Understanding Adaptive Responses in the Analysis of Dreams from the Standpoint of Cocreative Dream Theory

Gregory Scott Sparrow, Ed.D., Associate Professor
University of Texas-Pan American
Faculty, Atlantic University

Co-presenter in a Symposium with
Ryan Hurd (chair), Robert Waggoner, and Chris Olsen


In his classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn said, "when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them," and that "scientists see new and different things when looking...in places they have looked before." Indeed, he asserts that "a paradigm is a prerequisite to perception itself." Operating from within a new paradigm, according to Kuhn, a researcher will formulate new problems and be able to answer new questions––questions that may have never been asked before, nor even considered meaningful or relevant.


Co-creative dream theory can be seen as a way of looking afresh at the formation, unfoldment, and outcome of the dream experience. Simply defined, it posits that dreams are indeterminate from the outset and co-created through the real-time interchange between the dreamer and the dream imagery. While traditional content-oriented dream inquiry focuses primarily on the dream as a fixed narrative, and analyzing the meaning of static dream imagery, the cocreative paradigm looks principally at how the dreamer's responses impact the dream imagery and vice versa in a synchronous, reciprocal exchange. Focusing on the dream's interactive process leads naturally to a comparison of the dream with waking relationship dynamics. So, in cocreative dream theory, there is a search for interactive process parallels between dreaming and waking, resulting a more encompassing lens through which one can view the dream experience.

This theory owes its emergence in part to lucid dream research, which has clearly established that dreamers can become aware, make choices, and influence the course of the dream's outcome. However, I have argued
elsewhere that the emphasis on lucidity per se has obscured to some extent the presence of reflective awareness and self-determination in nonlucid dreams. In 1972, Rossi––who never used the word lucid dreaming in the first edition of Dreams and the Growth of Personality––hypothesized that there is a continuum of all possible balances between the self-determining, reflective capacity of the dreamer and the autonomous creation of dream content. Rossi's contributions have been slow to take hold, perhaps because he has not developed a systematic method consistent with co-creative dream theory.

From the standpoint of co-creative dream theory, the analysis of the dreamer's style of relating to the dream becomes central to the dream work. Questions rarely if ever asked in content-oriented dream work, become essential in cocreative dream analysis. Questions such as, "What were you thinking when you responded in that way?" "What could you have done differently?" "What would have been the consequence of a different reaction?" and "How did the dream imagery change (or not change) in response to what you did?" grow naturally out of the relational orientation of cocreative dream theory. Indeed, the dreamer's responses can be seen as either facilitating or thwarting a relationship with the dream content, the nature of which may vary according to one's theoretical position. One may adopt the co-creative model, however, without taking any position on the ultimate nature of the dream imagery.

In my efforts to apply co-creative dream theory to psychotherapy, I have found that over time, nonlucid and lucid dreamers alike will exhibit predictable types of responses to their dreams, which clearly impede the resolution of longstanding conflicts as well as the integration of new awarenesses and competencies. Unless the dreamer becomes aware of how chronic responses can get in the way of further development, and endeavors to modify them, the process of problem resolution and individuation will thereby be delayed. While it is useful in and of itself simply to help dreamers become aware of these counterproductive responses, and to encourage the formulation of new responses in one's dream and waking life, such efforts are more likely to succeed if the origins of the dreamer's chronic responses are understood, as well.

I would like to describe to you two sources of what I have referred to as "chronic adaptive responses," that impede the dreamer's ability to adjust constructively to the requirements of the moment.

The first type of chronic adaptive response derives from early experiences of loss and trauma. I call these responses "reactive adaptive responses"  (RAR). The second type of adaptive response, which I call "compliant adaptive response," owes its origins to parental and cultural indoctrination. I will illustrate the manifestation of these two types of understandable, but counterproductive responses with client dreams.

I didn't develop the theory of chronic adaptive responses through my work with dreams. Actually, it came about through my teaching group theory and methods at the University of Texas-Pan American, and leading therapeutic groups over the past 25 years as a therapist. You might ask, what does group theory have to do with dream analysis? Once we adopt an interactive, relational view of dreaming, then knowledge of relationship dynamics in other fields, such as family systems, can shed light on the relational dynamics in the dream. Specifically, contemporary research into the stages of group development indicates that group members pass through an unstable stage of adjustment following the initial few meetings. It is called by various terms, such the "storming" stage, or the "transitional" stage, and it is characterized by an array of behaviors that come about, according to many theorists, as a way to resist the growing intimacy and interpersonal risks inherent in group work. Most of these behaviors are not disruptive in and of themselves, but become jarring over time by how frequently members resort to them. Advice giving, abstractness, excessive reticence, monopolizing, aggressiveness, dependency, superiority, hyper-emotionality, and "bandaiding" are some of the behaviors that are often cited in the literature. But any behavior that is chronic over time, can be seen as a barrier to greater intimacy and vulnerability.

I was dissatisfied with the traditional view of this behavior, because by referring to it as resistive or disruptive without analyzing its roots, it made it difficult for me to teach my graduate students how to deal with it in an understanding and compassionate way. So I began to examine the sources of these chronic behaviors, and discovered that when group members are given a chance to explore the origins, they come up with two distinct underlying causes. On one hand, they can trace such behaviors to past trauma and loss. When this is true, then the behavior represents a strategy for preventing similar painful interpersonal experiences from recurring. For instance, a 40-year old male client whose alcoholic stepfather would beat his frail mother developed a tendency to crack jokes in order to defuse the tension at home. While the behavior worked to distract his stepfather, it proved disruptive in later relationships, including his involvement in a therapeutic group, when the man resorted to humor without considering the context. I began to refer to any interpersonal behavior, which is designed to prevent trauma and loss from recurring, as reactive adaptive response.

In other cases, the group members would discover that a particular chronic response could be traced to a desire to gain acceptance and love within one's family and culture. Instead of preventing something terrible from happening again, this type of behavior is designed to win approval, and to reap its positive benefits. For instance, a Latino woman, who always offered to help others in the group even when it wasn't needed, was able to trace her unexamined caring responses to her mother, who gave herself tirelessly to her family's needs. To distinguish this type of behavior from the reactive type, I termed it "compliant adaptive response." The consequence of early programming results in a splitting of the self into acceptable and unacceptable aspects, thereby giving rise to what Object Relations theorists refer to as the good me and bad me, or what Jung would call the persona and the shadow.

After working with these concepts in teaching group therapy for several years, I suddenly realized that chronic adaptive responses occur in dreams, as well, and become especially evident over the course of analyzing multiple dreams from the same client, or in single dreams with heightened affect.

Let's look at how these constructs of reactive and compliant adaptive behavior become useful in the analysis of dreams.

A 34-year teacher and mother of two reported that she … dreams that she is standing on the street outside a movie theater with her sister and a friend. Her sister is dressed in a beautiful blue outfit. The dreamer wants to go into the movie, but remembers that she has some school work that she needs to do. Her sister and her friend get in line to buy tickets, while the dreamer waits for a school bus to pass before crossing the street.

When the dreamer shared this dream in my group class, we used the Five Star Method and focused initially on her decision not to join her sister and friend, since the dreamer's response is the centerpiece of co-creative dream work. Of course, her amplifications of the movie, the blue outfit, her sister, and the school bus all proved valuable as a subsequent step in the Five Star Method. When reflecting on her decision, she said that when given a choice between work and play, she almost always chose to work. She said that she derived a great deal of praise from her family of origin and her colleagues from having an especially beautiful and well-managed home, and an award-winning classroom, but that she often longed for more relaxation and enjoyment in her life. She said that her mother had been the same way, and was now regarded as a veritable saint among her family and friends. Her sister, however, had always put fun and enjoyment on an equal footing with work. She realized that the sister and the friend represented her shadow self, who was willing to put her own enjoyment first. So this dream reveals quite clearly a compliant adaptive response, which upon reflection she realized that she manifested chronically in every interpersonal context, including her dreams. This one is easy to see, isn't it? But where these constructs prove their worth is in considering less obvious dreams. Take for instance one of my own, which occurred years ago.

I am at my childhood home, and a pickup truck full of gifts––outdoor sports items, in particular––pulls up in the driveway. A man whom I know to be God gets out and walks up to me. He says, "This is all yours." I struggle, feeling unsure of what to say. I then say, "I am not sure I can accept it." He then says, "Will you accept it for me?" I reply, "I don't know." I then sit down on the ground and begin to meditate, struggling with the decision.

When I asked myself, where the did I get the idea that I couldn't accept all of that treasure, I immediately thought of my father. I recalled countless times when my father, who grew up in the South during Depression, would recount stories of how hardship brought people together. He was always mistrustful––even subtly contemptuous of wealthy people––and missed several opportunities to greatly increase his net worth over the course of his life. While there are certainly other sources of my attitude, I realized that I had unwittingly emulated my father's romantic ideal of poverty and struggle, and had on occasion failed to seize the moment when wondrous opportunities presented themselves. I, too, often prided myself on getting by with less. No wonder he often said, with affection, "We are a lot alike."

Reactive and compliant responses can be observed in lucid dreams as well. While we may believe that we are "free" to do whatever we'd like to do, we may be more constrained by unexamined influences than we realize. Take for the instance the case of a young woman I counseled years ago, who would become lucid in her dreams almost every night. I was impressed by that, but then I observed over the course of our work that she would almost always fly away from whatever was happening in the dream, regardless of whether it was stressful or not. While she thought nothing of it at first, she began to realize that avoidance was her primary strategy to prevent the kind of wounding experiences she had suffered at the hands of her mother. Flight had become her primary reactive adaptive response to waking and dream situations, alike.

I will conclude with one example taken from my group classes. During one meeting, a group member volunteered to share a dream and have six members of the class work join me in working with him on analyzing it. Familiar with the Five Star Method, which is a systematic approach to dream analysis based on co-creative dream theory that I have developed, the group was prepared to focus on the dreamer's responses as the most important dimension of our work.

The dream was as follows: I am sitting at a table working on my paper for Dr. Sparrow's class, when I hear a knock on the sliding glass door behind me. I turn and see that it is my dead father, who is dressed in a suit. I am annoyed by the interruption, and turn around to resume my work. He continues to knock until he finally he goes away.

The dream work proceeded through the first two steps of the
Five Star Method of sharing feelings and extracting the dream's theme or process narrative. But then the group focused on the centerpiece of the Five Star Method, which is the analysis of the dreamer's responses, and their impact on the dream. Analyzing the man's responses, the group respectfully noted the dreamer's commitment to his work, but went on to inquire about his unyielding resistance to his father's overtures. At first the dreamer could only recall that he felt committed to completing his task and was annoyed by the interruption. But then he admitted that it was also a way of avoiding further emotional hurt. He went on to explain that his father, had cruelly harshly rejected his pregnant non-Caucasian wife when he returned from overseas to introduce her to his parents. My student did what many people would have done: He protected his family by walking away, and never looking back. Even when his father was terminally ill, the man did not contact him. His father died without any further contact with his son.

In reflecting on his steadfast refusal to answer the door, the man admitted that "walking away" had become something that he did well, perhaps too well. While he wasn't willing to question his decision to cut his father off, he did see how he resorted to this reactive adaptive response in relation to other stressful situations. He was able to say at the end of the work that he needed to revisit some of those decisions with an eye to reopening some doors. Meanwhile, the group accepted their classmate's tentative and provisional commitment to change.

Once these responses are identified and traced to earlier trauma and/or family or cultural expectations, a variety of methods can be employed to modify the dreamer's responses in both dreams and waking relationships. I have spoken previously at IASD about a methodology that I employ called "dream reliving," in which the dreamer relives in fantasy the dream as if he or she were lucid, and exercises new responses to the situations that arise in the re-imagined dream. This practice can serve to modify a person's responses to future dreams, as well have an immediate healing effect. In addition to focusing on troubleshooting and revising dreamer responses in the dream itself, the therapeutic work may also define other courses of action in order to emancipate the dreamer/client from the prior constraints of chronic adaptive responses. One such method is to incorporate this model into group dream work, where the members can help each other discern chronic adaptive responses to the dream and to life, as well as to support the expression of more congruent, facilitative responses.

In summary, I have described a framework that has grown out of working with therapeutic groups that can be applied to co-creative dream work as well. Once one adopts the co-creative paradigm, a variety of concepts and interventions that have been developed in systems or relational therapy can be employed in therapeutic dream work resulting in a robust approach that is especially congruent to contemporary psychotherapy with its emphasis on personal choice, responsibility, and freedom. This particular concept of chronic adaptive responses can also assist frequent lucid dreamers, who may wish to examine their style of responding in lucid dreams in light of past, unexamined influences that may be standing in the way of a more flexible response to the myriad of opportunities that typically arise in the lucid state.