Windows on Your Inner self

This article was first published in the Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol 33:1, January, 2003.

Margaret M. Bowater 

Did you know that your dreams can give you real insight into what is going on inside you? That you have several dreams a night, even if you don’t remember them? That they show you stories about yourself in a kind of metaphor language that is easy to learn? That they can become your own inner counsellor, giving you continuous feedback on your life?

Let me give you a range of examples, based on my experience with hundreds of clients and dreamwork trainees over the last fifteen years.You dream every night, about the emotional issues currently on your mind, whether from the foreground or the background of your life. Typically in dreams, you experience yourself in the midst of some action scene, eg “I’m driving my car, but it keeps going backwards and I’m getting very frustrated.” Or, “I suddenly remember with horror that I haven’t fed my baby for two weeks, and I rush to her bedroom to pick her up. But my children have grown up!” Or, “I’m running away from a huge tidal wave, but I’m about to get swamped. I can’t run any further.”

Dream ego

Notice how each dream gives you a picture of yourself. This is called the dream ego, and holds a kind of mirror to you in some aspect of your life. The accompanying feelings in the dream are real, though often more intense than you experience in waking life. So if you were the car-driver above, I might ask you: “In what way do you feel as if you are going backwards instead of forwards in your life?” Or the mother: “Are you taking enough care of your inner Child?” Or the runner: “What life-circumstances feel as if they are building up to a crisis?” Each dream is a symbolic statement about how you are experiencing your life at the time. The feelings are real, even if the imagery may seem bizarre. 

Sometimes you are not an actor but an observer of the scene or action, such as, “I’m looking at a big old house. One wall has been badly burned.” Or, “I keep having the same sort of dream, where a plane falls out of the sky with a terrible crash.” If these are not literal memories, they are likely to be self-images again, so I might ask the first dreamer how she or her family have been harmed by a recent event; and the second, which of his hopes keep getting dashed.

Context and language

Every dream arises out of the current context of the dreamer’s life. What was on your mind the day before the dream? What happened, and what feelings did you have?

For example, if you’d had a sharp verbal conflict with a woman, you might dream of a physical struggle, like this: “My sister and I are stabbing each other with table-knives. They don’t draw blood, but the blows really hurt.” Dreaming tends to use physical metaphors, since it is a primal language, pre-dating human speech. It happens mainly during sleep, when the mind is processing recent new input, and probably sorting memories. It also tends to intensify your feelings, as if drawing attention to emotions not adequately acknowledged in our busy modern lives. 

Knowing the exact date of a dream is useful in identifying the trigger event, which may have been a major encounter, or as small as a thought you had while reading the newspaper, when you identified with someone else’s story. 

Past and present

Often a dream pulls several threads together in one theme, collating similar memories. If you are in therapy, you will be recalling early memories which become mixed with the present, as in Anna’s dream: “I’m sitting at my desk in the office when Mr Jones walks over to me, snarling at my work, and I start to cry. He was my third-grade teacher, and I hated him.” Here the memory of Mr Jones has collated with Anna’s image of her current boss, and the sound of a fierce dog, reducing her to a powerless Child ego state again. Or recurring patterns in a dreamer’s life may be collated into a single story, such as this summary, from Bart: “I’m walking alone on a track in the wilderness. Every time I come to a hut, there’s always other people who’ve taken all the bunks, and I have to sleep on the floor.” Bart had always felt like an unwanted outsider in his family, and still had difficulty making relationships. In both these cases, the dreams provided a symbolic scenario which the dreamers then used to practise new Adult skills of communication.  

Script change and redecisions

Eric Berne, the founder of transactional analysis, pointed out in his last book (1972, ch.9), that sometimes the image of the dream ego is shown in a dream behaving in such a characteristic way that a whole life-script can be seen. Bart’s dream pinpointed his childhood script belief, “I don’t belong,” so I began to challenge this belief and encourage him to make connections with people.

Six months later, Bart dreamed, “I’m cooking pancakes in a small road-side café.” Bart’s new dream showed thathis script was changing. He no longer felt like an outsider in the wilderness, but had a useful role in helping others on their journey.

Robert and Mary Goulding (1979), the founders of redecision work in transactional analysis, give several examples of working with their trainees’ dreams. When someone presented a dream that showed he or she was stuck in a script, that is, a self-defeating pattern of behaviour, they encouraged the dreamer to give voice to each element of the dream, thus highlighting the inner conflict as a current choice. They focused the dreamer on finding a new solution, both in terms of the dream and also in real life. 

Here is a clear redecision dream presented at one of my own workshops. Timothy, 65, had been a faithful servant of Christ all his life in a particular denomination with a very narrow theology. Recently, he had begun to explore other approaches to faith.

Dream report:               Invitation to Paint

“A child was sitting in a room with a parent - rather a vague image, perhaps a woman of about 40. I came in as a visitor. The child seemed to be a little girl of 4 or 5, spotlessly clean and immaculately dressed. I was covered in paint – I had been having so much fun outside somewhere that the paint covered me. At my invitation the child timidly came over to me, and I realised it was a boy as I took his hands. Immediately he withdrew, as his hands became paint-covered on touching mine. He shook, almost as though terrified at getting dirty. There was a look of revulsion on his face. The sole parent just looked on without any apparent reaction. After some moments I again invited the child to come out to play with the paint – have fun, cut loose, get mucky. The child reacted as though finding the very idea totally new, inviting, rather exciting – as though he was seeking to give himself permission. The parent raised no objection. The dream ended as we headed out to the garden.”

Timothy had already recognised the child as his own young self. He had been an only child, brought up to be very good, clean and conformist in every way. He identified the parent-figure as the part of himself that had raised the Child, but was now “tacitly allowing the child space to give himself permission” to step out into a new and exciting world.  The visitor was his Adult, “one who had become something of a rebel, wanting to enjoy responsible freedom, to take risks, and not have to get it right all the time.” As Timothy drew the scene on the whiteboard, he added a new scene in the garden, where there were many pots of different-coloured paint, and the child was soon as happily multi-coloured as the visitor. He was portraying a redecision to let himself “get messy” in the world.   So to consolidate the redecision in his Child, I had him re-enact the scene of going through the door into the garden, and getting into the paint. Why paint, I asked, rather than mud? “Because it’s so rich and colourful,” he said. The joy on his face was delightful to see, as his inner Child was liberated from the old “black-and-white” script. Reflecting on the dream, he shared some of his excitement at being “called by the Lord into responsible freedom” in a fuller and freer life. “Life should be more of a party than a prison,” he declared.

Dream re-entry

When you have an unfinished dream, you can actively practise making changes in your own script-beliefs by choosing a more constructive behaviour and re-entering the dream. Sometimes this takes courage to face an old fear. Here is a dramatic example, from Max, who was in a mid-life transition: 

Dream report:               Unknown Presence

“I dreamed I was lying in bed in the bedroom I had as a child. The door was slightly ajar. I became aware of a presence coming up the stairs, and I felt a powerful fear of something unknown approaching. I woke up sweating, with a sense of utter terror.”  

Max had spent twenty years in a life of outdoor adventure. Now he wanted a career in the field of counselling, but he was daunted by the prospect of undergoing therapy himself. Having had many nightmares as a child, he still feared demons in his inner world. But with this dream he applied his years of action-training to the new situation:

I thought about what to do if this were happening for real. My philosophy is always to do something, take control of the situation. So I decided I would open the door and go and see what was there. I let myself go back to sleep again, back in the bedroom – and the whole sense of terror repeated. This time I got out of bed, opened the door, and went down the stairs to see what was there. At the bottom, I found myself standing on the edge of a stone jetty, looking out at a great black stretch of still water, glimmering faintly as far as the eye could see. There was no threat there. I felt quite calm, and thought, Oh, of course, with a sense of relief, and the dream dissolved.”

As a result of the dream, Max went ahead with therapy, confirming that there was nothing so evil inside him after all, and is now an effective therapist himself.

Conscious and unconscious

The “underground sea” Max found is a marvellous metaphor for the unconscious, the unknown internal energy field from which your conscious ego emerges. Max found the sea calm, but at times it can be full of turbulence. Eric Berne described the unconscious from a Freudian perspective in his first book (1947/72, ch.4), as a region full of the conflicting instinctual energies which drive you, as well as your feelings about the “unfinished business” of childhood, both of which are visible in dreams. Many children’s nightmares arise out of the conflict between “instinctual” desires and the protective controls exerted by parents to fit the child into their family and social group. As you start to think about your experience, you may form negative conclusions about yourself, which are called script beliefs. These are often shown in dreams, like Bart’s above.  


Think about what transitions are currently going on in your life. Leaving home? Entering or leaving a relationship? Becoming a parent? Losing a parent? Changing a job or location? Losing your health or your hopes? Slow transitions may be more in the background of your mind, but still a source of anxiety about a change of status in your life. Dreams often bring up latent anxiety for your conscious attention. Carol dreamed: “I am saying goodbye to my daughter at the door, when I hear my mother calling from the kitchen. I rush back to find she’s having a heart attack, and I’m trying to call an ambulance.” Carol was afraid that this was a prediction about losing her mother, who was actually quite healthy. Her daughter, however, was about to leave home to go to university, and Carol faced an “empty nest” for the first time; so it was actually her own role as mother that was in such distress. Working with the dream helped her to face the loss more openly, when we created a 2-chair dialogue with her Nurturing Parent ego state.


If you are in therapy, some of your dreams may portray your current reactions to your therapist, especially if he or she reminds you of a significant figure from your past. Dorothy dreamed: “I was back at the convent, facing Sister Miriam, late for class again. I didn’t like doing history, so I used to skip classes a lot.”   While this is a clear memory, why did it come up after Dorothy’s third session with her therapist? It didn’t take long for them to recognise the parallels involved, and talk about their present relationship.


The setting of the dream often indicates a particular aspect of your life, according to your personal associations, such as your office, or your childhood home. Bart’s wilderness track above suggests that he was seeing the whole of life as a journey through friendless territory, while Carol’s dream highlighted the kitchen as her place of nurture. The mood of a dream may be strongly conveyed by sunlight or twilight, wind or rain, spring or autumn. Medieval imagery could suggest “middle age.” Ask yourself, Why did my Dream-maker choose this particular setting?


Most dreams are constructed out of personal memories, creatively re-organised into new scenes and stories to fit a current theme. Such memories may include scenes from childhood stories, films, books, art works, religious instruction or any fantasy material which made an impact on you at the time. You have a vast store of images in your memory-banks, some of which are strongly imbued with personal emotion, and others which have more general connections with the culture you are part of. Deeper again lie archetypal images which seem to belong to the primal experience of the human race; they tend to appear as encounters with awesome figures of legend or religion, such as a dragon, eagle, shaman or angel, with a strong message to give you.

Dreamwork therefore usually involves a process of unravelling your associations to the forms and figures in the dream. Take, for example, the image of a big black dog, which has appeared in a number of dreams I have worked with. Its meaning varies from one client to another. Ernie had a recurring dream of trying to get away from a dog in a battlefield:

Dream report:               Dog in the War Zone

“An enormous black dog, like a great Dane, was pursuing me through a desolate no-man’s-land…… I was alone and getting more and more exhausted. Then I realised I would never be able to get away from it, so there was nothing to do but turn and face it, even though I expected to get savaged. When I turned, it slowed down, and grabbed my right hand in its jaws – I could feel the teeth and the moisture and heat of its mouth – and it simply held on, without actually biting me. It wasn’t going to let me escape, but neither would it destroy me.” 

He finally recognised it as his own anger that he had never acknowledged. He did not dream about the dog or the battlefield again.

In contrast, Fiona dreamed:

Dream report:               Dying Dog

“I am sitting quietly beside a black dog lying on a path. It is badly injured and dying.” 

She associated the dog with a special friendship that was coming to an end. 

Ernie’s black dog symbolised a disowned angry part of himself, a “shadow figure” in Jungian psychology, which he could never get away from. The sensory impression on his hand lasted for hours. Fiona’s black dog made sense to her when she thought of her friend’s faithful dog and matched it with her side of the dying relationship. Thus you see that accurate interpretation of a dream symbol depends on how well it fits the individual dreamer’s experience and associations. 

Dialogue with dream roles

he best way to understand a dream role is to let it speak for itself. Since the dream ego represents your conscious ego, trying to make decisions about your life, other roles in your dream may symbolise either your view of people and things you have to deal with, or parts of yourself which may not be fully conscious. In the first case, the dream portrays your behaviour in relationship to others; in the second, you can become more aware of your internal dialogue about an issue in your life. 

Thus when Fiona let herself speak as the dog in her dream, it said to her, “I’m too badly hurt to keep going. Just let me die in peace.” Although this was not what her conscious ego wanted to hear, she knew at a deeper level that it was true about her relationship. The dream thus brought the loss fully into Adult consciousness, to be faced in reality. The transaction between them shown in the dream is Adult to Adult, even though painful.

When Ernie asked the dog what it wanted, he learnt that it meant him no harm, but neither would it let go; he had to learn to live with it. Since he had just had a sharp experience of suppressing his anger, which did not fit his self-image as a trainee chaplain, he suddenly made the connection with running away from the dog. He then had work to do in therapy to change his script about showing anger.


Archetypal images are symbols of primordial or universal human experience, recognisable mainly from folk-tales, mythology and religious traditions. They often come through the unconscious at times of deep personal struggle. For example, Michaela dreamed not of one black dog but two, beside a heavy iron gate on the road she was walking along.

Dream report:               Guard Dogs at the Gate

“There were two huge black dogs guarding a gate like in Greek pictures, facing each other with teeth bared, really vicious looking and high, with studded collars. They turned to face me. I wondered if I was going to the underworld. I knew I had to disguise my fear to get past them. I didn’t hesitate. I kept walking, pretending I wasn’t scared. The gates swung open themselves and I walked through. I woke up amazed, thinking, How did I manage that! I’m normally very frightened of dogs.”

Michaela realised that theysymbolised a test of courage, as in many archetypal myths. When she asked herself why they had appeared to her, they matched her doubts about carrying on with a course of study that was very challenging to her beliefs at the time.  She did not need to invite the guard dogs to speak. Perhaps if they had “spoken” they would have said that only the true of heart could pass through the gate. Archetypal roles speak profound truths.

Inner core

From what creative inner source do these dreams come? Obviously not from your conscious ego, which is often in conflict with other figures in the dream. When given a chance, these others speak a different truth. The perspective shown is larger and wiser than that of the ego, and thoroughly aware of what is going on internally. In some dreams, you actually know that you are in two places, both acting and observing yourself. Liz had such a dream: 

Dream report:               Eagle Over the Moors

“I was aware that I was a woman in times long gone. I was dressed in a long skirt and a woollen tartan plaid, which I wrapped around my head and across my body. I held the plaid close to me, guarding myself from the damp and cold of the mist swirling across the moors I walked upon. My steps were slow. There was no definable path……To my left was an outcrop of rock and a dominant cliff-face, its craggy and brooding façade soaring skywards. An eagle soared amongst the peaks, rising and swooping majestically between them, then down, down, to the valley floor. I could feel the air rush past my wings. With speed and strength I circled over the woman. I cared for her – I urged her to carry on.”

The effect of this dream was to give her a sense that she was not alone in her life, that she was in touch with a “higher self” that gave her more courage.

Jungians say that dreams come from the deep Self at the centre of the total psyche, both conscious and unconscious, which seeks to maintain your psychological balance (Hall, 1983). If you practise meditation, you may be seeking to get in touch with this source of inner wisdom. Some people call it the inner spirit, or the spark of God within you. In his first book, Eric Berne wrote briefly about “the fourth force of personality… the soul,” and Physis, the life force which constantly seeks growth and healing (Berne, 1947/ 68, p.98). Later, Muriel James and Louis Savary gave us the concept of the Inner Core, the universal Self (1977, p.33). They diagrammed it as a cylinder of energy moving freely through the centre of the ego states, with access to the whole personality. 

Whatever you choose to name it, there is a creative intelligence within all of us which continually produces purposeful dream-stories on the inner stage of the mind.

Post-trauma dreams and nightmares

Not all dreams are as clear as I have suggested so far. Sometimes they are full of overwhelming emotions, repeating night after night, such that you may even be afraid to go to sleep. Hayley had such horrible memories of sexual abuse in her girlhood on a farm that she tried to lock them away, refusing to talk about them. But when she moved into a flat with her boyfriend at 22, the nightmares came back, interfering with her sex-life, till she sought help from counselling. There was a particular recurring dream from childhood:

Dream report:               Dog Invading

“I’m outside a big wooden house, when I sense that the Dog is coming. I get inside fast and shut the door. I see the Dog through the windows – a big black-and-white pit-bull terrier, with lots of teeth and dripping saliva. I’m panicking. There’s another door open, and a window – I rush over and shut them just in time! It’s okay – I’m safe, but now I feel trapped.”  

Here the original memories of rape by her oldest brother have collated with the image of the most dangerous animal on the farm, and the house has become a metaphor for her body, trying to protect herself from invasion. As she talked about her experience in the safety of therapy, the buried feelings at last were released, and her fear gave way to a healthy anger. She began to take steps in real life to confront her abuser, and the nightmare evolved through a series of dreams. First the Dog stopped on the far side of the section, just watching while she crept out of the house. Then it changed into her human brother, still a fearful figure, but the rest of the family gathered round her; and finally he ran away. The dreams lost their terror. And how did she actually reclaim her sex life? She negotiated with her partner that she would be the one to initiate love-making, at least until she felt safe again.

In this example you can see the normal process of recovery from trauma reflected in her dreams. The recurring nightmare not only carried the buried emotions, but also pinpointed the worst aspect of her experience, the sense of “animal invasion.” Notice how Hayley strengthened herself by gathering her family in support, a reflection of what happened in real life. Nightmares usually waken you at a point of terror, when you are reduced to a powerless Child ego state. A good way to work with them is to use your Adult thinking, gather your resources, and re-enter the dream when you feel ready to create a new ending. 

Psychic dreams and visions

While most of your dreams will reflect current issues in your life, some people occasionally have a powerful warning dream with unexpected content, probably “photographic” in style rather than impressionistic, which conveys a sense that it might come true. I call this the “clairvoyant edge” of the mind, which is more active in some people than others, and also more active around the time of a significant death, or potentially serious injury – as if your spirit tries to warn you to prepare yourself, or take steps to change the coming event if possible. In our western scientific paradigm, many people dismiss such dreams as mere imagination, but I have found them to be remarkably widespread. Clairvoyant dreamers are often surprised and relieved to have their experience respected at last.

Josephine was admiring her friend’s new baby in its pram, when she had a sudden image that it was dead; she was so horrified that she told no one but her husband. Two months later the baby was found dead in its pram. Her precognition came true in detail. 

On the other hand, Jocelyn dreamed of “a red track along the right side of my waist. I thought, ‘It’s my nerves,’ and realised it must be shingles, but the blisters hadn’t come out yet.” When she woke, she immediately looked at her waist, expecting it to be true, and was greatly relieved to see no sign of shingles. But the dream gave her such a shock that she immediately cancelled a new commitment and reduced her workload to a more sustainable level.

It seems that such dreams should be treated as serious warnings, presenting a possible future, not necessarily pre-determined (Ryback and Sweitzer, 1989). There is also a whole range of visionary experiences, both literal and symbolic, which lie beyond the scope of this article.

The terrifying hallucinations of mental illness or certain drugs are also an extreme form of dreaming, but with a destructive effect on the mind. Whatever message you take from a dream or vision should always be checked with your Adult ego state.

Day by day dreaming

Most of your dreams will be in metaphor, and require some thought on your part to find the meaning that applies to you, as is true of all spiritual work. You may catch only a few, but they can help your self-understanding by pin-pointing issues for attention. Keep a clipboard right beside your bed, with a little torch if you wake in the dark, and jot at least some key words as soon as you wake, to be expanded a bit later if time is tight; details can be forgotten very quickly if not recorded.   File the dreams in date order, with titles, in a ringbinder, and reflect on them more fully at least once a week. Add your associations, and notice how your dream ego seems to be responding. If you are in therapy, discuss this with your therapist, who may also be willing to help you create new endings for unfinished stories, as a way of practising redecision work. 

You may also like to go to a dream workshop, and read some of the new books being written about dreamwork as a result of rising interest and research in this field. Serious students might even join the Association for the Study of Dreams, which has a website and publishes regular journals.

Whether or not you work with your dreams in therapy, they offer you direct access to the spiritual dimension of your life. As you learn to listen to your own inner counsellor, you will often be amazed at the wisdom you carry deep inside you.

Margaret Bowater, MA, is a Teaching and Supervising Transactional Analyst and psychotherapist in private practice in Auckland, New Zealand, and author of a book on dreams and visions. She is a founding co-director of both the Auckland Transactional Analysis Training Institute and the Human Development and Training Institute of NZ, where she tutors in transactional analysis, dreamwork and spirituality, including a 100-hour Dreamwork Practice Certificate.


  • Association for the Study of Dreams, Website: Journal: Dreaming.
  • Berne, E. (1968). A Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis. London: Penguin.
    (Originally published as The Mind in Action, 1947).
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    London: Corgi Books.
  • Bowater, M. (1997). Dreams and Visions – Language of the Spirit. Auckland, NZ: Tandem Press.
  • Goulding, M. and Goulding, R. (1979). Changing Lives Through Redecision Therapy. New York:
    Grove Press.
  • Hall, J. (1983). Jungian Dream Interpretation: A Handbook of Theory and Practice. Toronto: 
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    Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.
  • Ryback, D. and Sweitzer, L. (1988). Dreams That Come True. New York: Doubleday. 


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