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What our dreams can tell us

Since an early age, I have been interested in the meaning of dreams. I remember buying a book about Freudian dream interpretation when I was younger, and how disappointed I was that according to Sigmund Freud, most features in the dream were sexual symbols. Then and now, I didn’t share his interpretation and found it rather limiting. That’s not to say that we may not experience sexual dreams. I just think our dreams have much more to offer. In the same way that certain aspects of a dream may take on a sexual meaning, other, sometimes more explicitly sexual aspects of a dream may hold a different meaning all together. What I agree with Freud though is that dreams are a wonderful window into our unconscious. They can give us direct access to what our unconscious is grappling with. If you experience vivid dreams, why not explore and make use of this rich psychological material either on your own, with a friend, your partner or your therapist?

When studying various approaches to dream interpretation, it becomes apparent that they tend to differ according to who interprets the dream content and how far dreams are seen as concealing or revealing something. It is my belief and experience that dreams are most insightful if it is the dreamer him- or herself who is directly involved in the interpretation. The therapist’s role can range from mere facilitation, as in guiding the dreamer through different steps of the interpretative process, to a more collaborative role which makes a connection with issues previously discussed in therapy.

While dreams have a language of their own and may make little rational or chronological sense, they are often highly emotive and symbolic. It is exactly through the evocative symbols used by our unconscious that dreams can have such power and may influence our mood for hours after we have woken up. Sometimes, these symbols seem very straightforward, and we may have little trouble decoding them. At other times, however, a more detailed analysis may be required which may lead us to deeper levels of understanding.

Whenever clients tell me that they have experienced a dream that has had a lasting impact but that they are not sure how to read, I encourage them to bring this material to therapy. Even if we only remember fragments or disjointed images, dreams are like little gold nuggets that can tell us so much about ourselves. And many times, my clients have been profoundly touched by the insights gained from their own dream interpretation.

One of the questions we may ask ourselves when interpreting a dream is whether the people and objects depicted in it are to be taken for who and what they are or whether they represent something else. While a Freudian dream analysis would view them in a more objective fashion, as objects of desire and fear, a Jungian dream analysis would favor a more subjective interpretation and regard them as unrealized features of the dreamer’s personality. As a therapist working with a client or when exploring my own dreams, I am open to both possibilities. I tend to follow a simple rule of thumb. If I have a close and ongoing relationship with a person featuring in my dream, it seems likely that this person represents him- or herself. If, however, a stranger appears in my dream or a person who I haven’t had much contact with in a long time, I find it more fruitful to consider this person as symbolizing an aspect of myself. I apply the same principle when interpreting different dream objects or contexts.

Regular dream interpretation can not only lead us to greater contact with our unconscious, it can also serve us as a form of psychological self-care. If you experience recurring dreams filled with anxiety, they may highlight the need to de-stress your waking life. Dreams may also point to unfulfilled needs, for example sexual dreams indicating a longing for more physical intimacy. Dreams may rehearse uncomfortable interactions, for example dreaded conversations, or they may make us realize the strength of our feelings towards someone or something. Dream analysis is also a useful tool in grief therapy as it can indicate where we are in the grieving process. Keeping a dream diary can be very helpful in this regard. Even if none of the above apply, there may be benefit in regularly checking in with our dreams as a way of making more sensible decisions for ourselves by incorporating both thoughts and emotions that may be more hidden.

So, how do we get started with making sense of our dreams? There are a number of different approaches out there. One that I have found particularly useful is the dream interview method by Gayle Delaney. It focuses on supporting dreamers in gaining insight by re-living their dream and relating it to their waking life. The idea is to let the dream speak for itself by teasing out the main feelings and images and exploring their possible meanings. The therapist’s role is to facilitate the dreamer’s meaning making process by adopting a stance of deliberate naivety. While a detailed description of this process would go beyond the scope of this post, what I am going to outline here is a mini version or speed dream interpretation that I have used with clients when there is less time.

I have found that the key to unlocking a dream’s symbolism are the feelings expressed in the dream. This is therefore the question I would start with: What are the main feelings in the dream? This question goes straight to the heart of the dream, so to speak, and provides a context from which to interpret its rich visual language. The next step is to identify the main aspects of the dream, such as the people, objects or actions featuring in the dream. If there is little time, I would focus on one or two aspects and would consider if they make more sense to be understood for who or what they are or if they represent features of the dreamer’s personality. I would then see how they link to the feelings identified in the dream in order to construct a dream metaphor. The final step is to consider how this dream metaphor can be used in the waking life. In other words: What message is my unconscious sending me? How can I use this insight to heal or grow?


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