We are understandably fascinated by our dreams. The memorable ones tend to pack a punch. They shake us up and take us places we could never go in our waking lives. Our dreams might lift us up to a place of exhilarating beauty or drop us down into terror or leave us hovering somewhere in between. One way or the other, we wake up knowing that something important has happened because we can feel it in our bones and in our hearts. But what exactly did happen? What do our dreams mean?

That pressing question usually drives us to investigate, to talk to others, to look for insight and guidance. All good pursuits, but be aware of a pitfall you will very likely encounter in your search for the meaning of your dreams. It is misinformation. There is an astonishing amount of misinformation surfacing in bookstores, in magazine articles, and through social media right now about what our dreams mean. So much misinformation and so incorrect that one wonders what happened? Why was what used to be universally valued as true about the meaning and purpose of dreams forgotten or dismissed? What was known to be true appears to have been replaced with a banal, formulaic one-size-fits-all approach. Unfortunately, not only does this approach not fit everyone, it actually fits no one.

The grossest and most fundamental misperception in the new approach to dream interpretation is that there is a universality to the meaning of everyone’s dreams. Consequently, it is very likely that your initial online or bookstore search will refer you to a “dream dictionary” of symbols and themes to decode the mystery of your dream story. While it is true that dreams speak through symbols and themes, the critical element that is being ignored is that these symbols and themes belong to you personally. Your subconscious mind draws from all of your personal experiences, from all of the things you have ever seen, heard, felt, thought. From your personal unresolved conflicts and from your personal uniquely celebrated joys. And then in a burst of awesome creativity, your subconscious crafts a marvelous story by using symbols to convey the message in a compelling and impactful way. The message is transported through the use of symbols because each symbol contains within it an entire context of thoughts and feelings which are particularly relevant to you, the dreamer. How in the world would it be possible to look these up in a dictionary and get an accurate meaning?

A number of years ago I had a vivid, compelling dream featuring a coiled rattlesnake that stared into my eyes and was clearly ready to strike. What would a dream dictionary tell me the rattlesnake means? An online dictionary I just consulted told me it means “danger”. OK, but does that really unlock the meaning of the symbol or how that symbol applies to my life? It does not. Knowing that there was “danger out there somewhere” is not really helpful. What did unlock the meaning of this dream was using a very effective and simple technique of word association. Dr. Sigmund Freud popularized the understanding of the how the conscious and subconscious minds work and he regularly used the technique of word association to figure out what was really happening with his patients. He was wildly successful with this approach of by tapping the subconscious mind. The concept of word association is fundamental to the psychoanalytic approach of therapy which is still being used today.

What Freud brilliantly recognized is the uniqueness of each person’s subconscious use of symbol and theme. Let’s say a patient came to Freud with a psychosomatic physical problem such as the inability to use her hand. It would not open or close – it simply would not work – but there was no known physical cause. Clearly, the patient didn’t know why her hand didn’t work. So where was Freud to begin? He would usually begin with a simple but effective technique of word association. Just like in dream work, this technique assumes the subconscious mind will reveal its unresolved conflicts and desires through symbols because it strives to impart meaning – it strives to heal itself. He might begin by saying, “I am going to read you a list of words and after each word I want you to tell me the first word that enters your mind.” The list might include a number of seemingly innocuous words such as “water”, “hill”, “book” and some more potentially emotionally loaded words such as “mother”, “father”, “hand”. The patient’s responses might be:

            Water = Wet

            Hill = High

            Book = Simple

            Mother = Angry

            Father = Pipe

            Hand = Fist

Recognizing that the patient’s responses to “mother” (angry) and to “hand” (fist) probably relate to some unresolved conflict, he could then probe those areas by asking the patient to talk about her mother and to speak about the use of a hand as a fist. Now Freud had a jumping off place to begin his therapeutic work.

Back to my rattlesnake dream. If I walked back in time and into Dr. Freud’s office, he would probably do the same word association technique with my dream. “Tell me the first word that enters your mind when you think of a rattlesnake”. At the time I had that dream I was at the beginning of getting a divorce and the first word that popped into my mind (when I was using this associative technique myself) was “husband”. As it turned out the true meaning of this dream was a warning about some legal dangers related to how my soon-to-be ex-husband was approaching the divorce. Subconsciously, I knew the actual legalities of the divorce were going to be contentious but consciously I really didn’t want to deal with that realization and the accompanying sadness so I blocked it out. Had I not paid attention to my dream, and correctly interpreted the symbol through personal association, I would have been blind-sided when we went to court.

The good news is neither you nor I really need to consult Dr. Freud to figure out the meaning of the symbols in our dreams. We can use the word association technique and listen to the awesome creative voice of our subconscious minds. So do tap the rich, abundant resource of your dreams.  But whatever you do, don’t fall prey to the temptation of opening a dream dictionary full of meanings that are not your own.