Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

The “Unreliable Narrator” in Dreams

coffee cup 01Can I trust the opinions and emotions of my dream-self? The dream-ego (the “I” character in the dream) is the most likely to share my waking point-of-view about dream events. As I’m remembering and writing or telling the dream, I think of the dream-ego as “me” and can easily take it for granted that what the dream-ego thinks and feels reliably reflects the “truth” about the dream situation. But let’s look more closely at this…

The Jungian dream explorer James Hillman has said that “in a dream the ego is usually wrong”—meaning that the dream-ego tends to apply a waking-life worldview to the dream world, and thus to misinterpret dream events. The dream-ego generally shares the waking ego’s assumptions and prejudices, but the dream world as a whole may have surprisingly different perspectives and possibilities to offer.

As I look at my dream, I need to remember that even in waking life, my own view is not the only way of looking at things—I must question this view in the light of others’ input. In the dream world, this is even more true, because dreams are almost always telling me more than my conscious mind already knows (see Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work Tool Kit #4). The dream-ego’s view should be taken as only one out of many possible ways of understanding dream events. What does the rest of the dream have to say? What other points-of-view are available?

A Rib Comes Out of Me: I feel a sharp point sticking out of my left side, and when I tug on it, a long, thin, curved rib bone comes out. I hold my side, expecting to find a wound, but there is no mark, no pain, no blood. The rib has come out clean and white. I go to a professor—a pompous, arrogant fellow, who immediately says we should put the rib into a solution of coffee, so that its true, natural color will be revealed. I don’t really want the rib to get stained, so I say sarcastically, “That will work fine if its natural color is coffee-colored.” I keep asking him why and how the rib could have come out so cleanly, without leaving a mark or being smeared with blood. The professor dismisses my question, saying that this sort of thing (a rib coming out) only happens to “end-stage alcoholics with orgasm dysfunction.” I’m mortified and defensive—that description does not apply to me! He clearly does not know what he’s talking about. I certainly won’t tell him that the rib came from me.

I worked with this dream in my peer dream group, and the first insights that came up were consistent with the dream-ego’s opinion about the situation. Something strangely beautiful and with creative potential had “come out of me” (like Adam’s rib…) and the arrogant fellow (patriarchal male? inner critic?) was trying to diminish its significance (by staining the rib and implying that its “true color” was stained). He was also disparaging the source of this new creation (describing her/me as damaged or weak-willed). In the group, we all had a tendency to dismiss the professor’s suggestions, reinforcing the dream-ego’s negative response to him.

The professor was evidently an offensive character, and the statements he made were incorrect in a literal sense, so it seemed reasonable to assume he represented a mistaken point-of-view… Clearly, since I’m not an alcoholic nor do I have “orgasm dysfunction,” he’s got it all wrong—although the discomfort and defensiveness of my response both in the dream and about the dream are suggestive… There’s nothing I’m trying to hide, is there? The rib was simple and clean and left no wound, and that’s a good thing, right? Why stain it? Isn’t clean white its “natural color”?

Well, the next step was, of course, to start questioning these assumptions.

Fiction writers often use an “unreliable narrator” to communicate with the reader indirectly. We read the story in the first-person voice, or from the point-of-view of the protagonist—and we assume that this story is a more-or-less accurate picture of events. And then we begin to suspect that maybe there’s more to it than we thought. The narrator may be lying, or wrong, or oblivious to the true nature of the situation. Sometimes, the unreliability of this narrator is a shocker—as in mystery stories where the detective trying to solve the murder eventually turns out to be the murderer. Sometimes the deception, or self-deception, is subtle and sad—as in novels where the central character’s good intentions lead inevitably to the very harm he or she is trying to avoid, or where that character is unaware of harboring selfish motivations that are obvious to everyone else.

What if the dream-ego is an unreliable narrator? As my dream group explored the “rib” dream, I noticed that I’d been taking the statements made by the professor literally, just like the dream-ego: both the dreamer (me) and the dream-ego (“me”) responded indignantly, taking offense.

An overly literal response to the dream content is usually a sign that the dream-ego’s perspective is unreliable. The dream-ego is seeing the situation as the dreamer’s waking ego would see the same situation in waking life. And the dreamer who is remembering the dream, like the reader of a good novel, goes along with this at first. But then, by working with the dream on its own terms, the dream group and dreamer begin to see things differently. Remember: the dream world is not the waking world.

In the dream world, everything is metaphorical. If “end-stage alcoholism and orgasm dysfunction” aren’t to be taken literally, how might they be seen metaphorically? Jung suggested that alcohol issues could be related to issues in one’s spiritual life: an overconsumption of alcohol (or “spirits”) may represent a misdirected spiritual longing. So one way of looking at the dream might be that the dangers of a distorted, idealized form of spirituality are being exposed.

In Genesis, the act of creating new life through removing a rib may be seen as a white-washed version of actually giving birth: instead of the messy and painful, body-oriented experience of bringing forth a child, a neat and convenient immaculate delivery takes place—and the natural order is reversed as a man gives birth to a woman. In the dream, the Adam dream-ego is satisfied with this, but the professor-figure keeps calling attention to the authentic experience behind the clean, wound-free facade. He suggests putting the rib in a “coffee solution”—which perhaps will be a wake up call, revealing the rib’s “true color.” And the true color is stained, darkened by age, by wear, or by blood.

Perhaps the professor is implying that new life (really only bare bone) that seems to emerge cleanly, without wounds, is only a delusion, because the source itself has been damaged by an exaggerated or false spirituality (“end-stage alcoholism” suggesting an all-or-nothing attitude), and an “orgasm dysfunction,” or inability to engage in the ecstatic experience of fully embodied spiritual life. Maybe the professor is an unpleasant character because he is presenting a difficult truth: authentic spirituality and creativity must include embodiment, and often this process is not clean, pretty, or painless.

Finally, the dream is larger than any single meaning. It’s a good idea to consider the possibility that the dream-ego may be unreliable, and the other characters, however disagreeable, may have something significant to say. A dream’s meanings can contradict each other, just as the meanings to be gleaned from waking life experiences can also be paradoxical. So, the literal-minded, waking-life approach taken by the dream-ego is not to be dismissed out-of-hand either—it has some validity. And the professor’s opinion clearly has biases of its own.

Finally, the whole dream is full of wordplay and may be “ribbing” me: the rib that comes out could be a joke or trick, leaving me “holding my sides” with laughter (or “holding to my side” if I hold onto a single point-of-view). What do you think? My own sense is that it might be stimulating to try the “coffee solution,” and wake up to the wilder possibilities our dreams suggest, to see what “true colors” may come through.


  1. Darby

    Hi Kirsten. I’m glad you wrote on this – great article – I’ve been doing dream work for a while but this is a subject that has continued to confuse me (i.e. why would the dream ego be any more unreliable than any other character/symbol in the dream?). The way you explained it here makes perfectly good sense, and I think your explanation also works for me because it is not too dogmatic. So often this turns out to be the case …most things worth knowing are paradoxical, and confusion is often a sign the paradox hasn’t come into view yet. I love your thoughts on your dream. Thanks for sharing!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Darby! “Paradox and confusion”—that’s what keep things interesting (or, as you say, “worth knowing”) in dreams and waking life…! I appreciate your comment, and the kind words.

  2. hkom

    So, if we don’t get the logic of our dream-self in the wake life, does that mean we should have confidence on the dream-self’s point of view? I, many times had dreams, in which I used dream logic; but when I am reciting the dream in waking life, I am surprised I didn’t call this dream a nightmare. Things that supposed to cause negative emotions on me, didn’t have the same effects in dreams. I just experienced them, and that’s all.

    Thanks for the article by the way. It was well-written and thoughtfull.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Good question! Although the dream-ego tends to be similar to the waking ego’s idea of itself, nothing is absolute in dreams, and sometimes the dream-ego acts in ways the waking ego wouldn’t. The bottom line, I think, is just to recognize that nobody has all the answers—we shouldn’t automatically believe or disbelieve the ego’s perspective, but consider that all aspects of the dream have different points-of-view that represent part of the “truth.”

      So, my approach would be to notice my own initial response to the dream (my waking ego’s perspective), and the dream-ego’s perspective—whether they are the same or different—but then also notice other angles on the dream offered by other dream figures and images. Then see which of these is most useful right now… but keep the others in the back of my mind, in case they turn out to be useful in another context or at another time.

      Thanks for the comment, and encouragement!

  3. Jason DeBord

    Brilliant, Kirsten, and a perfectly-timed reminder that the wisdom of the unconscious is not conventional wisdom. I interpret dreams every day at Reddit Dreams and sometimes lose sight of the fact that the dream-ego can be wrong. You have given me a valuable tip to keep in mind.

    I think you are on to something in your analysis of your reaction to the professor character. In your reaction you can see you are resisting something. Resistance is a sign to focus there. As you say, dreams are almost always trying to tell you what your conscious mind does not know. Ann Faraday makes the same observation in her book “The Dream Game.” The professor’s comments seem ridiculous and even a bit offensive on the face of it, but dig deeper and you find wisdom and insight that enriches your life. It’s challenging! And I think that’s the point. Otherwise, what’s the point of dreaming if it doesn’t expand your consciousness and teach you something?

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thanks, Jason! I really appreciate your thoughts on this. I also have to admit that you point me back to the dream itself, and remind me that just because I noticed my own resistance and then used it as an example by writing about it doesn’t mean I’ve finished with the dream. My waking ego sometimes likes to use rational understanding and explanations to get around uncomfortable truths—so by drawing my attention back to the dream itself you’ve helped me see that I need to let the dream actually change me, not just talk about it. What kind of action might I take that would be a response to this dream, an embodiment of it? I still don’t have an answer… so I keep dreaming in hopes that further suggestions will be forthcoming!

      I also appreciate your insightful dreamwork with Reddit. Thank again!

  4. Tina

    I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read it yesterday. Very helpful tip for dreamwork and lifework in general. So much of the time we are an unreliable narrator of our lives. Another great post, Kirsten!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tina! I especially like that phrase “unreliable narrator of our lives”… Makes me wonder if there is ever a “reliable” narrator of our lives? Like with dreams, there’s no neutral observer of events—it’s all projection and interpretation, except for the direct, un-narrated experience itself. (When I write things like that, I have to stop and stand back and think for a while about whether it’s true or not…. or both true and not true. Hm.)

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