How to Interpret Your Dreams

June 19, 2013
Learn how you can become your own expert on your dreams.

.Trafford Road Swing Bridge

Many years ago, I attended a workshop on dreams. A woman volunteered to have her dream analyzed and eagerly shared various pieces of a disjointed dream; such as a road, sofa, child, and swing. She wasn’t particularly bothered nor pleased by the dream. She just wanted to know what all of it “meant” so that she could better understand herself.

When asked what the various components in the dream meant to her, she gave fairly ordinary answers. The road represented travel. The sofa was a place to rest. The child was hope for the future. The swing reminded her of her backyard. Nothing seemed to pull it all together despite the best efforts of the dream specialist. No deep ah-ha set her further on the road to self-discovery.

The more I listened, the more I realized that the dream didn’t have any meaning that could help her. It was just the accumulation of bits and pieces of her life that happened to congeal into a dream during the night.

Dream Experts

However, because we are fascinated by bizarre images that slide just in and out of sight in the movies we watch in our sleep, we hope that one of many “dream bibles” can point us in the right direction.

Of course, dream experts usually couch their interpretation of snakes, tall men, shadows, or clocks by saying that you have to apply their suggestions to your life. Read their analysis and you’ll see that a dream symbol “may” mean this, or it “may” mean the opposite.

With the seed of those ideas planted in your mind, it’s a little like reading a horoscope. Even when we say we don’t believe in them, part of us hopes that the positive predictions might be true.

Notice, however, that dream experts say that you are the one who has to choose from a list of suggested meanings. So you might as well start right away believing you are the expert on your dreams.

Dreams Can Reinforce Understanding We Already Have About Our Lives

Freud once observed that “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious,” and it is certainly true that you can unravel some of your psyche with a little help from dreams.

For example, as I wrote in Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your Life, a dream reinforced what I was learning in therapy. At the time, I had often dreamed of flying in a building where I would be trapped by a locked grill or skylight on the roof. Analyzing the dream helped reinforce an observation I was already making in therapy: I gave others the right to stop me from moving toward a goal. Therefore, for a while I used a key as a talisman to claim my own power to unlock the gate to my success.

However, most of my dreams are quite ordinary and don’t add any significant information to help me understand my psyche. The dreams are silly, weird, fascinating, bizarre — but not the most efficient way to help me discover who I am.

Nevertheless, once-in-a-while a dream intrigues me. A prime example happened the night before last.

First, though, let me give you some background on what is happening in my life because I am sure it was central to the theme of the dream.

A Real Pain in the Neck!

I have had neck pain since last November. The problem has gradually progressed from tension to fairly severe pain that hurts when I turn my head up, down, left or right, clearly limiting my movement. Have gone through a battery of tests and treatments. X-ray and MRI showed evidence of arthritis in the neck and that seemed like a likely culprit. Initially I had acupuncture, physical therapy, and steroid injections — plus all the relaxation techniques I’ve been teaching to others for years.

Finally, I got a diagnosis of “Cervical Dystonia,” which is something like getting leg cramps in your neck. Never heard of it? That isn’t surprising, since it only occurs in .1% of the population. Of course, when I had something called Guillain-Barre Syndrome twelve years ago, that only occurred in .001% to .002% of the population, so this diagnosis moves me a little closer to normal.

In any case, there is no cure and the only treatment is Botox. That is why, 14 days ago, I had 12 shots and was told they would work within two weeks. Unfortunately, (1) the treatment didn’t work, (2) one of the “side effects” of Botox treatment for this unusual disorder is “pain” — doesn’t sound fair, but there it is — and (3) I’m unable to take any of the normal pain killers like Vicodin and Percocet because I get nauseated.

Instead, today I am taking a strong muscle relaxant and a drug used for epilepsy, of all things. The combination only works slightly, but I continue to hope they’ll eventually find the right amount of Botox to inject into the right places in my neck.

However, I do have a neck brace. For years, I thought these Styrofoam bands held together with Velcro were only used in court appearances to provide proof of injury. Now I can testify that they are quite good for preventing the neck from turning too far and getting caught in a muscle spasm.

In the meantime, I enjoy my newly painted and newly organized office, create posts for the blog that should last several months while I work on my second edition of Letting Go of Our Adult Children, and also plan an online program for parents of adult children and for therapists. So I am not surrendering to stiff muscles, but it does cramp my style.

Now, let me tell you my dream two nights ago.

A Stretchy, Spirited, Playful Dream

In the dream, I found myself in the middle of a large area with a kaleidoscope of colors and people enjoying a wide variety of games. I moved freely and danced gracefully with ribbons and other things that seemed designed to draw the best out of me. There was a screen, like those in a science museum where the movement you make is shown on a plain wall that reflects the warmth and coolness of your skin in orange, red, and blue.

Nearby, I very quietly held a little girl who seemed to almost melt into my arms for several minutes. She put her head on my shoulder and I enjoyed holding her, certain that she was thrilled to be held, for no one had loved her that much before.

In various sections of the dream, I interacted with people of many races, including one segment in which African Americans moved in line ahead of me to take part in a dance. I quietly told them that while I couldn’t dance with the rhythm they had, I was going to do okay my way. They accepted this without question and I moved among them.

Eventually, workers began disassembling pieces of the games, getting them ready for the next night.

I suppose that you, like me, would interpret this dream as confirmation that my unconscious sees me as carefree, even though my body is anything but flexible. However, the part of the dream on which I most focus is the hug I gave the little girl. I’m not sure if I am the girl or the one loving her, but I greatly enjoy my memory of the union between the two of us. It reinforces my desire to be more accepting of others (and of myself).

Weird Spiders

Hoping I could continue the dream last night, I was disappointed to find myself watching a spider weaving a web on the ground. Maybe I was the spider, maybe just the observer. Couldn’t tell. Let’s say I was just an observer. Anyway, the spider apparently didn’t know how to weave a web in the air, and only wove a half web. Also, the construction was anything but ordinary, for the spider made increasingly longer half circles before even trying to connect them with short lines.

Then, the spider made a notch on the last outside loop, indicating that was the outer edge. I thought this was a clever innovation. And of course, as with most dreams, I never questioned the spider’s peculiar spinning technique, as I would have in real life.

Later in the dream, I had a discussion with the spider about how much she should charge for working in a museum. We decided that asking for more than you needed was a wise maneuver. The museum’s manager would want to pay less and the spider would still be happy.

What interpretation would you give this dream? Be my guest. I don’t feel any compunction to search for meanings for dreams like these. I just enjoy them.

How to Get the Most from Your Dreams

In addition to Freud’s statement about royal roads and the unconscious, he also said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. He might as easily have said, sometimes a dream is just a dream.

After all, almost all dreams are just mixed-up movies projected onto a screen by invisible elves who are determined to have fun when you are sleeping. They start pulling together the memory from a birthday party when you were five years old mixed in with the birthday you had last year. They add to that the humiliation of failing a test while giving you parts of a joke told by an old friend you haven’t seen for years. Next, they sprinkle in the sensuous flavor of a kiss with doubts about who the person might be. Finally, they toss in outtakes of the movies you made as you went through the day.

It is no wonder we are fascinated and enchanted with this creation of our unconscious mind and of the flotsam and jetsam tossed onto the sea of our psyche. Analysis doesn’t give us a particularly significant insight for our efforts.

However, if a dream keeps repeating itself and keeps bothering you, perhaps it is trying to tell you something. If an image in the dream resonates with an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, ask yourself, “What causes me problems in my waking life? Do I need to do something differently that I haven’t been doing? What have I been avoiding? Have I failed to love someone who needs loving? Have I neglected my responsibilities?”

If you want to be a student of your psyche, trust your answers.

And always remember that the more you understand who you are in the light of day, the less your dreams will try to get your attention at night.

 Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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