Understanding Dream Symbolism: The Rosetta Stone of Dream Interpretation
Dream interpretation begins with symbolism. Symbolism is the use of symbols to convey special meaning. A symbol is a shorthand way of expressing an idea. By translating dream symbolism, you put it into everyday language and get the ideas behind it.
Dream symbols are like words in that they express ideas and string 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. 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). The adjectives, such as the color of a vehicle or size of a building, modify the nouns. Adverbs such as the speed of a vehicle or direction of flight modify the verbs. The pronouns are the surrogate characters and symbols. The interjections are your feelings and emotions experienced in response to a dream. They are the strong expressions of desire, opinion, or need.
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.
Decoding Dream Symbolism
An option for you. The video summarizes 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 dream — to the story told through 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, you improve at deciphering the meaning. You understand the point or moral to the stories. The dream source is always trying to show you something, to teach, to explain, to expand your horizons and fulfill your potential.
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, memories, physical sensations and sounds, and bodily messages. The dreaming mind processes all input and turns it into symbolism. When you first go to sleep and progress through the sleep cycle, 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. At the end of the sleep cycle, in REM stage sleep, the music starts.
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.
Dive deep into dream symbols. Do it now or do it later. It’s foundational knowledge for decoding dreams. But now you know what most people don’t know: symbols are not as important as symbolism for decoding dreams.
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 in Action | 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. Simplify the idea and it means “going in the wrong direction.” Unless, of course, you want to drive in reverse, which could be a way of saying symbolically, “I’m getting ahead of myself and need to step back.”
Brakes don’t work: Your life is moving too fast. You can’t (it) 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 a perilous or 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. Don’t take it literally!
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 Meaning and Message
Dreams can be literal and have literal messages, 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 are known for giving timely 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.
Continue this lesson in Part 2.