Introduction to the Use of Metaphor in Dreams
A metaphor is, simply put, a figure of speech that creates symbolism. It’s like an analogy in that it uses comparison, but metaphor is more humorous and poignant and grabs your attention, and dreams want to grab your attention. Analogy is used more to explain and clarify.
Metaphors show the meaning, and a dream would much rather show you what it means than tell you.
Metaphors are also similar to similes, but there are important differences to consider. For our purpose, a metaphor is an umbrella term for a way that dreams create symbolism. We want to recognize the variations and use what we learn to reverse engineer dreams. A dream has a reason for everything, including the storytelling devices it uses. Generally, greater impact means greater importance in the story and the personal dynamics behind it. Powerful metaphors are used for powerful situations, and for dream content with a greater need to stand out and be memorable.
Now let’s expand our definition of a metaphor:
A figure of speech containing an implied comparison, in which a word or phrase ordinarily and primarily used for one thing is applied to another.
— Source: YourDictionary.com
[The link I just gave to YourDictionary.com goes to a list of examples of metaphor. Use it for supplemental reading.]
Notice the underlined words in the above quote. Comparison … one thing is applied to another. In another chapter we delve into the use of comparison and contrast in dreams. For now, nail down the idea that dreams show one thing and mean another, linked together by a comparison that’s metaphorical or otherwise meaningful and oftentimes quite clever.
The Metaphor of Boiling Water
A metaphor creates symbolism and meaning through exaggerated comparison, such as boiling mad. Someone is so mad (hot), if they were water it would boil. The metaphor paints a picture in the mind that captures the dynamics. The person isn’t just mad, they are really mad. Boiling mad. Ready to blow their top!
On the other end of the anger spectrum, being mildly upset is better symbolized as water just starting to simmer.
As far as we know, anger can’t boil water — that’s an exaggeration — but it paints a picture. The water enhances the symbolism because water and other fluids are great for using metaphorically to describe emotional states such as cold, frozen, gushing, murky, dirty, hot, incoming, outgoing, or overwhelming. Plus, emotions move and they move you, like water. A dream can capture a broad range of emotions this way and expand how it visually conveys the central idea, such as with fizzing acid, spewing lava, or a raging Jacuzzi, to mean the same thing as boiling mad.
The image of angry, boiling water is a physical representation of a personal situation. That phrase is repeated throughout DREAMS 1-2-3, and it’s an important concept for understanding dream metaphor, symbolism, and meaning. In the above example, the personal situation is the feeling of being boiling mad. The physical representation is the boiling water.
More Metaphors, Puns, and Physical Representations
- Think of a dark or darkened dream environment as a physical representation for being in the dark.
- Think of floating high in the sky as a physical representation for a head in the clouds.
- Think of a broken heart as a physical representation for feeling emotionally hurt.
This insight will make a lot of dream imagery understandable that otherwise appears nonsensical. The symbolism is enacted, shown or pictured. Metaphors in dreams show you something through imagery and action that’s meaningful and symbolic.
- A man dreams he’s pregnant and gives birth … to the world’s biggest burp. The people around him call it a “food baby.” My guess is, the person was asleep and dreaming and felt the burp coming so the dream responded by turning it into symbolism. Dreams turn physical stimuli and bodily messages into dream imagery and scenarios.
- Dream about buying tickets from a scalper and actually wanting a hat. The dream is a pun.
- Wait, it gets better — or worse, depending on how you view it: a dream about the “Kneemasons.”
Dreams create metaphors, wordplays and puns drawn from the hundreds or even thousands of them you are familiar with, plus they can create on the fly. Think like a storyteller and learn how to create them for yourself.
Darkness Used in Dream Metaphor
When a dream purposefully paints a scene or character as dark, your alarm bell should ring: Symbolism! Ask why the environment is presented as dark. Is it metaphorical? Probably. Is it purposeful? Definitely. Every detail in a dream is part of a big picture.
Some possibilities for what “dark” means metaphorically in a dream:
- To “see” can mean “to be aware; to know,” so being in the dark can mean “unaware” or “ignorant.” Or it can mean “lost,” and below, I give an example of how it’s used that way in a dream.
“I’m in the dark about how he really feels” is a way of saying “I don’t know.” Dreams often this use of the meaning of “dark” accompanied with scenes of trying to see into or find your way in a dark environment.
- Dark can mean “dark personality” or “the dark side.”
This use of the meaning of dark means shadowy, corrupt, bad, evil. Dreams can show it as a shadowy person, or a black space such as a dungeon or skyscraper, but most often I identify it through feeling. You just know when someone or something is dark in this sense.
- Dark can mean “dark mood” or “dark thoughts.”
Dream Metaphor Example: Losing My Ex in the Dark
I dream I follow my ex-girlfriend up steps to an attic. The room is pitch dark and I can barely see my ex. I try talking with her but she seems unable to hear me or even know I’m there. She leaves the room and I try to follow her down the steps to the basement, but I lose track of her in the dark and she’s gone.
The ex-gf in the dream really is the dreamer’s ex, personal fact #1 that provides personal context for understanding the dream. Fact #2: he’s struggling with the breakup. Now we can look at the dream piece by piece.
- Setting: Attic. As an upper area located inside a building it’s great to use metaphorically in a story about what’s happening in a person’s mind and thoughts.
- Action: Follow. Following the ex to the attic is a way of saying the dream is showing where his recent thoughts are leading him.
- Symbol: Pitch black room. Here’s where the metaphorical use of “dark” meaning “find your way in the dark” comes into play. The dreamer feels lost after the breakup.
- Character: Dreamer’s ex-girlfriend. Her presence in the story tells us the dream somehow relates to her.
- Symbolism: Trying to talk with the ex and she doesn’t hear him. We see that she’s really not listening to him — in waking life she ignores his attempts at communication — and that the internal connection with the parts of himself associated with her are lost. The love is lost. The emotional and personal connections with her are gone. A primary source of his motivation and center of gravity are lost. It’s all summed up in that one image.
- Setting: Basement. As a lower area of a building it’s great to use metaphorically when addressing the emotional realm. Emotions are felt in the body and the ones in the gut tend to hit hardest.
- Action: Attempting to follow his ex to the basement. He’s not ready to go there. He’s already lost in dealing with his thoughts. His emotions will have to wait.
- Symbolism: Lost in the dark. Here the metaphor really shows.
- Character: The dreamer. He’s the main character and he acts out the symbolism of feeling lost after breaking up with his girlfriend.
Explore the symbolism of a dark person and the personal Shadow that can appear in dreams:
Examples of metaphorical symbolism in dreams: