An aura of mystery surrounds dream interpretation, conjuring up images of mystics staring into crystal balls or psychoanalysts reading the minds of their patients. But the essence of dream interpretation is really quite simple and understandable. Anyone can do it—no special training required.
Internal versus External Dreams
Dreams are stories with structure and symbolism. They come in two basic flavors: internal or external.
Internal (or inner) dreams are subjective; they describe what is going on inside you. External (or outer) dreams are objective; they describe what is going on in your life.
Dreams about inner life are interpreted mostly by comparing the symbolism and details with your feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. Outer life details can be involved in the dreams, but at heart they are stories about your inner life.
Dreams about outer life are interpreted by associating with the events of the previous day and your impressions of the people and situations you experienced. You compare your experiences with the symbolism and details and make connections. The two flavors often mix, but usually a dream addresses one or the other. Sometimes you will use both approaches for the same dream.
With this in mind, let’s start with the top three things to know when interpreting your dreams.
Top Three Things to Know about Dreams
There are three key ideas to keep in mind as you’re interpreting your dreams:
1. Think of dreams as stories about you told from an alternative viewpoint, your unconscious mind. The stories show you something about yourself or your life but usually don’t say it directly, instead using pictures and hints like a game of charades.
2. In some dreams, what you see is what you get. Look for the obvious.
3. Dreams draw their material from the past day or two of your life, focusing first on anything that was missed consciously but registered subconsciously.
Dreams Are Stories About You from an Alternate Viewpoint
Dream interpretation begins with understanding that everything in a dream relates back to you, the dreamer. Generally, the characters are projections of yourself, but they can also be representations of people in your life. The settings represent areas of your life or of yourself. The symbols are derived from your personal experience.
Dreams bring to life details about you as stories told symbolically, details from your inner life or outer life. It’s your job to decode the symbolism and tie together the clues.
Some dreams are triggered by external events and describe what is going on in the dreamer’s family life. The characters present are symbolic of actual people in the dreamer’s life, while other details are symbolic in different ways.
Sometimes the meaning of a dream is literal. You don’t have to interpret hidden meaning, but instead recognize the obvious. Like when Joseph was told in a dream to take baby Jesus and Mary to Egypt and hide from King Herod. Not an everyday dream, but you get the idea: If Joseph sits around asking himself if the dream means something symbolic and misses the obvious message to get out of town, that’s a problem! The dream does not show him an internal situation, but an external one.
Dreams Draw Their Material from the Recent Past
Whether related internally or externally to your life, the subjects of your dreams are derived mainly from events of the previous day or two, and the first subjects likely to be turned into dreams are drawn from anything you didn’t pay enough attention to, need to understand better, or missed consciously but registered subconsciously: the look in an employer’s eye before a change of work situation; the unspoken needs of a spouse or child; the amorous thoughts of a schoolmate or coworker; the second thoughts about a big decision.
If missed consciously, dreams amplify your subconscious perceptions, thoughts, and feelings to bring them to your attention. In general, the more dramatic the dream, the more there is a need to give attention to something.
Because we are bombarded with subliminal information in busy environments, much of it is lost to sensory overload. But the unconscious side of the mind registers everything. It tirelessly records as the conscious mind goes about its day, without missing a beat.
When the conscious mind gives way to sleep, sensory input shuts off and the unconscious mind can say, “Great, now that I have your full attention, this is everything you missed while you were busy.” It runs through a list of material, such as the dreamer’s feelings in response to what happened the previous day, solutions to problems or questions, and new possibilities that could open up—a few among many possibilities for dreams to illustrate.
The Top Two Tools for Interpreting Your Dreams
- Use association to uncover the personal significance and connections behind your dreams.
- Break down your dreams into their elements (symbolism, settings, characters) and components (actions, reactions, resolutions), and build up the interpretations using your associations.
When an interpretation is on target it triggers associations. Something “clicks” or “pops” with recognition inside you. It feels right. Therefore, dream interpretation is largely an intuitive process of association between the dream and the dreamer’s life, using feelings as a guide, as in this dream of an internal situation.
Dream Sample: Stuck in the Train Station
I’m at a train station and my ticket is for train #9. An announcer says it is delayed because of an accident involving a car. The other passengers waiting for the train seem to expect the delay, so I resign myself to wait with them despite my aggravation.
Train stations in dreams often symbolize times of transition, but why train #9, and what is the accident about?
Because numbers in dreams can relate to times of life, I would start by asking what was going on when the dreamer was nine years old: significant events, important people, schools attended, places lived. Let’s say the dreamer remembers that her parents divorced when she was that age, and life “derailed” because of the trauma of separation. Now stronger emotions come up; a part of herself badly wants to move on, to transition, but in a sense she is stuck in the train station with the other passengers. The feeling of aggravation about the delay is actually how she feels about the long delay in her emotional life.
Associations like these are the essence of dream interpretation. Of course, it is rarely so easy. But with practice, association becomes more natural, off the top of the head.
Association is simply the first thing that comes to mind in relation to something else, flowing naturally—there are no right or wrong answers—by questioning the dream’s details. The process goes like this for the last dream:
- What are the first thoughts that come to mind in relation to a train station? What about trains in general?
- Since the number nine came up in the dream, what happened in your life at that age? Does the number have significance of any kind, such as the number of members in your immediate family, or an address?
- Does the setting remind you of places you know from waking life, or from previous dreams? How do you feel when in the train station? Do the people there remind you of anyone or anything?
- Can you fill in details that aren’t pictured in the dream, like the accident that delays the train?
The first thought that comes to mind about the train station is it’s a place where people wait to travel, and trains take us to new places. We know the number nine represents the dreamer’s age when her parents divorced. How does she feel inside the train station? Aggravated. Delayed. Stuck. The surroundings have a familiar sadness, she remembers after asking herself how it feels to be there. What are the other characters doing? Resigned to waiting, as if they expect the delay, because the dreamer has been mired in that emotional place for a long time. When associating, she sees in her imagination that the accident causing the delay stems from a family car broken down on the train tracks, like how her family life stalled when her parents split.
With the picture clarified she can use the message of the dream to work through her feelings and finally move on. Feelings won’t budge until they have been embraced and understood. When dreams open old wounds, it means the dreamer is ready to heal, or at least work toward healing, whether she consciously knows it or not.
Putting the Picture Together
The clues to decoding a dream are often in plain sight. For example, let’s say you dream that three men trap you in a dark alley. You know they are Mafia and you owe them money. The Mafia detail is important because Mafia organize in “families,” and dreams play with word meanings. The dream could be about a family obligation that has been neglected, symbolized as owing money, and the guilty feelings “pay a little visit,” symbolized as three Mafia guys.
While each part of the dream conveys important information, only when put back together can an interpretation be made. The meaning is found by looking at everything, including parts of the dream implied or associated, and asking how it all fits together.
Four Important Dream Facts
Now that you see how personally associating with the details of a dream leads to the interpretation, here are four important facts to know:
- Feelings are often central to the meaning of a dream.
- Conflict between the head and the heart is one of the most common underlying themes.
- Dreams say what isn’t being said while awake. They amplify the small voices in your head.
- Dreams exaggerate.
Feelings are the roots of many, if not all, dreams. I think feelings can tell you more about your dreams than anything else. Sometimes I remember a dream and have no idea what it means, but I know how I felt in the dream and immediately after waking up. By connecting those feelings with my life, I resolve some dreams without needing to fully interpret them.
If feelings aren’t being acknowledged or expressed while awake, they are almost certain to pop up while dreaming, often in unrecognized forms. The underlying cause of dreams about being chased, for example, is often ignored feelings. These dreams are distressing, and the only good way to resolve them is to face them and whatever is chasing you head on. Ghoulish or disfigured characters in dreams can represent unwanted, ignored, hurt, or caustic feelings, which will go to ever greater extremes until recognized and handled by the dreamer. On the other hand, helpful characters and allies also appear in dreams, bringing with them positive feelings, solutions to problems, and keys to unlocking inner doors.
Copyright 2013 by J. M. DeBord. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Co.
Dist by Red Wheel Weiser, www.redwheelweiser.com
Dreams 1-2-3: Remember, Interpret, and Live Your Dreams
by J. M. DeBord.
About the Author
J. M. DeBord began studying and interpreting dreams two decades ago, and now one of his personal dreams comes true with the publication of Dreams 1-2-3: Remember, Interpret, and Live Your Dreams, a groundbreaking book that makes dreams understandable for everyone and shows how they can be used for your benefit. DeBord's publishing career began 25 years ago. He has worked in newspaper, radio and television journalism, and is the author of a novel, Something Coming: a New Age Thriller. He currently lives in Tucson, Arizona and interprets dreams as a moderator at Reddit Dreams, where he is known as "RadOwl."