Last night my 5-year-old woke up startled and needed a hug. He told me he had dreamt of me, and in the dream I fell from a great height and was hurt. I explained that sometimes we dream things like that because we have a feeling that we need to work out. Dreams can feel very real and very scary, but they are really just ways of exploring something that we need to process, even if it is uncomfortable.
As adults we tend to place a great emphasis on the meaning of our dreams. We are, after all, meaning making beings. Our survival depends on deriving the meaning of our experiences to better inform our existence.
Many people derive satisfaction from analyzing the symbolism of objects in their dreams. There are many books published as encyclopedia type manuals that give insight into the possible meaning of symbols found in dreams. These symbols are usually associated with common feelings associated with the objects or ancient mythology about their power.
There are many other approaches to dream analysis, as well. It is important to remember dreaming is a complicated brain activity from which deriving any meaning requires taking into consideration many individual factors. Below, I have listed three simple, overarching approaches to consider:
- What did you feel?
The feeling you experience overall throughout the dream can sometimes be more significant than events that actually transpire. Maybe you’ve dreamt about your teeth falling out or standing naked in front of a crowd. But how did those things make you feel? Embarrassed? Anxious? Exposed? Those feelings are often powerful indicators of messaging your subconscious is trying to express. Our minds use experiences we’ve had or experiences we could imagine that would produce the type of emotional response in our bodies that would communicate the feeling that should be addressed.
Once you’ve identified the feeling, try to think of other, real experiences in which you felt that way. Did something happen recently that evoked the same emotion?
This concept can work in reverse, too. Often people will wake up highly confused after they recount having dreamt of someone from their past. Their focus is often on the surprise of remembering someone from long ago or that does not seem important or relevant to their daily lives anymore.
But I would ask them the same question, what did that person make you feel? What did you feel during the time of your life that you were close to that person? The clue is often not about the person, at all. It is more about your subconscious searching for representations in which to bring a certain emotional response to your attention.
- What did you leave out?
Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis theory was built on the supposition that there is always a less obvious, underlying cause to our behavior. It makes sense that his theories on dream analysis followed a similar pattern. Freud believed there to be both an obvious meaning and a latent, or hidden, meaning within dreams. His work was sometimes criticized for how often he interpreted the latent meaning to be sexual in nature. Regardless of the actual interpretation, I think it’s true that we can easily become distracted by the overt messaging in our dreams, when really, the more significant meaning is found in details less dramatic or obvious.
Whenever someone tells me about a dream they had, I patiently listen and wait for them to finish. And then, I ask them, “Now, what part did you almost tell me, but then you decided to leave out? Maybe because you thought it wasn’t important enough to include? Or it involved complicated emotions that might convolute the storyline? Or maybe it just seemed like a minuscule detail?”
That may actually be the part to which you want to pay attention.
- Detach from the literal.
Dreams are abstract. They are the complementary opposite to our rational, organized, waking ways of thinking. Our dreaming minds tend to draw from our literal experiences, but they do not have the same physical and social limitations that we operate under during waking life. Creativity abounds in the production department of dream making. When deriving meaning from dreams, try to detach yourself from literal, linear interpretation. Telling someone else about your dream can sometimes open up new perspectives you may not have otherwise considered. Brainstorming the relationships between events or representations in your dreams can help draw new connections beyond the obvious ones.
Our dreams can be a fascinating, mirrored landscape of our everyday lives. As individual as our waking lives and dynamics can be, so too is our interpretation of our own dreams. Only you will know the true source of a dream representation, because it comes from your own unique, dreaming mind.