Color and Emotion in Dreams and in Life

Drake Wood Duck*

If you pay attention to the natural world around you, it is not hard to see that plants and animals utilize color in all of its grandeur. The same is true for you and your unique psychology. Your inner world and specifically your dreams, utilize color to help you gain insights into your emotional life and well-being.

Plants and animals utilize color for a variety of reasons. For example, male animals have evolved to utilize color to attract mates. Other animals use color as camouflage to hide from their enemies. Plants have colorful flowers to attract insects and birds to help with pollination and seed dispersal. It could be said that the use of color in nature in plants and animals is an important component for the survival of the species.

Human animals are no different. Psychiatrist Carl Jung said about our inner animal parts, “Without realizing the animal that is within you, how could you ever understand yourself?” For psychologists and psychotherapists who are witness to the dreams of our patients and clients, we see and learn that color is utilized in life and in dreams as both important survival mechanisms and to impart emotion and meaning into a dreamer’s life.

Strong emotion in dreams such as when a dream figure is crying, or when there is anger or passion in a dream, is at times symbolized by specific colors. It is common for the color red, for example, to be linked with especially strong emotions in dreams. Color in dreams and in life, can be seen to connect you with your emotions and indirectly with meaning, since a more feeling-centered life can translate into a more meaningful life.

A 33 year old woman who was depressed and who had shut down on her emotions dreamed of a painted jacket. The depressive state that she was absorbed by influenced her seeing the world as a dark, colorless place. At best, during this state, she saw the world in shades of gray. And then she dreamed:

James and my mom bought me this really colorful white painted jacket with yellow, green and blue squares. I wasn’t sure if I liked it.

This dream seems to be suggesting to her that she needs more color in her life, but that she is not too sure if she is ready for it.  The dream is compensatory in nature and function helping to point towards a balance contrasting with the dark and frightening place that she had been experiencing. She drew a picture of the painted jacket from her dream and gave me permission to use it here. She worked with this image from her dream, and along with other things, it helped to guide her back into a life with more color.

Let us now look at another dream that further illustrates this idea. The dreamer was a 56 year old man, bitter and disappointed with his life, and this was equally reflected in his attitude. He had fond childhood memories of visiting a large marsh teeming with life and he had been discussing these memories in therapy. Shortly afterwards he dreamt:

I was at the marsh.  I saw drake wood ducks. They were not supposed to be there at this time.

It is interesting how this dream used the marsh and the image of a male wood duck. The drake wood duck is arguably the most colorful and beautiful of all of the duck species in the world (see the photo at the top of page). Its colors are so distinct and intricate, that when you look at this bird close up, it appears almost unreal. For this man, that is exactly how he had been viewing his current life’s predicament: his bitter and cynical view of the world was “unreal,” and not an objective appraisal of his reality.  Yet, his dream brings up another completely different perspective. By coupling fond childhood memories with a colorful and beautiful bird that he knew from that time, the dream appears to be showing him that if viewed differently, his current life could be seen as a thing of beauty, full of both real and symbolic color like that of the wood duck.

The utilization of color in dreams and in these specific dream examples, is not a means of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. It is entirely different. The unconscious, the source of dreams, is wiser than that. Color appears at times to be utilized as a great equalizer to one’s perspective—to one’s attitude. Color is often used in dreams and in one’s inner world as compensatory in nature. The overall perspective and general mood of the bitter and cynical man who dreamed of the wood duck has the dangerous possibility of becoming one-sided, distorted, and not based on the truth of his life. After reflecting upon the wood duck image and the other fond childhood images, this man began to bring more symbolic color into his world-view and attitude.

Depression and other mental health conditions can lead to similar negative perspectives, so balance is necessary and vital for good mental health. The unconscious through dreams and other methods cares about your survival. Similar to how nature utilizes color to help with the propagation of the species, such as with attracting mates for animals and with facilitating pollination in plants, your dreams and the vivid color linked with emotion in dreams help to bring balance to a life that has “gone gray.”


*photograph of wood duck by Dan Anderson, Eagle River, WI






© 2012, Dr. Jeff Howlin. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Color and Emotion in Dreams and in Life

  1. Ira Katz says:

    Dr. Jeff- I really liked this blog. It reminded me of something a colleague told me once about his own life- “Most people see Life in black and white- I see and live it in color.” I wondered how I see life. Particularly now in my struggles with the most severe pain I had yesterday from my cancer. It was very black and white and after a very long day beginning at 5am and ending at 10p.m with two very colorful events one a cancer support group with a pot luck and a Children’s Christmas Party at the Chinese American organization I belong too I felt like that wood duck and not like the beautiful flower. And most of the week due to the cold and rain I was unable to complete my physical therapy exercise with my bright blue walker around my cul-de-sac. I am happy to report that moments ago I took out the walker and achieved my best time ever- 13 minutes- my worst and first was 40 minutes. At the end I felt very sunny, and colorful and beyond black and white. And guess what- no pain. Tomorrow I go to the hospital for my physical therapy appointment. In fact I have 4 appointments tomorrow. But now I feel very robust, full of energy and even brighter than my true blue walker. Your blog really helped me to focus on getting beyond black and white. I had also just finished watching a wonderful movie called Half and Half that is the most realistic movie I have seen that shows how cancer afffects the people around the patient and patient him or herself. Life is good. Before today my dream was quite dark and for almost half a day I was so tired and painful that doing the cul-de-sac walk and the physical therapy exercises was a million miles away. Now a feel like a human top vibrating brightly like that wonderful jacket you were given. It reminded me of the first time a looked inside a kaleidoscope and enjoyed the many colors and sensations it generated. Thank you for this stimulating blog.

    Still vibrating in colors,

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Hi Ira,

      Thanks so much for the reply Ira. The statement that you remembered from a colleague about his life in which he stated, “Most people see life in black and white-I see and live it in color,” is alot like what this post was about.

      I appreciate your reflections and thoughts about my writing, and I hope that you are able to have a pleasant, joyful celebration of Christmas with your family.


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