Many of us don’t think much about our nighttime dreams. We might not even remember them. While some dreams may not be particularly meaningful, most dreams offer a wealth of information about ourselves and our lives.
“Dreams are the psyche’s way of expressing and exploring issues pertinent to our psychological growth,” said Kathryn Bikle, MA, LMFT, a therapist who uses depth psychology techniques such as dream work in her practice in Pasadena and Monrovia, Calif. This growth can include our relationships, spirituality and creativity, she said. When we explore our dreams, “we expand our understanding of who we are and who we can be in the world.”
But, of course, dreams aren’t exactly clear-cut and straightforward. They can be downright confusing, if we remember them at all. Below, Bikle shared suggestions for delving into our often-nebulous dreams.
Jot down your dreams in a journal.
To help you remember your dreams, keep a notebook on your nightstand. If you wake up in the middle of the night, jot down a few words or phrases, Bikle said.
Personally, she prefers to “bookmark” several images from her dream. She does this by replaying these images and scenes in her mind and naming them with a word or two. This way, she can rely on both images and words for recalling the dream. Once she’s awake, Bikle writes down everything she can remember about her dream. (If there’s no time in the morning, she returns to those words and images to help her recall.)
Don’t worry if you forget most of your dream. Because when you explore your personal associations, even the smallest snippet of a dream will provide plenty of material to work with, she said. (More on that later.) Plus, keeping a dream journal helps you spot patterns over time.
Focus on feelings.
“Notice the feeling tone of the dream and where in the dream you have the strongest feelings,” Bikle said. This helps you zero in on what your psyche is trying to communicate. For instance, maybe you need to address a deep fear or sadness. Maybe there’s a feeling associated with an issue you need to confront.
Explore personal associations.
There are many resources that talk about what dreams mean. These can be helpful in formulating our own interpretations, Bikle said. However, she stressed the importance of paying attention to our personal associations and current circumstances, something Carl Jung emphasized. “Your personal associations are thoughts and feelings that you attach to objects and people in your life.”
Bikle shared this example: She has a dream about being in the backseat of a car with no driver. (If the car is a car from her life, that’s a personal association. As such, she’d explore her memories and feelings about this car.) Because this was her mom’s car when she was a child, her dream might be referring to current issues that originate from her childhood. Maybe she still feels out of control today and like she’s not in the driver’s seat in her own life.
All images in a dream represent some aspect of ourselves, she said. This even includes our surroundings. “When we explore how metaphorically we may be like a dirt road, or a black bear, or a scraggly rose bush, we gain valuable insight into aspects of ourselves of which we may previously have been unaware.”
Even dark and scary images represent unconscious aspects of ourselves, which Jung called our “Shadow.” For instance, you dream you’re a murderer. This “might mean that we aren’t aware of our ability to be ruthlessly cold and completely self-serving. Or [it might mean] that we might actually benefit from ‘killing off’ some dysfunctional habit or mindset that is inhibiting our development.”
Avoid being literal.
When something bad happens in our dreams, this isn’t foreshadowing of an actual bad future. Bikle shared this example: She dreams that her husband has prostate cancer. She delves deeper by exploring her associations with her husband, cancer, the prostate gland and what’s currently going on in her life. Her dream might suggest that her anxiety is hindering her ability to be logical — her husband is a scientist — and to spurt new projects and ideas — the function of the prostate gland. “Cancer [equals] over-production of unhealthy cells cutting off life of the healthy cells.”
In other words, Bikle said, “By interpreting the images as though they are parts of me, I am able to consider the dream’s meaning as telling me that my anxieties are getting in the way of perfectly reasonable creative ideas. If I were to take the dream images literally, I would get myself even more anxious and emotionally upset about something that is not even based in reality.”
To explore your dreams even further, Bikle suggested using active imagination and proprioceptive writing. She also suggested joining a dream group, which is typically facilitated by a therapist, analyst or dream practitioner. Individuals in the group share their dreams in a safe, supportive and confidential setting, she said.
Bikle’s favorite book to recommend to clients is Maria F. Mahoney’s The Meaning in Dreams and Dreaming: The Jungian Viewpoint. She also likes The Hidden Power of Dreams by Denise Linn.
Our dreams are really a window into ourselves. As Bikle concluded, “Dream work is a rich and fulfilling method of developing self-awareness.” And she encourages everyone to give it a try.
Dream image from Shutterstock.