Understanding Dream Symbolism: The Rosetta Stone of Dream Interpretation
Dream interpretation begins with symbolism. Symbolism is a shorthand way of expressing ideas. By translating dream symbolism, you put it into everyday language and get the idea.
Dream symbols are like the words of a sentence. They’re strung together into sentences to convey more complex ideas (see “Dream Symbols” below).
As a rule of thumb, everything in dreams is symbolism, a representation of something else that’s related to you and your life, and all the dots connect in the dream-story. Sometimes dreams speak literally and directly, but in my experience, most of the time they use the shorthand language of symbolism.
Symbolism is a language of pictures, gestures, and ideas. Like other languages, it has nouns (symbols, settings, characters) and verbs (action, reactions, resolutions). It has adjectives which modify the nouns, such as the color of a vehicle or size of a building. It has adverbs which modify the verbs, such as the speed of a vehicle. It has pronouns: surrogate characters and symbols. They substitute for something else, usually the nouns of dream language. The interjections are your feelings and emotions experienced in response to a dream.
Like a language, dreams string together words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, then into chapters, then into entire stories (books). They build around a core idea, a thread that ties everything together. The symbolic details are the story elements and narrative components of the story and everything that modifies them. Think of them as dots that connect together to form small pictures that fit into the big one. The entire dream, assuming it is fully formed, is a complete picture that says everything at once. Everything in a dream interconnects either symbolically or in the story narrative.
Video about Decoding Dream Symbolism
This video I made gives a lot of the information — but not all — covered in this chapter.
Dream Symbolism Tells a Story and You Participate
Dreams introduce an idea or subject then tell a story about it, its condition and circumstances, its history and prospects — everything needed to paint the picture. You step into the picture and participate in the story as an actor. You respond to the symbolism as if it’s all real and everything’s really happening, while knowing subconsciously what it all really means. What it really is. Symbolism.
Language is used to tell stories, and dreams are pros at storytelling. As you become fluent in the language of symbolism and the mechanics of dream storytelling, the meaning of your dreams comes into focus.
Dream symbolism can seem absurd and meaningless, and sometimes it is. Your dreaming mind translates any input experienced while sleeping into symbolism, including thoughts, feelings, emotions, perceptions, physical sensations, and memories. It’s all processed through the dreaming mind and translated into symbolism. When you first go to sleep your mind can produce dreamlike imagery that has no story or narrative to it. It’s just a memory dump. Or think of it as the rehearsal — the musicians warming up backstage — before the performance — meaningful dreaming — begins.
Read about the hidden meaning in absurd dream imagery:
Because some dream imagery is meaningless doesn’t mean it’s all meaningless. When the imagery weaves together into stories that engage you, that’s the performance. Those are the dreams to focus on. They are certainly meaningful.
The importance differences and connections between dream symbols and dream symbolism is explained here:
Dreams string together symbols to create symbolism. The symbol is a small picture. Symbolism paints a bigger one. Begin with the symbol, decode it into everyday language, and see how it fits into the big picture.
Symbolism Example | Driving
Driving a vehicle is a common dream theme. It offers a wide variety of uses as symbolism. Let’s explore. As you read the following examples, keep in mind that driving often symbolizes movement in your life (or lack of it), as in “going places.” Your life moves. Also, I’m not covering every possibility, just introducing you to the subject.
You dream that you:
- Drive in reverse.
- Press the brakes but don’t slow down.
- Have a flat tire.
- Drive on a narrow road.
Drive in reverse: If movement in a vehicle symbolizes how your life moves, driving in reverse can symbolize a setback. You are going the wrong direction.
Brakes don’t work: Your life is moving too fast. You can’t slow down. Or your pulse or blood pressure won’t slow down.
Flat tire: A flat tire can symbolize something that hinders or stops your life’s progress. For example, losing a job. If the job is taking you somewhere in your life, losing it is like having a flat tire.
Narrow road: Your choices are limited. You feel hemmed in. No deviation is allowed.
A dream can create symbolism in the action such driving in reverse, a verb of dream language, or even in the lack of action when the brakes don’t work or the car doesn’t move. It can create symbolism in details about the vehicle such as the flat tire, an adjective of dream language. Road conditions such as narrow, treacherous, icy, crowded, or empty modify the central idea so they’re adjectives, too. Details about the control of the vehicle are adverbs. They modify the action.
For example, what does a dream say when it shows you screaming down the highway and barely keeping control of the vehicle while navigating a sharp turn? It can mean you’re barely in control of something that’s headed in an unexpected direction. Or simplify the basic idea to “barely under control.” Amplify the idea and it can mean “flaunting disaster.”
The possibilities for symbolism created with vehicles and driving go on and on. We’ll pick up again with this discussion in a moment.
Focus on the Action
The symbolism in the above examples is defined by the action — drive, brake — and the imagery — flat, narrow. Symbolism is not static or isolated, usually. It’s doing something. It’s acted out. Your personal actions in a dream, and the actions of the dream and the characters in it, are symbolism.
Action tells the dream-story. An in-depth discussion of action in dreams is given in Step 2. In the meantime, here’s an important point:
No matter what happens in a dream, how gruesome or gross or shocking it might be, it’s all symbolism. It’s meant to be poignant. It’s trying to get your attention. When you say, “oh my god, I can’t believe I had that dream!” your dreaming mind says “mission accomplished.”
If It’s Unreal, It’s Symbolism
Oftentimes the symbolism of a dream is noticeable, in your face. It draws attention to itself, unmistakable. Once you know what to look for it will jump out at you.
Discrepancies with waking reality scream “symbolism!” For example, you see a friend in a dream and that friend has neon blue hair, but in reality their hair is a different color. The discrepancy is obviously symbolism.
Anything absurd or unreal in a dream is probably symbolism. When you take a hot-air balloon ride with Snoop Dog, it means something. When an ax murderer chases you down a dark alley, it’s symbolism. It might mean you are on the wrong path, or you are trying to escape a person or situation in your life.
Don’t take the imagery literally. The ax murderer in your dream isn’t someone who wants to kill you, but it could be a sign that something needs to change. Perhaps you feel hunted physically or emotionally. Perhaps someone has bad intentions toward you. Perhaps a situation is stressing you out. Something needs to change and it won’t let you get away until you do something about it.
When you do something out of character or completely unreal in a dream, it’s a sign of enacting symbolism. For example, you cut off your leg like it’s no big deal. It’s symbolism. Cutting off your leg might mean that you are doing something that’s hindering the progress of your life. After all, your legs are used to move you, and you already know that movement in a dream can connect symbolically with movement in your life.
You jump off a cliff, or seduce your teacher, or murder your spouse — all symbolism.
More Driving Symbolism
- Press the gas pedal but don’t speed up or move.
When people are exhausted they are said to be “out of gas.” Gas means motivation, drive, energy. If you press the gas pedal and don’t move, it could mean you are exhausted, or aren’t making progress despite your effort.
- Drive from the backseat.
Symbolizes need to be in control. Backseat driver. Controlling from a distance.
- Drive off a cliff.
A cliff implies an abrupt or sudden change, or some sort of imminent danger. As a figure of speech you say that a person drives off a cliff when they make a poor decision or continue on a path that leads to trouble, failure, or disaster.
- Drive into a wall.
When you hit a wall in your life you reach a point where you can’t go any farther. It’s the end of the road. Something has to stop.
- Park under a structure that collapses.
When you park your car it’s like making a decision about a place where your life belongs. For example, you start a new job. You are getting somewhere in life. Then a month later the company goes belly up and you’re laid off. You figuratively park your car under a company structure that collapses. The idea can also apply to a romantic relationship, housing situation, and a variety of other situations in life where you expect to stay for a while but things don’t work out.
Symbolism is understood in context.
It plays with language.
Mine the Metaphors
Many of the examples given for car symbolism show figures of speech and metaphors in action: backseat driver; drive off a cliff; hit a wall. Dreams are not only insightful, they can be funny and satirical. They memorably dramatize situations, and if humor or satire is the best way to tell the story, so be it. It’s not malicious but, for example, it might sting to see yourself drive off a cliff and realize the dream is talking about your tendency to ignore warnings and plow ahead no matter what. It’s exaggerated, yes, and it sure gets your attention!
Explain in Simplest Terms
Symbolism can be identified by explaining in simplest terms what you see or experience in a dream. For example, a map is used to find your way somewhere or figure out where you’re at. Simplify the idea and translate it to your life, and the symbolism can mean you need direction and guidance in general or with something specific. Direction or guidance related to a goal you’re trying to reach, becoming the person you want to be, a problem you’re trying solve, an answer to a question, a wish to fulfill. As symbolism, a map equals direction. Not north, south, east or west — personal direction. Providing direction is the essence of what a map does for you. It can also tell you where you are at with something, a “YOU ARE HERE” marker. Translate that idea to your life and what does it mean?
Follow Your Feelings
You react while dreaming based on subconscious knowledge of what everything means (see: Three Simple Facts about Dreams). Your feelings show in how you react while dreaming to the story as it’s presented to you. How you react can tell you what the dream symbolism means.
In-Depth Look: Your Car Is Stolen
What does it mean when your car is stolen in a dream? Think about it before reading my explanation.
Your car is the vehicle that moves your life — forward, backward, in circles, whatever. Movement in a car symbolizes your drive and ambition. If your car is stolen, one possibility is it means that your ability to make progress in your life is compromised or threatened.
For some people their car is a big part of their identity. A car can say a lot about the person driving it. Take the same person you see in a Ferrari and put them behind the wheel of a minivan. It’s an entirely different impression. So a stolen car in a dream can mean something about your identity has been taken, probably unfairly. You lost a piece of your identity or something else that’s important to you.
So what does it mean to dream your car is stolen?
- It might mean that you have lost your drive or ambition.
- You let someone in on a plan or idea and they stole it. The plan is the idea that was going to move your forward in life.
- You lost a job or relationship, something closely related to your personal identity.
- You feel like you are giving up something important about yourself in order to reach a goal. For example, in order to be a manager at work you have to be more distant with your co-workers than you’d like to be. A part of yourself — the part that wants to connect personally with people you work with — is stolen by circumstances.
- You feel unlucky. You feel robbed. The symbolism of the car is likely to pinpoint exactly how you feel unlucky or robbed, but dreams can create scenarios simply to express how you feel, and the individual details aren’t as important as the big picture.
- You don’t know how to get to somewhere you want to be. You have an ambition or goal but don’t know how to reach it.
- A rogue part of yourself is working against you, taking something from you needed to advance your life. Or something’s robbing you of an opportunity: illness, failure, circumstances.
When analyzing symbolism, think broadly and creatively. The word “stolen” can be used to describe a lot more than just a possession or item taken illicitly. If someone “steals” your boyfriend they don’t stuff him in pocket and walk out of the store. In most cases nothing is literally stolen, like when someone says “stole my heart.” The idea of stealing is used to compare to a situation, event or feeling — something tied to your external life, or something going on inside you.
Always Consider the Obvious
Dreams can be literal, though it doesn’t happen often for most people. If you dream about your car getting stolen you should consider the possibility of it really happening. Dreams can give warnings.
A way to tell the difference is by analyzing a dream for literal and figurative representations. If the car stolen in a dream is “yours” but doesn’t look like the car you drive, you can bet that the dream is using symbolism. Discrepancy with reality is a sign of symbolism. Symbolism is a sign that a dream is telling a story, not giving a literal warning, but it’s not a sure thing. The dreaming mind is a translator, after all. It takes any input and turns it into symbolism. However, that rule has exceptions.
An engineer, J.W. Dunne, studied his dreams for decades with an engineer’s focus on detail and pattern identification. He said that as many as half of his dreams came true in the future. How can you interpret a dream that comes true or could come true in the future? It’s not easy, but I have a place for you to start:
The use of symbolism indicates a comparison is being made, not a literal warning given. But let’s say that the car stolen in your dream looks exactly like the car you own. It’s parked in your driveway where it’s usually parked. And the group of shady teenagers who steal it in the dream look like the teenagers you saw eyeing your car the other day. The dream could merely reflect your thoughts or fears, or it could be an obvious warning to secure your vehicle.
To Symbolize, or Not. That Is the Question
Now that I have pounded into your head that everything in dreams is symbolism, I will split that hair. I know from experience that I can look and look for the symbolism of a detail of a dream — or indeed, of the entire dream — and not find it. The dream is not precognitive. It’s not literal. It’s just telling a story.
Some dreams or details within them are most important to understand as a story that has a point or lesson. You aren’t likely to find the meaning and significance by analyzing the symbols or the symbolism. Instead, just analyze the story. Some details of dreams merely set the scene. They’re part of a scenario. These dreams are like virtual reality simulations. Yes, every detail in them is deliberately chosen, but traditional ways of decoding symbolism don’t apply. I find these dreams to be few and far between, but dreaming is a widely variable experience and it depends on the person. For example, Ian Wilson, who first learned how to lucid dream in the mid 1980s, reports many “virtual reality” dreams that lead him to ever deeper and greater understanding of the mechanics of creating reality both in dreams, and in 3-D physical space. Life is but a dream. That statement is profoundly true. Life is a higher level dream that’s persistent.
Now apply knowledge of symbolism to more examples:
- Spin your wheels.
- Drive in circles.
- Visit a mechanic.
- Headlights don’t work.
Think about it, then keep reading.
Spin your wheels is a metaphor for situations in life where your efforts get you nowhere. “Spin your wheels” is a common figure of speech.
Drive in circles metaphorically expresses its idea the same way as spin your wheels. You go round and round and end up back where you started in a situation, a relationship, an endeavor, an argument (“argue in circles”).
Visit a mechanic when you need help getting your life moving or figuring out what’s making it break down. Your body is the vehicle that moves your life. The mechanic in your dream fixes whatever is causing it to break down or function incorrectly. You might need a look “under the hood,” into your inner workings, to see what’s going on physically, emotionally, or psychologically.
Your headlights help you see in the dark. Headlights can symbolize ability to see your way ahead in life or gain clarity in a situation, so if they don’t work it’s a way of saying you’re “in the dark.” They might symbolize your ability to see into the dark spots within yourself. They can be like a spotlight bringing something into focus. Or they might symbolize your eyes.
Passenger in a Car
A passenger in a car can symbolize the idea of “along for the ride.” Your life is moving along and the passengers are people who are part of that journey. The idea is reversed if you are the passenger while someone else drives. The driver is the person in control of the situation, or in general.
To further illustrate the idea, let’s analyze some dreams that uses the symbolism.
I’m driving in my car at a high rate of speed with my boyfriend in the passenger seat. I see a wall ahead and press the brake pedal but it doesn’t work. My boyfriend pulls the emergency brake but it doesn’t work either, and we crash into the wall. Everything goes black, and I’m dead.
This dream occurred at a time in the dreamer’s life when she had too much to do and not enough time to do it. She drove herself hard to accomplish it all and reached a breaking point. Her inner drive and the fast pace of her life are symbolized in the dream as the car’s high rate of speed. The breaking point is symbolized as smashing into a wall and dying.
But why is her boyfriend a passenger? As an important person in her life, he is “along for the ride.” They are partners in life. Pulling the emergency brake is obviously symbolism when you consider that in reality the brake is not located between the driver and passenger seats, but instead is on the driver’s side floor. That discrepancy with reality has to be symbolism, and what it means is he recognizes what’s happening with her but is unable to do anything about it. That obvious use of symbolism is also a sign that the dream is not giving a warning that the dream could literally come true.
Now analyze this dream:
I’m at a friend’s house hanging out with him and a group of our friends, which is how I spend most of my waking time. I can’t stand it anymore and go to my mom’s car parked nearby, reach under the passenger seat and pull out a gun. I point it at my head and pull the trigger. Everything goes black.
The young man who had this dream has ambitions for his life but is unable to figure out how to make them reality. Instead, he wastes a lot of time at the house depicted in the dream, hanging out with the same friends. The feeling of helplessness to achieve his ambitions sparks thoughts of ending his life, an expression of hopelessness. He grabs the gun from under the passenger seat of his mom’s car because she’s the person who gave him the idea that he wanted to do something more with his life than whittle away his time with other people who also can’t figure out what to do with themselves. But Mom can’t achieve his ambitions for him. He can’t be her passenger for this ride. He has to figure out his own way.
In reality, his mom does not carry a gun in her car, so the discrepancy is obviously symbolism. Focus there while interpreting the dream. If you figure out what one part of a dream means, you can use it decode the rest. Why is the gun in mom’s car under her passenger seat? The answer to that question unlocks the meaning of the dream. Because her son has been along for the ride in her life till this point, and now he needs to figure things out for himself, and if he doesn’t, it’s like suicide.
Another dream featuring the dreamer’s mom, this time with a different twist. The dreamer is a teenage son.
My mom is driving her truck and I’m in the passenger seat. She drives on a snowy road and misses a bridge. The truck ends up on a frozen lake and the ice breaks. The truck sinks. I rescue Mom and grab some important things from the truck, then yell at her for her bad driving.
Being the passenger in his mom’s vehicle is a way of symbolizing this young man’s role and position. His mom is the decision-maker, the one who leads. As a teenager he’s like a passenger along for the ride.
The action of the dream dramatize (and symbolize) his observations about his mom’s decision-making. It’s bad, symbolized in the dream as missing the bridge and driving onto a frozen lake. In life, he has to come to her rescue, like in the dream. Once you know the context of the son’s life, the symbolism of the dream is obvious because he’s always coming to her rescue and fixing her messes.
Think Like a Storyteller
Every detail in a dream is used purposefully. Knowing that, you can reverse engineer the dream by asking why a dream detail is used a particular way in the story. Any mode of travel can be used to describe movement in your life or the day to day activity of it, but some modes are better than others depending on what a dream is really saying. Driving a vehicle tends to be used by dreams to speak to the daily activity of your life. Flying in a plane tends to speak to life’s more distant objectives and bigger goals, or the desire to get somewhere quickly. Travelling by boat tends to symbolize the longer journeys of life and experiences with more depth, or the feeling of buoyancy. A motorcycle is generally a single-person vehicle, symbolically a way of saying “go it alone” or “independence.” A bicycle moves with leg power, a way of saying “leg work,” “effort,” “hustle.”
The follow post explores this idea futher:
This introduction to dream symbolism provides a foundation for interpreting your dreams. Everything in meaningful is symbolism. By learning to decode dream symbolism, you unlock the meaning of your dreams.
More Dream Symbolism Resources:
Callous over heart in a dream shows that the dreamer’s self-harming has calloused over her emotions.
A partner shrinking during sex in a dream shows that the dreamer is getting less enjoyment from sex.
Two tornadoes in a dream symbolize two writing projects the dreamer is working on.
Grab a copy of Dreams 1-2-3: Remember, Interpret, and Live Your Dreams if you want to better understand dream symbolism and get a comprehensive overview of dreamwork.
If you want to go into great depth about dream symbolism, I suggest the book Man and His Symbols.
Or watch this video for an audio version of the book. The first 20 minutes is a reading of the Forward (it can be skipped).