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7 Reasons You Should Be Interpreting Your Dreams

How to get to know your unconscious self.

Source: ruigsantos/Shutterstock

by Karl Stukenberg, Ph.D.

As we age, the things that we desire from life become more complicated. Sometimes we want things that don’t feel right to us. For example, we may want our boss’s job. If she knew that, it could get us into trouble. So we hide that desire from both our boss and from ourselves. Instead of talking about or thinking about taking that job, we might dream about beating someone at a game. The person that we beat would resemble our boss in some important way, but also not resemble him or her in some other important way. Our unconscious recognizes the symbolized person as being equal to the boss, feels satisfied by the dream, and lets us continue to sleep because our secret wish is being gratified.

Dreaming is a very complicated activity. According to Freud, the goal of a dream is to satisfy those desires that we can’t even voice, much less work toward satisfying, when awake. This means that we need to decode our dreams in order for them to reveal our unconscious wishes. This is not always easy.

Dreams Are Not Random

In a class I teach on dream interpretation, students are asked to bring in their own dreams to analyze. Every time a student presents a dream, something similar happens. As they begin to analyze their dreams, they describe the process as “unnerving." They thought they were bringing meaningless dreams to class, but the dreams end up having important and relevant information about what is currently going on in their life—and about their wishes and desires. Each student discovers that their dreams are not just random, but have important meaning.

For instance, a student had dreamed about being on a luxury liner that she was swimming on and off of. As she began associating and had supportive ideas from her classmates, she thought about the boat as representing her family—a vehicle that had carried her to this point, but one that she was increasingly "swimming away from" as she began to direct her own life.

Dreams Can Be Unsettling

When a dream is interpreted, it can reveal something that is very disturbing. For example, we may discover that we are in a relationship with someone who reminds us in very important ways of a parent, and wonder whether we have married our mother or father. There may be an uncomfortable moment when we realize that this person is too close or too familiar – that there is something incestuous about the relationship. Thus, dreams can reveal uncanny, extraordinary and unexpected aspects of ourselves.

7 reasons why it is important to interpret your dreams:

  1. Take advantage of your dreams. You dream every night. When you wake up and think about a dream, you have an opportunity to access a product of your unconscious.
  2. Dreams are familiar territory. They are formed, in part, by what has gone on the day before.
  3. Dreams are not just reiterations of what happened during the day. They also include our active work on problems that were “insoluble” in the light of day. Some important scientific discoveries occurred as the result of a dream.
  4. Remembering and interpreting your dreams can open up the weird and offbeat parts of yourself that are kept under wraps.
  5. Although we may be unaware of the unconscious, it is revealed in our dreams. If we understand how the dream is constructed, we can understand something about the part of our mind that we can’t see.
  6. Dreams are meaningful. Each of us makes up our own sets of symbols and we use these to hide the meaning of our dreams. So the boat in the dream of the student does not mean that all boats symbolize a family; this is her own idiosyncratic use of the symbol.
  7. The meaning in dreams is hidden because the truth of dreams can be strange and unsettling. Dreams are intended to keep us asleep. To do this they grant the wishes of the parts of ourselves that want something – and would wake us up to get it. For example, a child who is hungry will dream of eating something wonderful and this will satisfy them enough that they can stay asleep.

To get started interpreting your own dreams try these tips:

  • Keep a dream journal by your bed and write down the dream as you wake up.
  • Try to think about the dream soon after having it. The longer you wait, the harder it is to remember.
  • Consider telling the dream to someone who knows you well. It need not be a therapist; a close friend or lover can often see things that are out of your awareness.
  • Think about your dream as a work of fiction or a poem and try to interpret it as you would a work of art.

Karl Stukenberg, Ph.D., ABPP is a graduate psychoanalyst who lives and practices in Cincinnati. He is a faculty member in the School of Psychology at Xavier University and at the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute.

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