Our dreams can present us with a virtually endless array of images, actions and scenarios which encode meaning in symbols and metaphors created by our subconscious minds. I’ve written about common dream symbols and their interpretations already, but the meaning of dream symbols is ultimately determined by your individual personality, situation and life concerns. The most helpful way to decode the meaning of dream symbols for you may be to examine each element of your dream by itself and try to find the background behind the symbol: things in your life that the dream symbol might represent.
You’ll find that most of your dreams deal with experiences, thoughts and feelings from the past day or two. Think back to things that happened in the past couple of days and ask yourself if you can link any elements in your dream to these events. For instance, if you meet characters from a movie in your dreams, was it a movie you recently watched or that has been on your mind? If you see someone you know in your dreams, is it someone you’ve been spending a lot of time with or who has been present in your thoughts?
Dreams may use important issues occupying your mind (both good and bad) as the background content of a dream scenario: you may have an upcoming occasion like an exam or date, which your brain might be processing ahead of time in a dream. Dream symbolism can also reflect long-term issues you’ve been grappling with, such as changes in your thinking, habits or relationships. Something might be coming to an end in your life, like a partnership or a long-term project. For instance, I recently began revisions on a 600-page manuscript it has taken me several years to write. On a day close to the date I’d chosen to begin my revisions, I dreamed that I was in a huge archive full of drawers and drawers of unread manuscript. I interpreted the dream as an expression of how I subconsciously felt about the daunting task ahead of me.
Your brain may also process new feelings and thoughts through dream symbols, and highly emotional dreams can involve bizarre or seemingly nonsensical situations. To get at the dream’s meaning, it helps to look at the emotions inspired by the dream and the life context surrounding it. For example, one heterosexual man dreamed that he was kissing another heterosexual male friend. He was concerned the dream might mean he was gay, until a dream interpreter told him it was more likely to mean that he was growing closer to his friend as they shared details of their emotions and life situations. The man agreed, as he remembered that he and his friend recently had a long talk where the friend confided that his marriage was breaking down. In this context, the dream kissing represented the emotional accord and trust between the man and his friend.
This brings up another important point about dream symbolism, which is that the events of a dream may not be about you. Psychologists are fond of saying that most dreams are about ourselves, but it is equally possible for a dream to be about someone close to us. You can determine if a dream was probably about yourself or someone else by asking yourself if the content of the dream fits with what’s currently going on in your life. One man dreamed that he rescued his friend from drowning in a storm drain, and had to go back and fish her shoes from the drain as well. When asked about his own life, he admitted he was pretty stress-free and happy at the moment but that his friend had been down on her luck that year and often seemed overwhelmed. It’s likely that his thoughts about his friend’s struggles to cope and find direction had provoked a dream in which she was drowning. That she also lost her shoes, which often represent our direction and personal autonomy, could represent her real-life struggle to find direction in her life. Conversely, friends and loved ones in dreams may not represent themselves but be stand-ins for a symbol or concept. If you dream about your grandfather but have not seen or thought of him in a while, he may be a stand-in for anything from your attitude about getting old to your subconscious feelings about the passage of time. This is why it helps to examine your recent thoughts and events surrounding your dream.
If you can’t think of anything major preoccupying you in the days leading up to a dream, consider minor causes. Sometimes dreams don’t symbolize anything very deep at all, but instead offer a subconscious commentary on something minor that happened the day before. One woman dreamed of being trapped inside a ruined skyscraper with the cast of the TV show Friends, a show she didn’t particularly care for. In trying to analyze it, the only thing she could link the dream to was a disappointing experience watching her new digital cable the night before. Though she’d generally been happy with the programming, that night she could couldn’t find any interesting programs and had to settle on Friends. Voila, dream context: her interpreter suggested the skyscrapers may have represented her generally positive feelings about her cable service, as skyscrapers often symbolize confidence in dreams. However, that it was a ruined skyscraper could have expressed her feelings of disappointment with the programming the night before.
Like your dreams themselves, the meaning of dream symbols is highly individual; understanding their underlying meaning requires a careful and thorough examination of your life context. Dream symbolism reflects our lives through a glass darkly: by learning to gaze the right way, we can come to a fuller understanding of our lives and ourselves.