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How IFS Makes Sense of Seemingly Irrational Dreams

Part 3: However deviously, your dreams suggest how much someone can be trusted.

Key points

  • Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) can be invaluable in deriving meaning from dreams that, literally, make no coherent, rational sense.
  • Different “parts” in a dream could help answer questions about how vulnerable someone feels in a relationship.
  • If someone questions their judgment a lot, their dreams may reflect the different parts of their nagging ambivalence.
Photographer's name not provided/Pixabay Free Image, CCO
Source: Photographer's name not provided/Pixabay Free Image, CCO

This post will provide a second example to further clarify how Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) can be used to elucidate dreams that, literally, make no coherent sense. As in the previous post (and frankly, in virtually all dreams), it alludes to certain unresolved conflictual feelings, from both the present and the past. Beneath that, it symbolically (and ironically) draws on your past and distorted, now maladaptive feelings of anxiety or shame, which should have remained in your past but instead have “leaked” into your present.

Here’s a brief outline of a dream’s peculiar narrative that my client, “Clarissa,” shared with me:

She’s inhabiting this gorgeous beach house, completely enclosed by floor-to-ceiling glass doors that slide open. And the view from the terrace is delightful. She sees a boy she knew in high school who was in chorus with her and possessed this truly beautiful voice, something she’d never shared with him. So she decides this would be a great opportunity to do so. Sliding open one of these doors, she starts walking toward him. But suddenly her attention is captured by a distant carnival and, powerfully drawn to it, she turns to get a closer look.

Walking down a hill to a sand dune, there at the bottom, she observes the traveling amusement show. And though she can’t see a single person there, strangely enough, all the rides are in motion. She’s then further distracted by a funny-looking man in a gigantic hat—somehow reminiscent of the mad hatter in Alice in Wonderland. Moving toward her, the man tells her she can still play a cup-shuffling game, where there’s an engraved round, shiny, metal disk under one of the cups, which will be hers as soon as she turns over the right cup.

Newly engaged, Clarissa hastens to flip over one cup after another. But there’s nothing under any of them and she’s left feeling stupid, also wondering why the cups would be placed in the soft, slippery sand in the first place. She regrets falling for the stranger’s “empty” promises, being pulled off course and, too, feels blameworthy and ashamed for playing this game because even beforehand she’d had a strong sense it was unwinnable.

The Real-Life Context

Transitioning from fantasy to reality, here’s what was going on in Clarissa’s life at the time. She was in a long-term marriage with Jerome, a distinguished and highly successful artist. Fundamentally a decent, kind, well-liked person, he was yet so devoted to his art and his many patrons that for decades she (now in her early 60s) felt she’d routinely received “the short end of the stick.”

Many times Jerome would make promises to her that he didn’t keep, forget or put off things he’d agreed to do, and assigned her tasks (especially financial) that didn’t interest him. Still, she couldn’t refuse him, for she’d always prided herself on being agreeable, efficient, and adaptable.

Nonetheless, for a prolonged period, Clarissa had become increasingly angry and resentful toward Jerome. Because of his neglect, she’d suffered multiple blows to her self-esteem and now was seriously contemplating divorce. Consenting to couples counseling, she was, though ambivalent, willing to give him one last chance to make her the priority she never felt she, or their three, now-grown children, were to him.

Because Jerome did very much love, respect, and value her and his family (though far more than he’d demonstrated), she was extremely wary about allowing herself to be as vulnerable in the relationship as, regretfully, she’d been in the past.

Despite Jerome’s non-grudgingly making major changes to accommodate her needs during their work with me, Clarissa worried that his improvement might not be anything she could trust. In our sessions, her long-escalating anger toward him kept spilling out—and to the point that Jerome couldn’t help but feel discouraged, admitting: “I just feel damned if I do and damned if I don’t” and “No matter how much I do for her, I still feel I’m walking on eggshells and don’t dare make a single mistake.”

Past and Present Frustrations and Indecisiveness

Clearly, Clarissa’s so-cautious feelings toward Jerome were symbolized by the mad hatter figure in her dream. For this cartoonish figure represented the negative part of her ambivalence in “playing along” with all the changes Jerome was deliberately making for her. In the dream, this character—purposely but unconsciously formulated by her—had duped her, made her feel silly and foolish. He was also a part of what prevented her from talking to her angelically-voiced high school friend. It was as though Jerome’s beguiling, artistically crafted metal disk had tricked her into forsaking what might have been far more fulfilling to her.

Similarly, the vacant amusement park (another IFS “part”) was also seductive: the rides certainly looked compelling and they were all working. But since the entire area was barren, the “working” rides couldn’t really be depended on. And Clarissa’s conscious fear was that Jerome’s efforts might merely be a “display,” a manipulation—not sincerely meant or deserving of trust. And that if she renewed her confidence in him, she’d only learn there was nothing substantive inside any of the tempting “cups” presently being offered her.

The dream targeted, or “staged,” many of Clarissa’s present and past frustrations—and resulting indecisiveness:

  1. her frustration that she hoped to restore her trust in Jerome, but didn’t believe it safe to do so;
  2. that since she was 17 she wanted to, but hadn’t, complimented her friend about his wonderful voice;
  3. her puzzling ambivalence about carnivals, which induced sadness in her—only partly because when she was young she wasn’t tall enough to be let on a ride that her younger (but taller) brother was allowed to;
  4. that in her 20’s she turned away many attractive suitors because Jerome seemed her best choice—yet the dream’s shiny, artistically designed metal disk symbolized his inaccessibility; and
  5. the many times in the past she’d questioned her judgment, perhaps the dominant motif of the dream.

When I had Clarissa dialogue with the mad hatter figure in the dream—according to IFS, representing a child protective part who didn’t know she’d become a much older, highly competent adult—she asked him: “Why did you put me through this?” and he responded: “Look, it’s you who keeps coming back for more,” and that his purpose was simply to remind her that she should depend exclusively on herself.

Inasmuch as for many years she did rely on herself, it’s fairly clear that the hatter was addressing the youngster she once was, endeavoring to safeguard her vulnerability by discouraging her from risking rejection by depending on others. Which obviously she was now doing in trusting Jerome enough to give him another chance to show how crucial she was to him.

By the time we concluded explicating her dream, Clarissa felt much less ambivalent about opening up her heart to Jerome. She realized that much of her suspiciousness was coming from outdated protective parts (or defense mechanisms) that felt she’d be safer if she relied totally on herself. And that was actually the message, however indirectly, she’d (unintentionally) received from her parents, constantly overwhelmed having to deal with her two much more challenging siblings.

Clarissa’s dream, emanating from her unconscious (the inner “home” of all her sub-personalities), left her doubting whether it was wise to revive her trust in her husband. Grasping that the real-world evidence indicated that Jerome wasn’t trying to trick her (like the Mad Hatter), her apprehensive attitude toward him notably softened.

And they both ended up being beneficiaries of the dream ... but only after its compassionate IFS analysis.

Note: Here are the links to Parts 1 and 2 of this series.

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


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Earley, J. (2009). Self-therapy: A step-by-step guide to creating wholeness and healing your inner child using IFS, 2nd ed. Larkspur, CA: Pattern System Books.

Murphy, Brian (n.d.). About internal family systems therapy—Self-led solutions.

Schwartz, R, C. (2001). Introduction to the internal family systems model. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Publications.

Schwartz, R. C. (2008). You are the one you’ve been waiting for [on IFS]. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Publications.

Seltzer, L. F. (2020, Nov 10). A new way to understand your psychological defenses.…