Why You May Want to Listen to Your Dreams
Three ways to interpret your dream symbols and unconscious materials.
Posted Aug 04, 2020
Ambivalence is a part of life. Often, a part of us wants something, whilst the other part of us wants otherwise.
We never only feel one way about something. We are always, at any given moment, ambivalent about people, events, situations—everything. Certain ambivalence, while being a fundamental part of our human condition, gets swept to the shadow/underbelly of our collective consciousness. For example, often we are ambivalent in relationships—we want things to go well, we want the relationship to last, at the same time we consider what life will be like if we were free from attachments. We think about all the people we have let pass by committing to one and think about "the ones who got away."
Our conscious mind way wants things to go one way, but there may be an unconscious yet powerful force that drives our behaviours in the opposite direction. For instance, despite our conscious desire, we find ourselves putting off future plans, denying opportunities for ourselves, or ruining relationships that we cherish. When we are not aware of the deep inner conflicts within us, they can catch us by surprises.
The limit of cognitive-based therapies such as CBT is that they work on the more surface level of our psyche—what is conscious and acted out. To touch into the unconscious feelings, buried desires, suppressed anger, and unprocessed trauma, we need another vehicle, such as Depth Psychology. In this approach, dream analysis is used as a tool for healing and exploration.
Most Highly Sensitive People (HSP) have vivid dreams often; they usually remember them and have an innate ability to interpret them (Aron, 2011). This is likely due to the heightened receptivity of your senses. As an intuitive, empathic person, at every given moment your senses pick up on thousands of unconscious signals from the environment and people around you. If you try to receive and process them all during the day, your system will be overloaded. Your dreams are therefore there to help you organise and make this information useful to you. Although the messages are communicated to you via symbols, your dreams are ultimately trying to help you.
Dreams offer you important messages and guidance at critical turning points of your life. When you are feeling stuck, considering a career change or relationship breakup, having an existential crisis, getting attuned with your dreams would allow you to tap into a rich well of resources and answer many unanswered questions.
In this post, I will introduce three angles from which we can start analysing our dreams.
Small Ways to Start
If you are new to dream analysis, here are a few pointers to get started:
1. Record your dream
Dream recall is fleeting. To be able to remember and record your dreams, you must catch the moments between your dream state and your fully waking state. Any unnecessary movement during this time will significantly affect how much detail you recall.
When you become awake, as much as possible remain still and refrain from moving your body or leaving your bed. Only move until you have organised all the materials in your mind. Once you have formed a coherent gestalt or story, record them in as many details as you can. The best way to do this is to have a notepad next to your bed, but you can also use the voice recording or dictation function on your mobile device. Don't worry too much about the materials being vague and fragmented; simply record whatever it is that comes to your mind.
2. Start a Dream Journal
Now, you can then transfer your scribbles or brief notes onto a dream journal. This is a chance to organise your notes systematically. Having a dream journal allows you to track your dreams over a period of time, through which you can discover themes and patterns. Even if the materials don’t seem to make sense, once you are able to let them "gestate" over a period of time, a gestalt will form and what was invisible will become visible.
Your dream journal is not a final product but a place for an ongoing conversation with your psyche. Alongside the descriptions of your dreams, you may also put down any emerging feelings, thoughts, and memories. New associations are added or edited along the way. Just like an actual conversation, dream journaling is a continuously unfolding process.
Interpreting Your Dreams
Based on different theoretical orientations, there are infinite numbers of ways to approach dreams.
Sigmund Freud, one of the first psychologists who used dreams in his work, believes that dreams are trying to hide something that we have suppressed from ourselves. In this theory, these are usually our violent urges or sexual desires.
While for Freud, dreams were about suppressed libidinous drives and wish-fulfillments, for Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung they are trying to tell us something new—something we don’t already know. The main difference between the Freudian and the Jungian approach is that Freud is concerned with the past, and Jung’s process is to gather what we need to know to move forward in life. As Jungian analyst von Franz puts it: “Dreams don’t waste much spit telling us what we already know” (1980). In other words, dreams are not just regressive, a retreat into the past, or concerned with wish fulfillment. They are purposeful and have the goal of helping you live a better life.
Furthermore, Jung believes that dreams serve the function of psychological compensation. Their messages help us to maintain a healthy and dynamic balance between the conscious and the unconscious, the yin and the yang, our virtues, and our shadow side. If you have a one-sided view of a situation or person, your dreams will show you the other side.
Three Levels of Dream Interpretation
Understanding our dreams requires some time and effort because they are communicating to us via symbols.
To simplify a highly complex and intricate process, you can experiment with interpreting your own dreams according to three levels:
- The explicit level
- The subjective level
- The archetypal (spiritual) level
The Explicit Level
Although the language of dreams is mostly symbolic, sometimes they talk to us on a literal level. With objective/explicit interpretation, your dream symbols are telling you something directly, with little disguise.
For instance, if a person you have recently met is acting in a suspicious manner in your dream, this may indicate unconscious signals that you have picked up about his character, and your dream is now bringing this pre-conscious insight for you. Or, let’s say you dream of your childhood home; it may represent your actual home and the emotional energies and memories that come with it.
The Subjective Level
Subjective interpretation is a major part of Jungian dream analysis. With objective interpretation, dream characters are taken as who or what they are in the real world; but on the subjective level, all dream imagery, characters, and even objects are seen as a part of yourself. For example, if you dream of a friend who you think of as kind and generous, they represent the kind and generous part of you. All characters in your dream symbolise traits and qualities that reside in you, including those you do not want to admit.
If you dream of an angry demon, your dream might be nudging you to reflect on the potential for you to be angry. Through "negative" characters, your dreams are encouraging you to take back psychic materials that you have projected outward. On the flip side, your dreams can also show you your potential through "positive" characters that possess talents and virtues you have not acknowledged. By inviting your inner projections to be shown, your dreams help you meet with and integrate parts of yourself you have denied.
The Archetypal Level
In Jungian psychology, archetypes are patterns inherent in the human psyche shared by all humankind. These primordial images represent universal symbols we see everywhere—in fairy tales, historical tales, ordinary life, or mystical tools such as the Tarot. Some common archetypes maybe The Great Mother, the Vulnerable Child, the Magician, the Wise Old Man, Other archetypal elements may appear as patterns such as chaos or rite of passage like Death. When these characters or themes appear in your dream, they connect you to the instinctual energies shared by all humankind. They are conveying a "big" transpersonal theme that goes beyond your personal situation.
Carl Jung has explored the archetypal dimension of many images, drawing from all great civilisations. However, it is always important to integrate the subjective with the archetypal level of interpretation. "Dream dictionaries" we can find in bookshops or on the internet are overly reductionistic and not reliable, as they only equate particular symbols with a set of arbitrarily assigned meanings.
Instead of relying on a set of predetermined meanings, we must pay attention to the personal associations we have with our dream symbols. For example, if you have a particular association with "uncle" in your life experience, then an "uncle figure" appearing in your dream may mean more than what an uncle typically means. Likewise, when you see a tree, an apple, a snake, you must first ask yourself, "what does a tree/an apple mean to me?” What kind of associations, feelings, and ideas do these motifs bring up?
An Experiment: The “I Am” Exercise
This is a dream analysis technique you can experiment with a dream. This approach focuses on the "subjective" level. It is based on the assumption that everything in the dream represents a part of yourself.
Firstly, record your dreams in ways suggested above.
When you have the materials written out, read through them.
Now, pick out the major characters and elements in your dreams and list them out. (e.g., car, train, apple, snake).
Then, expand on the symbolic meaning for each of these elements via free association.
To do this, you assume the role of these elements, then in a spontaneous manner, complete a series of sentences, five to 10 for each, that starts with "I am."
For example: "I am the car, and I am …" or "I am the apple, and I am …"
Do this for five to 10 times each.
These statements can be long or short, brief or detailed. It doesn’t matter if they seem "negative" or contradictory. The key is to welcome any spontaneous and abstract associations; try not to judge or rationalise your insights prematurely.
When you have completed the "I am" sentences with all the symbols, go through them again. This time, contemplate how all of them may be aspects of yourself.
For example, if you had written: ”I am the car, and I am fast. I am the car, and I catch a lot of attention”—consider how being "fast" and "attention-grabbing" may be a part of who you are.
When you have completed the "I am" exercise, it is often immediately apparent what the dream is telling you or asking of you. If not, simply leave it aside and let it sit. Something new may emerge if you repeat the exercise in a few days.
A dream is a piece of our reality. Its origin is both personal and transpersonal. If we give our dreams the respect and concern they deserve, they serve us in many ways. Our dreams heal us, inform us, warn us, and bring us spiritual wisdom.
Transforming the symbols in a dream from their raw form to meaning is an alchemical process. Sometimes, the message from a dream is not immediately known, but if we can be patient and give them time, they will slowly reveal themselves. As long as we remain humble and curious, insights will come and we will receive precious messages from deep inside our psyche.