamer knows the woman, and in what capacity. Or if the dream takes place in a house they can ask whose house it is.

“If this were my dream”
The next step is for people to reveal under what circumstance they might have a dream like the one described. They begin their sentences with “If this were my dream”. All the while, the actual dreamer is listening to other people’s projections about his or her dream.

Finally, we go back to the dreamer himself to discover what his or her dream was really about.

The dreamer has the opportunity of hearing the dream from different perspectives. And all the while, the dreamer’s uniqueness has been respected. I have participated in this kind of group work, and each and every time it has been a very rich experience for me. Hearing other people’s projections, I always learn something new about myself and pick up another way of looking at a situation.

We saw an example of this in my blog last week titled “Two-Wave Dreams, There I was totally focused on the tsunami in one dream and the wave and flood in the next when my friend Richard pointed my attention to the neighbor and I clicked on the meaning of the dream almost immediately! That’s because if he had those dreams he’d be curious about the neighbor, which for me would have been the last place I looked. As you saw in this example with my friend Richard, it is precisely the process of hearing someone’s ideas that helps the dreamer connect to something in his or her own current life and therefore uncover what situation their dream is mirroring.

If this were my dream” Examples

Jennifer’s Splinter Dream:
Jennifer dreams she feels a splinter in her foot. She is in her panties and sits down on the edge of her bed to try to find and squeeze the splinter out. She feels it and squeezes. Not only does a piece of glass come out, but behind it, bugs fall out in a pile on the bed! She is backing away frightened of the bugs. With this approach, you will hear from the dreamer himself something quite revealing and personal about what is going on in their life. The dreamer will be sharing the specific current issue in their life the dream was addressing.

“If this were my dream”
After hearing Jennifer’s dream, one person shares, “If this were my dream, it would be about something that is hurting me. Something I can’t quite put my finger on, but I am sure I feel bad. That’s what comes to my mind when I think about a splinter. You can’t see it, but you know it’s there.”

Another listener shares, “If this were my dream, it would be that I got hurt unexpectedly as a result of something else. I say this because usually, I get a splinter while in the process of trying to do something else. Like I’ll lift a piece of wood to carry it and suddenly the hurt. I have a splinter.”

A third shares, “And if this were my dream, it would be about something “bugging” me!”

A fourth shares, “Yes! If it were my dream the things that “bug” me would be “piling up”!”

Hearing these perceptions, we saw Jennifer, a producer, click on her dream being about how she felt insulted and “bugged” by the fact that her husband had not thanked her at a business meeting they had the night she had the splinter dream.

More importantly, the fact that the bugs were “piled up” as they fell out of the splinter in her foot mirrored how it was not the first time that she has been hurt by her husband in this way. As she explained, she linked the fact that in the dream she squeezed the splinter out while sitting on her bed, already undressed, because, in fact, it was when they got into bed that night, she had expressed these feelings that had been “piling up” to her husband.

The solution/learning/strength to the dream

ened her. She says that she woke frightened of the bugs, and more importantly, “backing away” from them. Now that Jennifer had successfully defined that the bugs were a metaphor for her feelings, the lesson of the dream was to call her attention not to feel so afraid of her feelings and maybe as a result not allow the things that “bug” her to pile up so high!

David’s Car Dream:
David says, “ I dreamed I parked my car and I know where I am. But next, I am walking up and down blocks looking for it! I cannot find my car.

“If this were my dream”
After hearing David ‘s dream one person shares, “My car is my main mode of transportation. If this were my dream, it would be about my feeling that I am not getting anywhere about something.”

Another listener shares, “If this were my dream, it would be about me losing my drive. I might have it at a time when I lose my resolve about something…like going to the gym.”

A third shares, “The fact that I can’t find the car makes me feel a loss of control, particularly because I knew where I parked it and now I am unable to find it! If this were my dream, it would be about not being able to find myself. It would be a metaphor for a loss of control.”

A fourth shares, “And for me, there is a tremendous level of frustration. So it is not like a loss of control for me. That would be more if the car was stolen. This is a case of my wandering up and down blocks and blocks not being able to find something I know is there. If this were my dream it would be because I am feeling very frustrated about finding something….Getting back something that belongs to me. And also there is an element of responsibility attached to the frustration.”

The meaning of the dream

David clicked on the meaning of his dream. Having recently graduated from his Master’s Degree in Social Work, David’s first job was counseling troubled teens. He became a mediator between the teens and their parents, or the leaders of group homes, and often was asked to testify in court. After a few months on the job, David grew increasingly frustrated and unhappy with his choice of work. Besides the frustration David experienced working with sometimes insurmountable pressure, he often found himself worrying about his own safety and that of his family. So while David was sure he knew where he’d parked his car….(decided what career he wanted), somehow now he felt lost, unable to find his career…and his drive(motivation) too! Deciding what he might do next was, he said, exactly like the motion of walking up and down blocks searching for his lost car. He liked the element of responsibility that the fourth listener attached to the dream.

The solution/learning/strength to the dream

The solution in the dream is just that! There is an element of responsibility in this issue. That’s the good news. David has the power to change his situation and move towards another area of Social Work where he can feel more capable working with those who are looking for help, not having it thrust upon them. His frustration in the dream gives rise to the emotion he needs to move forward towards the goal. And the goal is his looking for a new job. The dream gives him the impetus he needs to “drive” forward. To go back to where he parked his car. And that is the second strength of the dream. He knows where he parked his car. He knows what career he chose, and in what way he wants to utilize it. It is just the matter of getting back to where he stopped before he got out of the car.


Layne Dalfen
Layne Dalfen
Layne Dalfen has been teaching dream analysis to the Counseling students at Concordia University in Montreal since 2004. She has a monthly column in Oprah Daily titled Dream Catcher, in Psychology Today titled Understanding Dreams, and in Hampton Sheet titled Dream On. Layne founded The Dream Interpretation Center in 1997. Her interest in dreams stems from her early experience in Freudian analysis where dream work was the primary tool. She later studied at The Gestalt Counselling and Training Center in Montreal, and Adlerian principles of dream analysis at The Alfred Adler Institute. She has been a member of The International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) since 1997. Layne’s core message is how the solutions to our current problems appear to us first, through our intelligent, unconscious mind. If you understand the conversation that is the dream, you can propel your problem-solving skills. In her books titled Have A Great Dream, Book 1; The Overview, and Have A Great Dream, Book 2; A Deeper Discussion, Layne teaches a 6 Points of Entry system she developed that anyone can use to uncover meaning in their dreams. Layne’s goal is to introduce the general public to the value of understanding the language of our sophisticated unconscious mind. Her Internet site goes by either the same name as her books, have a great dream, or the more recent, the dream analyst.

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  1. Great article, Layne! These techniques have been taught for a very long time but it seems they are only now picking up. Talking about dreams used to be like discussing fairy tales, hushed up, even though they are the very key to our subconsciousness and how we change our condition and how we feel about ourselves and others.

    • Hi Maria! Thank you so much. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I agree with you completely. Dream analysis reveals so much we aren’t able to see during the day. It still even after 46 years at it never fails to put a big smile on my face when I watch a dreamer connect the dots and “get” their dream!! Thanks for posting. I love feedback.

      • You are most welcome, Layne – I can so imagine :). It’s a great feeling when a dream meaning is revealed. I am also quite interested in inherited memories that are finally being studied more e.g. in psychology. So much to uncover in our dream worlds.