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Dreams as a Mirror of Change in Personal Mythology

by Stanley Krippner, PhD*
In her record album Mythical Kings and Iguanas, the song-writer and singer Dory Previn states a compelling personal myth. Lyrics reflecting her former belief that "everything of worth is in the sky, and not the earth" help Previn reckon with her disappointment in realizing the lifelong costs of having been guided by a personal myth that favored chasing "Mythical Kings" rather than going "down, down, down where the iguanas play." Previn laments, "I never learned to touch the real, or feel the things iguanas feel." Her album portrays the heartaches of pursuits governed by a mythology that did not come to terms with the many sides of human nature.

We all confront situations at various points in our lives that force us to make difficult choices: majoring in business or in art, living in the suburbs or "returning to the land," using leisure time to write a poem or plant a garden. Each of these decisions is influenced by the nature of our underlying personal mythology. If that mythology consistently develops one aspect of us to the detriment of others, a realization may eventually occur where we begin to push in the other direction.

This is what happened to Dory Previn whose conclusion is clear: "Curse the mind that mounts the clouds in search of Mythical Kings and only mystical things, mystical things. Cry for the soul that will not face the body as an equal place...." This conclusion, however, is not necessarily the final word because prevailing myths die hard. Previn's dawning awareness may be part of a mythic struggle that will require years to resolve. But her awareness of the mythic dimension of that struggle can help her live it through with greater peace, understanding, and an appreciation for its role in her personal evolution.

We might say that Dory Previn was portraying a modern rendition of the medieval allegory of the search for the Holy Grail. This knightly expedition symbolized the perpetual quest for personal fulfillment. Some modern psychologists refer to this lifelong process as "individuation," a term coined by Carl Jung who conducted pioneering work in blending mythology and psychotherapy. Regardless of the terms used, it is important to recognize that during periods of social upheaval in mythology of many cultures throughout the world, effective therapists, regardless of their theoretical orientation, need to develop an awareness of the mythology in which they themselves operate, and help their clients understand the deeply personal myths that give form to their reality and shape their behavior.

The Concept of "Personal Mythology"

In 1926, the art critic Carl Einstein used the term "private mythology" to describe the worldview of the painter Paul Klee, especially as Klee formulated it in his world. Alfred Adler used the same concept, speaking of "guiding fictions" that direct individuals' lives. During a speech celebrating Sigmund Freud's 80th birthday in 1936 in Vienna, Thomas Mann described what he called the "lived myth": "While in the life of the human race the mythical is an early and primitive stage, in the life of the individual it is a late and mature one. What is gained is an insight into the higher truth depicted in the actual; a smiling knowledge of the eternal, the ever-being and authentic; a knowledge of the schema in which and according to which the supposed individual lives."

Freud selected the Oedipal myth to portray what he felt was the pivotal dilemma in human development. Jung claimed to find striking parallels in dreams, works of art, and the patterns of cultural mythologies, and he discussed his own "personal myth" in his autobiography, stating, "I have undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth." The term "personal myth" was used by Ernst Kris in l956 to describe certain elusive dimensions of the human personality for which psychoanalysts must account if their attempts to bring about changes are to be effective and lasting. A.J. Ferreia was the first to use the term "family myth" to describe certain well-integrated belief systems that are shared by the members of a family.

In the 1970s, Rollo May remarked that the "the underlying function of psychotherapy is the indirect reinterpretation and remolding of the patient's symbols and myths…. "The individual must define his or her own values according to personal myths...Authentic values for a given patient emerge out of the personal myth of the patient." As a result, continued May, psychotherapy can best be described as the collaboration between therapist and patient in the adventure of exploring the patient's awareness of himself (or herself) and others. "The person can then cultivate his own awareness of his personal myth, which will yield his values and identity as well as give him some shared basis for interpersonal relationships."

From a psychological perspective, I would define "myth" as an imaginal story or statement that addresses existential human issues, and that has behavioral consequences. This is in line with Joseph Campbell's proposal that myths are "motivated from a single psychophysiological source -- namely the human imagination." Myths often, but not always, employ symbol and metaphor; they are usually, but not always, expressed in verbal narrative. Myths can be cultural, institutional, familial, or personal in nature; a "mythology" is the interwoven (and sometimes contradictory) collection of myths held by a culture, institution, family, or individual. Unlike such related terms as "scripts," "attitudes," "beliefs," or "worldviews," the word "myth" is able to encompass the unconscious as well as the conscious dimensions of the concept.

Are Myths "Real"?

Mythology has not received good press during the past several centuries. The dominant social voices of modern Western culture have relegated all knowledge that can not be grasped by the rational mind into the realm of superstition. But Western culture is not well-served by the consequences of this stilted, mechanistic world-view. From a "postmodern" perspective, there are many potential beliefs, narratives, and realities, all of them socially constructed -- and not necessarily with the rational mind that "modernism" considers the only viable way of discovering "truth."

The word "myth" has been tainted by common usage where it has come to refer to a falsehood. Partially for this reason, however, it is urgently appropriate to revitalize the deep significance of this powerful concept as it enhances the vitality of psychological explanations while reflecting the hypothetical nature inherent in any social construction of reality. Rather than being judged as "true" or "false," a myth can be best thought of as a way of making sense of reality. A myth may ultimately be judged as being functional and effective or dysfunctional and ineffective for a particular purpose at a particular point in time for a given individual, family, institution, or society.

Psychologists with a post-modern perspective realize that any version of reality is at its core a mythical construction. As a result, the old notions of "objective" knowledge have been thrown into a mythic netherland. Human beings, nevertheless, typically proceed to swim like fish in the sea of myths from which they operate. A fish, of course, is the least likely to Nature's creatures to discover the existence of water--at least until it leaves the pond. In a way, this is how people discover their own personal myths. They draw upon their capacity for self-reflection, which psychologists often call the "observing ego," to step out of that pond and examine the substance of the personal myths that comprise the reality in which their conscious awareness is typically submerged.

Individuals are all called upon to update their basic mythological understanding of the world as they gather new experiences along the life cycle. Understanding that their conceptions of reality are mythical in nature makes it easier for them to revise and reformulate old ways of thinking rather than to feel pressured to defend outdated views. Their personal mythologies, therefore, are their ever-changing systems of complementary and conflicting personal myths. A personal myth can be thought of as a cognitive structure--a pattern of thinking and feeling that gives meaning to the past, defines the present, and provides direction for the future. It serves the functions of explaining, guiding, and sacralizing experience for the individual in a manner that is analogous to the way cultural myths once served those functions for a society.

Changing Myths in People's Lives

Working with personal myths in terms of cognitive-affective structures allows the use of those principles that have been established through the study of beliefs and attitudes to better understand how personal myths operate. For instance, psychologists have found that cognitive structures may be coded verbally or pictorially, may or may not exist within the individual's awareness, may be determined either by heredity or experience, may operate at various levels of human life, and may change according to lawful patterns that are governed by the principles of assimilation and accommodation as described by such researchers as Jean Piaget. In our book The Mythic Path, David Feinstein and I have observed that personal myths emerge from the mythic structure in which one has been psychologically embedded, and move to other integrated sets of guiding images and premises. Personal conflicts -- both in one's inner life and external circumstances -- often are natural markers of these times of transition.

Personal myths are tied closely to the complex mythology of the culture. When the Rolling Stones complained, "I can't get no satisfaction," and the Beatles announced "She's leaving home," thousands of troubled teenagers in the turbulent l960s found new images to represent the deep discontent they felt with their family lives. This discontent also was given voice in the l980s by the Police who sang,

Another suburban morning

Grandmother screaming at the wall;

We have to shout above the din of our Rice Crispies

We can't hear anything at all."

"Mother chants her litany of boredom and frustration

But we know all her suicides are fake,

Daddy only stares into the distance

There's only so much more that he can take."

These lyrics gave adolescents an alternative to the prevailing notion that they were merely going through a stage of teenage rebellion before conforming to social norms and adjusting to the responsibilities of adulthood. In its place emerged a picture that addressed and validated their complaints about societal values and the inability of their parents' generation to understand them. This new image supported their desires to seek out a new meaning and a new ethic for how they wanted to live their lives. Changes in lifestyles, work styles, education, and religion have resulted.

Like cultures, each individual has an image of how the universe works and of his or her place in it. While personal myths are derived, in part, from the myths of the culture, the process moves in both directions. Each individual's personal mythology contributes to the ongoing dynamic development of the surrounding culture's mythology as well. Personal myths serve the individual in a manner that is similar to the way cultural myths function in a society. We can think of our personal mythology as including all the interacting and sometimes conflicting thoughts and feelings we consciously and unconsciously have about our world. These thoughts and feelings shape our comprehension of what the world is and of what our place is in it, and they shape the actions we will take as we live our lives. Our myths do not always engage our conscious mind, but they are always intimately affecting our lives. We are most likely to become conscious of a given myth when a change is occurring within it.

The Formulation of Personal Myths

Dreams appear to synthesize one's existing mythic structures with the data of one's life experiences and serve as a mirror of change in one's personal mythology. Frequently when there is an incongruity between one's underlying mythic structure and an experience, it is the task of the dream to resolve the difference. Some dreams accomplish this by reinterpreting the experience so that it will fit the myth, a process similar to Piaget's concept of assimilation. Other dreams emphasize weaknesses in the mythic structure, allowing that structure to adjust to the new experiences; this is Piaget's concept of accommodation. Such dreams highlight ways the mythic structure is failing the person or at least failing to adequately account for the person's experiences.

Maggie had terrifying recurring dreams that she was fleeing a huge and ugly monster. She was so troubled by these dreams that she tried to draw pictures of the monster, hoping to look more clearly at what was frightening her, but she couldn't quite capture the image. The next time she had the dream, she was so determined to remember what the creature looked like that she actually turned to face it in the dream, but it disappeared. The dream occurred again, but this time when the monster disappeared, she ran after it, finally catching up and actually touching it. As she touched it, she screamed in terror, and at that moment it turned into a beautiful horse-like creature. She rode it, whirling in a sky of clouds of blue until she found she was in the embrace of a man.

Maggie awoke, realizing that she had the same feeling of terror in her first experiences with dating, and as a result she had held herself distant and aloof from men. She had always had a hard time responding sexually. Taking clues from the dream, she allowed herself to permit more sexual fantasy into her awareness and, later, into her life, even making an animated film that incorporated some of her dream images. She began to open up more and more to intimate contact on both the emotional and sexual levels.

It is from the same realm of inner forces that weaves dreams and feeds intuition that personal myths are given form. Indeed, it is probably as natural for the human being to make myths as to develop language. While personal myths shape awareness, they themselves operate largely outside of ordinary consciousness. It is possible, however, to willfully bring many aspects of our mythology into our awareness, e.g., by recalling dreams and keeping a dream journal.

If personal myths are largely unconscious, how do they affect one's daily life? The quality and direction one's life takes is a product of the choices made every day. People's personal mythology forms the foundation of these choices because it determines how they perceive, how they feel, how they think, and the assumptions they make about what actions will cause which outcomes. Ultimately, their personal mythology will be most usefully understood in the language they use when they think about their lives. Such understanding is mythic because it is an imaginal narrative, revealed through waking and dream symbols and metaphors, and through understanding one's past in terms of a story that addresses important human concerns. The great insight of Freudian psychology is that one's past provides the basis of one's unconscious mythic patterns, as well as his or her conscious attitudes and beliefs.

A person's inner stories are not the only folkway that conveys mythic information. The prevalence of society's electronic media has a powerful impact on the ways that cultural myths are shaped. Music and songs are already among the most ubiquitous ways that old myths are examined and new myths are conveyed. Country and Western lyrics sometimes show us how certain mythic patterns sabotage our efforts while at the same time help up smile at our personal tragedies, as in the painful romantic drama: "If you won't leave me, darling, I'll find somebody who will!" An analysis of popular music would probably provide as penetrating an understanding of the emerging myths in contemporary culture as any other indicator.

Personal mythologies are woven from many strands, including all the events of one's past, the myths of the culture in which one was raised and lives, the requirements of one's genetic programming, and those inspirational moments which allow a person to sense the spiritual essence of the universe and peek into its nature. Since personal mythology has its roots in the ways an individual learned to make sense of his or her world during childhood, it inevitably lacks balance. This is inevitable because the mythic world-view that develops during childhood is largely determined by the hopes, fears, strengths, and fallibilities of parents and by other circumstances beyond one's control. Nevertheless, that mythology shapes a person's desires, attitudes, and choices just as the unconscious impacts one's dream life. While personal mythologies continually mature throughout the years and one may have some conscious access to that process, it is a realm that, for most people, operates largely below the level of awareness. Nonetheless, a price is paid for its imbalances and limitations, and for any disharmony with a person's actual needs, traits, or potentials.

Intervening in a Myth's Evolution

Personal myths appear to form in a manner that is parallel to the way dreams develop. It can be hypothesized that personal myths are related to the brain's propensity for language and story-telling. As such, they play an active role in the ongoing revision of the individual's personal mythology. While dreams serve many physiological and psychodynamic functions, the function that receives the greatest attention in working with personal myths involves dreams' role in synthesizing the person's existing mythic structure with the data of that person's ongoing life experiences. As Montague Ullman notes, "Our dreams serve as corrective lenses which, if we learn to use them properly, enable us to see ourselves and the world about us with less distortion and with greater accuracy."

Frequently there is a conflict in one's personal mythology that affects one's feelings, thoughts, or behavior, and a mythic crisis is apparent in regard to one's personal development. This crisis occurs when a prevailing myth becomes so outdated or otherwise dysfunctional that the psyche generates a counter-myth to organize perceptions and responses in that prototypical area. When this occurs, the psyche is in conflict, as each competing myth becomes a psychological entity attempting to dominate prototypical situations with its particular modes of perceiving and responding.

The conflict between the old myth and the counter-myth is joined on a largely unconsciously basis. Among the processes that occur is one where the counter-myth becomes crystallized and develops within the cognitive system, emerging in response to the old myth's limitations. It challenges the old myth and the two become engaged in a dialectical process. This resembles the way the cultural myths often reflect the polarities of a given society, and attempt to resolve the dialectical struggle in narrative form.

Dreams can play an important role in presenting to the dreamer his or her mythic structure. Dreams can itemize each aspect of one's personal mythology and can point out when an old personal myth has become inadequate for the satisfactory handling of current life issues. The dream can point out when personal myths have become inadequate, can provide a dialectical encounter between old and new myths, and can meditate conflicts between myths, even providing new mythic structures and facilitating synthesis.

By monitoring their inner life, individuals can learn about their personal mythology from dreams and can determine the progression being made toward developing functional, positive myths. Effective myths accommodate one's developmental needs, accommodate unknown parts of the psyche, capitalize on opportunities and strengths, and deal with one's deficiencies realistically. They accommodate polarities and enable a healthy dialectic to ensue that leads to individual to higher and higher levels of synthesis.


Campbell, J. (1986). The inner reaches of outer space: Metaphor as myth and religion. New York: Alfred van der Marck.

Feinstein, D., & Krippner, S. (1997). The mythic path. New York: J. P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Feinstein, D., & Krippner, S. (1989). Personal myths -- in the family way. Journal of Psychotherapy and the Family, 4, 111-139.

Ferreira, A.J. (1963). Family myth and homeostasis. Archives of General Psychiatry, 9, 457-463.

Jung, C.G. (1961). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York: Random House.

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May, R. (1975). Values, myths, and symbols. American Journal of Psychiatry, 32, 703-706.

Piaget, J. (l952). The origins of intelligence in children's thought. New York: International Universities Press.

Ullman, M. (1979). The experiential dream group. In B.B. Wolman (ed.), Handbook of dreams: Research, theories and applications (pp. 406-423). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Ullman, M., & Zimmerman, N. (l979). Working with dreams. New York; Delacorte.

Warmoth, A. (l965). A note on the peak experience as a personal myth. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 5, l8-2l.

*Professor of Psychology, Saybrook Graduate School.


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