Understanding dream symbolism is the Rosetta Stone of dream interpretation
It begins with symbolism. Symbolism is a shorthand way of expressing an idea. By translating the symbolism of a dream, you put it into a language you can better understand.
Everything in dreams is symbolism. Every detail is a representation of something related to you and your life and it all ties back to 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 (settings and characters), verbs (actions and reactions), and adjectives (feelings and symbols). It’s a nonverbal language of puns, figures of speech, word plays, metaphors, analogies, and comparisons. As you apply the DREAMS 1-2-3 system to your life you will become fluent in the language of dreams and learn to decipher their meaning.
Dream symbolism can seem absurd and meaningless, and sometimes it is. Your dreaming mind translates any input into symbolism. When you first go to sleep your mind can produce dreamlike imagery that has no story or narrative to it.
For most people under normal conditions, that imagery starts weaving together into memorable and emotionally engaging stories after a full Sleep Cycle or two. However, if you are sleep-deprived or have a big need to dream you can start dreaming intensely and meaningfully soon after falling asleep.
Symbolism illustrated through example of driving in a dream
To introduce the subject of dream symbolism, let’s begin with a dream just about everyone has had: driving. I will list some common dream scenarios involving driving then give interpretations of the symbolism. As you read the following examples, keep in mind that driving often symbolizes movement (or lack of it) in your life, as in the term “going places.” 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 maybe it’s your pulse or blood pressure that won’t slow down, or a situation you can’t control.
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.
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 is acted out. Your actions in a dream, or the actions of the story or the characters in it, are symbolism. Action tells the dream-story. An in-depth discussion of action in dreams is given in Step Two.
If It’s Unreal, It’s (probably) 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 bright blue hair, but in reality has dark brown hair. 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 avoiding something, or some person or situation in your life is bothering you and you are trying to ignore or escape it.
Don’t take the imagery literally. The ax murderer 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––or something about yourself needs to change and it won’t let you get away until doing something about it.
When you do something out of character or completely unreal in a dream, it’s a sign that you are enacting symbolism. For example, you cut off your leg like it’s no big deal. That’s enacting symbolism. Cutting off your leg might mean that you are doing something that is hindering the progress of your life. After all, your legs are used to move you.
You jump off a cliff, or seduce your teacher, or murder your spouse––all symbolism.
Don’t Stop There: More Driving Symbolism
Now that you get the idea, let’s interpret more symbolism that involves driving. Think of your own ideas for the possible meaning before reading mine.
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.
You need to be in control. You are a backseat driver.
If you are a passenger in the backseat and not driving, it can mean that your life is directed by someone else. You are not in control nor make your own decisions, or you allow someone else to take the lead. It might be your life in general depicted by the dream, or a particular area of it.
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 that you can’t go any further. 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 after getting hired the company goes belly up and you’re laid off. You figuratively parked your car under a company structure that collapsed. The idea can also apply to a romantic relationship or housing situation that doesn’t work out, and to a variety of other situations in life.
Mine the Metaphors
Many of these examples 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 ironic. They dramatize situations in memorable ways, and if humor is the best way to tell the story, so be it. It’s not malicious, but it might sting to see yourself drive off a cliff, for example, and realize the dream is talking about your tendency to ignore warnings and plow ahead no matter what.
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 to a location. Translate that idea to your life and the symbolism can mean you need direction and guidance. It might be direction or guidance related to a goal you’re trying to reach, the person you are trying to become, or a wish you want 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, like maps with a “you are here” marker. Translate that idea to your life and what does it mean?
In-Depth Look: Your Car Is Stolen
What does it mean to have your car 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 it means that your ability to make progress in your life has somehow been taken or is 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. Your car being stolen in a dream can mean you have lost a piece of your identity.
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.
- You lost a job or something else, like a relationship, 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 more distant with your coworkers than you’d like to be. A part of yourself was stolen by the circumstances.
- 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 it could be an illness or circumstance robbing you of an opportunity.
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, such as in the phrase, “stole my heart.” The idea of stealing is used to compare to a situation or event. The situation or event could be in your external life, or could be 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 from 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. It takes any input and turns it into symbolism.
[Read this post for more discussion about precognition (seeing the future) in dreams.]
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 is parked in your driveway where it is usually parked. And the group of shady teenagers who steal it in the dream look like the teenagers you saw eying your car the other day. The dream could be just reflecting your thoughts or fears, but it could also be a warning to park your car somewhere else for a while, or take other steps to secure it.
[Read this post for more discussion of the obvious messages and meaning in some dreams.]
Now apply knowledge of symbolism to more examples:
- Spin your wheels.
- Drive in circles.
- Visit a mechanic.
- Headlights don’t work.
Spin your wheels is a metaphor for situations in life where your efforts get you nowhere. “Spinning your wheels” is a common figure of speech.
Drive in circles is a similar metaphor as spin your wheels. The idea is also expressed in the phrase “argue in circles.” You go round and round and end up back where you started.
You dream about visiting a mechanic when you need help getting your life moving or figuring out what’s making it break down. You might need a look “under the hood,” into your inner workings, to see what’s going on emotionally or psychologically. Or maybe the issue you need help with is physical. Your body is the vehicle that moves your life. The mechanic in your dream fixes whatever is causing you to break down.
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. They might symbolize your ability to see into the dark spots within yourself. 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 in your car 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.
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 high rate of speed of the car. 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 screams symbolism, and what it means is he recognizes what is 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 come true literally.
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 had ambitions for his life but was unable to figure out how to make them reality. Instead, he wasted a lot of time at the house that is depicted in the dream, hanging out with the same friends. The feeling of helplessness to achieve his ambitions sparked thoughts of ending his life. He grabs the gun from under the passenger seat of his mom’s car because she is the person who gave him the idea that he wanted to do something more with his life than just whittle away his time with other people who also couldn’t figure out what to do with themselves. But she 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 did not carry a gun in her car, so the discrepancy is obviously symbolism. When interpreting the symbolism, that’s the place to begin. Why is the gun in mom’s car under her passenger seat? The answer to that question unlocks the meaning of the dream.
Another dream featuring the dreamer’s mom driving, this time with a different twist. The dreamer is a male teenager. [Description is a summary.]
My mom is driving 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, 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 is like a passenger along for the ride.
The action of the dream is also symbolism for what the young man has observed about his mom’s decision-making. She makes bad decisions, symbolized in the dream as missing the bridge and driving onto a frozen lake. He has to come to her rescue and clean up the mess. Once you know the young man’s situation, the symbolism of the dream is obvious.
Explore this subject further by reading a blog post about the dream symbolism of buses.
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.
To read more about dream symbolism, see the following posts:
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 dream work.
If you want to go into great depth about dream symbolism, I suggest the book Man and His Symbols. This link is to a free PDF copy. It takes a while to load.
Or watch this video for an audio version of the book. The first 20 minutes is a reading of the forward.