Dreams can be fascinating. In the past, psychologists were really into interpreting dreams. Some people claimed they could tell you exactly what your dream meant. They even had guidebooks that associated dream content with various meanings. I think it can be helpful to consider and analyze your dreams, but dreams can be confusing! How can we make sense of our dreams?
Dreams Can Access the Unconscious
Dreams are interesting because they can access the unconscious. Psychologists believe there are two main parts of yourself. First, there is the conscious self, which consists of everything you are presently aware of (e.g., your thoughts, feelings, memories, and bodily sensations). Second, there is the unconscious self, which consists of everything else that you are not aware of. It’s difficult to access the unconscious self, because by definition, you aren’t aware of it.
But the unconscious self can be powerful. Maybe you have had a reaction in your body (e.g., can’t sleep, red splotches on body), but you don’t know why. Something is going on, but it’s happening in your unconscious. You aren’t aware of it. Or maybe you had an extreme reaction toward someone, but it didn’t fit the situation, and your reaction confused you. Again, something is going on, but it’s happening in your unconscious. You aren’t aware of it.
Dreams are one way to access the unconscious. When you dream, it’s not under your conscious control. Your mind is free to do whatever it wants. The unconscious is given free reign, and this can be an insightful window to some of the things that are happening inside us that we might not be aware of. But sometimes dreams can seem confusing and jumbled. How can we interpret our dreams in a meaningful way?
Remember Your Dreams
The first step to interpreting your dreams is to remember them. Many of us struggle with remembering our dreams. We might wake up and remember a dream initially, but it fades fast. Before we have fully woken up, we have lost it. You can’t interpret what you can’t remember.
My main suggestion is to keep a notepad and pen by your bed at all times to record your dreams. As soon as you wake up, roll over and write down whatever you remember about your dream. Don’t try to think about it or edit, just write down anything you remember.
Interpret Your Dreams
Once we have written down our dreams, how can we make sense of them? Here are 6 key points to help you interpret your dreams:
- Dreams often contain a variety of meanings. When we dream, our mind takes everything that is rolling around in our head (e.g., thoughts, feelings, memories) and creates a story with them. Often this story is nonsensical. In other words, it doesn’t make sense as a whole, like a movie or book. So don’t worry about trying to come up with one overall meaning for your dream as a whole. Instead, recognize that your dream probably includes a variety of meanings, and that’s okay.
- Latent content is more important than manifest content. There are two types of content that appear in your dreams—latent content and manifest content. Manifest content is the actual subject matter of your dream (e.g., what actually occurred). Latent content gets at the underlying symbolic meaning of your dream. This symbolic meaning is more representative of what is happening in your unconscious.
- The characters in your dream often represent parts of you. Sometimes people spend a lot of time trying to figure out who the characters represent in their dreams. More often than not, the characters in your dream represent parts of you. Remember, the entire dream is your own creation. Sometimes characters represent parts of yourself that you try to repress or deny (e.g., a violent character may represent an aggressive part of yourself that you try to repress because it is scary).
- Free associate about your dream. After you have written your dream down, read over it again. What comes to mind when you think about your dream? Write down any reactions you have to your dream. Write down any associations or connections you see between your dream and what is happening in your life.
- What feelings does your dream evoke? Spend some time and consider the feelings that your dream evokes inside you. Does your dream feel sad? Does it feel angry? Does it feel scary? Does it feel happy? Does it feel excited? Does it feel tender? The feelings associated with the dream can be a clue for what is going on inside your unconscious.
- What does it mean? Remember, latent content is more important than manifest content. As you free associate about your dream, and consider the feelings that your dream evokes, what comes up for you? What symbolic meaning might your dream have? I think it’s important to remember that dream interpretation isn’t an exact science. Your dream might not have some grand meaning, and that’s okay. Or your dreams might be confusing. That’s okay too. The key is to see if your dreams might offer a clue to what is happening in your unconscious, that part of yourself you aren’t aware of.
Example of Dream Interpretation
Here is an example of a dream I had a few years back that made a big impact on me. The dream went something like this: I entered a large building, maybe a hotel or something like that. The building had a strange kind of elevator—it was basically just an open platform that you stood on, and there weren’t any walls surrounding it. The elevator didn’t just go up and down, it went side to side also, and could basically go anywhere in the entire building. I got on the elevator, and the elevator operator turned on the elevator. But the elevator started to go faster and faster, up, down, and all around. I soon felt like the elevator was out of control, and I was in danger of falling off.
Here’s what I came up with for interpretation: I was in counseling at the time, and we were working through some difficult material. There was a part of me that felt scared about the direction we were going. I know I needed to work through these things in order to grow and move beyond some of my hang-ups, but I also felt fear, like maybe going this direction was going to make things worse. The dream was helpful, because I wasn’t in touch with the part of myself that was resisting the direction we were going in counseling. Once I got in touch with that part of myself, I was able to discuss my concerns with my counselor and have an honest conversation about my fears. We could move forward more cautiously, honoring my fear about the direction we were heading.
Discussion: How do you feel about dream interpretation? Do you think there’s something to it, or do you think it’s pretty much B-S? Take a week or two and try to record every dream you have. Then work through the 6 steps to dream interpretation. Did you learn anything new about yourself?