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Three Keys to Unlock the Meaning of Your Dreams

Master these tips to discover the hidden messages in your dreams.

What are your dreams telling you? How can you understand their meaning? In my years of teaching people about dreams, I have found three keys to help unlock their wisdom and counsel.

1. Remember that dreams are drafted in symbols.

To understand dreams, you must understand symbols. For example, when you dream of your mother, father, spouse, or best friend, they shouldn't be confused with the actual people themselves. Even if you dream of Jesus, Buddha, or your spiritual teacher, don’t just think of them literally. Instead, think of them as qualities or ways of being that are aspects of you—aspects that you are unconscious of.

Here's one example of how to do this. Let’s say you dream that your partner is being unfaithful. This may indicate that part of you is not interested in your normal way of living, interacting, or valuing things. Some part of you wants to leave “you” (the normal, or habitual you) and explore another way.

Or, let’s say you dream of a monster chasing you. This could mean that you are scared of some part of yourself and are trying to get away from it. For example, some people fear their own vulnerability because they have been hurt in the past. These people might dream of their vulnerability as something scary (a monster) that they are trying to escape.

Along the same lines, imagine that you dream of a person who is sick and throwing up. That doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is literally sick. However, it might mean that you need to “throw up” by ceasing to hold things in that you don't want to internalize, or speaking unpleasant truths.

Caveat: This does not mean that some dreams are not psychic or prophetic. Certain dreams do tell you that a friend is literally sick, or that you need to be careful. However, I am highlighting the symbolic quality of dreams because our tendency make dream symbols literal can often cut us off from the psychological wisdom they can offer.

2. Remember that you are not "you."

Just as the people who populate your dreams may not literally be themselves, you may not be "you." However, most people perceive their dreams and talk about them as if the symbol that looks like them is really "them."

For example, I might say: “In my dream, ‘I’ was driving down a one-way street the wrong way, while everyone else was going the right way.” In this scenario, I may worry that “I” am truly going the wrong way and need to make a course correction in my life. Yet, this dream occurs most often for people who are inclined to follow a path that's more acceptable to others instead of going their own way.

Or, if I have a nightmare where a dark cloud is descending upon me, “I” may feel victim to the dark cloud. In my waking life, I may also feel like a dark cloud is descending upon me; perhaps I feel sad, down, or depressed. But that dark cloud is actually also me, descending on another part of myself. In this case, the dark cloud may suggest that I need to be sheltered from the day-to-day world, and instead turn inward, away from the light, to the realms of emotion and dreaming (which is the symbolic meaning of going into the dark cloud).

Or, let’s say “I” am being criticized by someone in a dream. I am not only the one criticized or hurt; I am also the one who is being critical. Maybe I need to be less judgmental of others or myself, or be more consciously critical of the ideas and people I accept.

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado once wrote: “I am not I. 
I am this one
 walking beside me whom I do not see.” This is useful counsel in working with your dreams.

3. Remember that dreams resolve problems in unusual ways.

Do dreams help us to fix problems in our lives? The short answer is yes, but they don’t always resolve them in a linear manner.

For example, let’s say you have a relationship problem that you decide to address by trying to listen better. Your dreams may suggest that you stop listening and instead start talking, asserting, or even shouting.

Or, you may find yourself struggling with fatigue, so you try to eat differently, exercise more, or change your sleeping habits to increase your energy level during the day. However, your dreams may suggest that you let go, drop down, and stop trying so hard to accomplish something that is not deeply important to you.

Another scenario could be that you have low self-esteem and have been told to affirm yourself as you are. Meanwhile, your dreams tell you to begin playing a musical instrument, complete a degree, or spend more time in nature.

Occasionally, our dreams do have linear or direct answers to our struggles, but more often, they offer a new perspective on our problems—a perspective that opens the door to answers you may never have considered.

Einstein once said that we can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created. Dreams follow this wisdom by not only commenting on our problems, but on the way we look at our problems. Furthermore, they shift our point of view to the mythical and symbolic realms, which broadens the context in which we evaluate our problems and seek to solve them. This is particularly useful for issues that stubbornly resist our best intentions and efforts to change them. Our problems are often a manifestation of who we are—therefore it is not the problem that needs to change, but rather ourselves.


Bedrick, David. (2013). Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology. Santa Fe, NM: Belly Song Press.