Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Making Sense of Dreams: A First Step Toward Sharing

Earlier this week, I wrote a post entitled “Should You Tell Your Partner Your Dreams?” Today, I continue that discussion by offering insight into how you can understand your own dreams — an important step toward sharing them with your partner.

You don’t have to be a trained expert to understand your dreams — after all, you are the writer, director, actor, lighting expert and stage hand of your  night theater.” Recognizing this and taking a look at the nature of dreams will give you a way making sense and utilizing your dreams. Once you can begin to understand your own dreams you can expand that understanding by sharing with your partner.

The Dreamer’s Feelings

One of the first things I ask anyone who tells me their dream is “What feelings did you have as the dreamer?” Dreams can have many interpretations, but only the dreamer knows the feeling of the dream. Only he/she knows if they felt terrified, soothed, amused, confused, embarrassed, enraged or set apart as an observer in a dream. Once that feeling is captured, it becomes a point of self-reflection, self-reference and discovery. It often becomes a way to connect a past feeling or experience with your present life.

  • Why am I feeling so threatened that men with guns are chasing me?
  • What is making me so anxious that I can’t find my shoes or the road home?
  • When have I ever had this wonderful feeling of flying before?

The Language of Dreams

Dreams seem confusing, even “crazy” because the unconscious taps primary process thinking. Unlike the secondary process thinking we employ in our daily lives, dreams are indifferent to logic or rationality. Past and present overlap, images blend together, people from the past emerge with those of the present and the impossible happens. As Jeremy Taylor depicts in the title of his book on this topic, dreams are a place Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill.

  • Symbols: The meaning of dreams is often conveyed through symbols. Whereas there have always been universal symbols used in literature, art, and folklore that can be drawn upon, the personal meaning of a dream symbol belongs to the dreamer. For one dreamer, the ocean is a symbol of life, energy and renewal; for another, it is a frightening symbol of being overwhelmed, of drowning. For one dreamer, the repeated image of her small dog running in the street came to be recognized as the symbol of her lost and frightened self. Her “dog dream” became a point of reference for asking, “What is making me feel so frightened?”

If you start remembering and recording dreams, you may find that you have a “dream print,” a repeated set of symbols that you use that have particular meaning for you.

  • Shapeshifters: While you may associate shapeshifters with the Star Trek series or recent films, probably the first shapeshifters you met were in your own dreams. The dream in which the person starts out as your brother and transforms into your boss reflects the way in which dreams condense images to convey meaning. It invites thinking “What is it about my brother that I am experiencing with my boss?” In a similar way, dreams condense past and present or use people as mile markers of feelings captured in time. Maybe the teacher you had in 8th grade shows up in your dream because she represents “being cared about by an authority figure” at a time when that is not happening in the present.
  • Displacement: One of the reasons that we hesitate taking dreams literally is that they most often involve a displacement of feelings and actions from one person to another or to other things. For example, a college-age dreamer who is struggling to separate from her family dreams that she tells her roommate that she can’t stay with her anymore, that she has to go off and live on her own. The dreamer reports feeling relieved and a bit guilty – but clearly sees that telling her roommate that she is “breaking ties” is a safer step than telling her family. Unconsciously, she is working on it.

What if I Don’t Interpret My Dream Correctly?

There really is no right or wrong in dream interpretation only the a-ha recognition you get when some part of your dream makes sense to you. Remember that dreams are overdetermined, i.e. they have many layers of meaning and tell us not only what we “know” about ourselves but what we still are coming to find out.

Don’t worry – anything you missed in last night’s dream will show up in a later installment!

In the next blog post, we take the step toward sharing dreams …


For Further Reading

Taylor, J. (1993) Where People fly and Water Runs Uphill: Using Dreams to Tap The Wisdom of The Unconscious. New York: Warner Books.