Here’s How Psychologists Actually Analyze Your Dreams

Because it’s not as simple as a fish means this and a filing cabinet means that.
m-gucci via Getty Images

I dreamed recently that I was standing at the edge of a river with my three children (I don’t have any kids in real life), explaining to them that I’d spent my childhood there and loved it.

The dream, illogical as it was, stuck with me after I woke up, so when I had the chance to interview a Jungian-trained psychologist, Cathy Pagano, I asked her what it could possibly mean.

Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were pioneers in the field of dream interpretation, and in the century since, thousands of books have been written on dream analysis, from pop-culture dream dictionaries to doctoral theses. Indeed, the desire to understand dreams is nearly universal. Many indigenous groups turn to vision quests to glean insight into their lives, and Facebook users around the globe have contributed to a World Dream Atlas. When a dream stirs up emotions, we’re all eager to understand what it means.

“We often have feelings along with the riddle of the dream. It seems to resonate with something, but we cannot put our finger on it,” said Tina Goodin, founder of the Psychology Center of Palm Beach. “Our wish to know, the sense that something is stirring deep down within us, is compelling.”

Pagano, who uses dream analysis in her counseling practice, gave me the full treatment. She explained that my dream contained a number of symbols: Children represent new ideas and desires for creative expression. Symbols that come in threes represent something that’s about to manifest (versus the number four, which represents full manifestation). The ages of the children — over 5 and under 10 — represent something I’ve been working on for the last five to 10 years that’s beginning to bear fruit. Finally, the water represented my purest happiness.

The symbols on their own don’t mean a whole lot, but once Pagano helped me to understand them in the context of my life, I was near tears.

Here’s what I realized: I’ve been wrestling recently with the idea of moving from the U.S. to a riverside community in Canada, where I’m from. I’ve felt very conflicted about how the move could affect my career, which I’ve been building for the past eight years. Given all of the symbols in the dream, my subconscious is telling me that I’ll be happiest near that river and that my career will bear fruit in that community.

Psychoanalysts often incorporate dream interpretation into their practice, focusing mainly on the theories of Freud or Jung. Other schools of psychology ― such as cognitive behavioral therapy, client-centered therapy and Gestalt therapy ― focus less on dream analysis.

After my conversation with Pagano, though, I have to say I’m a believer.

To find out how psychologists interpret dreams to help clients better understand themselves and their deepest desires, I spoke to experts across the country.

Dreams reveal our deepest truths.

Pagano said that dreams use the language of symbols and archetypes to communicate from our inner selves what we’re not able to grasp in everyday life — because of our beliefs, fears, social norms and other barriers to self-knowledge. Through dream interpretation, psychologists can help clients to see themselves and their desires in a way that’s free from all that baggage.

“You have a much more balanced view of what’s going on in your life when you dream,” Pagano said. “A dream is like energy that’s taken on a state.”

Context is everything.

Dream interpretation is a very individualized practice. Different dreams may share the same symbols, but depending on what’s going on in your life, the specific meaning of that symbol will change. So a house with peeling paint may indicate a desire for outer improvement, but what exactly you want to improve is particular to you.

Keeping a dream journal to record your nighttime visions will help you start to understand how your subconscious works and what it’s trying to communicate, Pagano said. She suggested that you first “walk around” a specific dream — i.e., take a careful look at what’s happening in the dream, where you are and who else is present — and then begin to examine how you’re relating to other people and how the dream makes you feel.

“If you have people you know in the dream, what are they like? What are their major characteristics? [If you think,] ‘Oh, I don’t like her’ or ‘She’s bossy,’ then you go, OK, that’s a shadow quality of you,” she said. “Where are you? Are you at school? Are you at home? If you’re home, is it your home? Is it a home you know? ... Usually dreams relate right back to what’s going on in your life.”

Pay special attention to recurring dreams.

A dream that returns more than once may be your subconscious urging you to address something, Goodin said. Often, recurring dreams are pointing to something unresolved, and a little analysis can reveal a psychological blockage that’s holding you back or a lingering conflict that needs your attention.

“The recurring dream is a symbol of urgency, inviting us to work on understanding it,” said Goodin. ”[Analysis] starts at the surface, from the manifest to the latent content of the dream. Sometimes it is literal, sometimes symbolic.”

California-based psychologist Shain Miller notes that the meaning of a recurring dream can change over time. “For example, a recurring dream of losing a purse can mean one thing at age 14 and something different or more developed at age 23,” she said.

Not every dream has a hidden meaning.

While dream analysis can be an empowering experience, psychologist Anjhula Mya Singh Bais cautions that not all dreams are created equal. Some can reveal secret desires, unseen dangers and unexamined ideas, but others are simply a way for the mind to process excess stimuli.

″[We’re] sorting through and purging the bombardment of images, thoughts, ideas and encounters we go through every day,” Bais said.

Don’t take your dreams too literally.

They may be filled with hidden meaning, but those insights won’t be presented to you literally — they’ll come in the form of symbols. And those symbols will mean different things to different people, depending on the issues they’re dealing with and their cultural context.

Dreaming of death, for example, does not necessarily mean that you or anybody you love is going to die soon, Bais said. It often symbolizes the end of something important, like a project or relationship, or even the beginning of something.

Skip the pop psychology books.

Books popularizing dream analysis can be fun and open the door to thinking deeply about your own dreams, but what they offer is more like horoscopes than accurate tools of analysis, according to Emily Anhalt, a doctor of clinical psychology and psychological consultant.

“Dream interpretation is not a one-size-fits-all tool in any capacity,” Anhalt said.

Instead of a best-selling book, she recommends a course of psychotherapy with a specialist in psychodynamics or psychoanalysis who is trained in dream interpretation and can help you to understand your dreams in the context of your own life.

Some dreams have a widely shared meaning.

Psychologist Nancy Mramor Kajuth said there are “classic dreams” that come to many people — such as being late for a final exam and not being prepared, being late for work and not knowing how to get there, trying to run or scream and not being able to. These have a basic, underlying message that’s generally the same for everybody. (In the case of the dreams noted, it’s a fear of failure.)

But even these dreams will also have more specific meanings that differ by person.

“Other times a dream of being lost can indicate that a person is lacking in direction,” Kajuth said. “Dreams of another person may suggest something about your relationship with them or may relate to aspects of them that currently relate to you.”

You can program your dreams.

This might seem outlandish, but you’ve likely already experienced a “programmed dream” without even realizing it. If you’ve ever mulled over a particular problem or considered your relationship with a certain person as you’re falling asleep, Kajuth said, you’ve probably dreamed about that person or problem. Deliberately focusing on an issue before bed can activate your subconscious to reveal information to you while you slumber.

Kajuth described one client who was struggling at work and who thought about his challenges as he was falling asleep. That night, he dreamed of an older person at his workplace and an alarm clock. Through dream analysis, he realized that he was not being shown the respect he sought at work. He was a younger employee and wasn’t being treated as an expert in his field because of his age, which was symbolized by the older man and the clock. Those symbols revealed to him in his sleep what he couldn’t surmise in his waking life.

If you’d like to know more about how to program your dreams, Kajuth suggests reading Living Your Dreams by Gayle Delaney.

If you’re intrigued by dream interpretation, the psychologists interviewed here also recommended dream dictionaries by Tony Crisp, J.E. Cirlot and Gustavus Hindman Miller, as well as Dreams and Nightmares: The Origin and Meaning of Dreams by Ernest Hartmann, Dreaming Souls: Sleep, Dreams, and the Evolution of the Conscious Mind by Owen Flanagan, The Dream Discourse Today edited by Sara Flanders, and Dreaming and Thinking edited by Rosine Jozef Perelberg.

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