10 common mistakes made in dream interpretation

dream interpretation

When seeking to understand the meaning of a dream, people will often turn to dream dictionaries, which offer generalized, one-size-fits-all explanations for dream symbols or figures. The most elegant way of working with dreams, however, does not depend upon predetermined interpretations. Each dream is as unique as are our fingerprints; therefore, great care should be taken to determine the unique meaning for each dreamer. 

For example, an elephant might mean something completely different to a veterinarian compared to a devotee of the elephant god Ganesh, vs what it might conjure up for someone who as a little boy touched the thick hide of an elephant’s leg, as I did, at the circus.

While I had been intrigued with dreams since childhood, it was not until I found a skillful dreamworker at age 39, well after obtaining my PhD in psychology, that the mysterious world of dreaming was finally opened to me. Sometimes my mentor would pose only a question or two, and the once confusing images from my dreams would reveal uncanny wisdom. I was astonished at the guidance available from a well-understood dream. I quickly determined that I must learn the skills necessary to harvest the life-changing insights available from this intriguing world.

I was astonished at the guidance available from a well-understood dream.

I have devoted the last thirty years of my life to understanding dreams, but not only that – I’ve wanted to understand how we find our way to dream interpretations that are life-changing.

10 investigative tools for dream interpretation

Below is an overview of the ten most valuable investigative tools (guiding principles) I utilize when studying a dream. I describe them by reviewing the common mistakes that they counter and which we can guard against. These ten guiding principles will enable someone to treat a dream respectfully, not rush to a predetermined explanation, and thus allow a dream’s brilliant truth to naturally and organically reveal itself. 

Please note that this is a short summary of rather complex ideas that I have described more fully in my book, Your Dream’s Ten Best Friends: Guiding Principles That Reveal the Truth of a Dream.  

1. Taking a dream too literally 

A common tendency in our culture is to take dreams literally. If someone dreams of their car being wrecked, they fear that the dream is about their car, perhaps warning of an impending accident. Or, if someone dreams of their spouse, boss, or childhood friend, they assume that their dream is showing them something about these other people. 

The first guiding principle of dreamwork and the most foundational is See Your Hidden Potential in the People, Animals, and Things of Your Dreams. This wise guidance directs our attention inward to discover how the various characters of our dreams may be reflecting qualities within us that we are not aware of

For example, the obstinate boss in your dream may intend to show you something about your own stubbornness. Or the celebrity you fall in love with in your dream may be mirroring qualities you would benefit from cultivating within yourself. This guiding principle helps us realize the many hidden facets of ourselves by directing our attention to how dream figures symbolize our own tendencies, attitudes, and behaviors. 

Note: Some theories of dreaming assert that everything in a dream is an aspect of the dreamer. Such a presumption overlooks when a dream is indeed to be taken literally. I’ve had decisive dreams that directed me to move to another city or that have given me precise medical advice. However, I find such dreams to be rare. Therefore discernment is needed to know when to take a dream symbolically or literally. 

2. Accepting overly generalized interpretations 

Many people turn to dream dictionaries in search of understanding a dream. More often than not, the explanations offered in dream dictionaries lack precision and relevance to someone’s particular life and circumstance. Such overly generalized interpretations give an explanation of why we dreamed of such and such, but they most often do not have an emotional impact on us. 

The second guiding principle, Distill the Essence, encourages us to organically discover the precise meaning of a dream figure by naming its distinguishing features – the qualities that make it unique. 

Identifying the defining characteristics of a dream figure enables us to avoid the often confusing and contradictory interpretations provided by other people or books on dream symbols. Distill the Essence could be said to be the workhorse of dreamwork, enabling us to get to the heart of why a certain figure has appeared in your dream.

3. Presuming that threatening dream figures are inherently bad for us 

We are often afraid of people or animals in dreams, especially those that pursue us, because we do not realize that they epitomize qualities that could be beneficial to us. 

Dream figures may represent latent capacities of our own personality that are attempting to break into our awareness and enrich us – potentials that wish to be actualized. The third guiding principle, Consider the Good in the Bad, warns against assuming that apparently threatening dream figures are harmful. For example an imposing bear in your dream may appear threatening, when, in fact, it may be symbolic of fierce boldness and confidence that could help you overcome inferiority or timidity.

4. Turning away from off-putting dream images 

The fourth guiding principle of dream interpretation, Do Not Forsake the Shadow, cautions against avoiding (or not studying) unsettling dream images – like an unethical person, a wounded animal, or a suffering child. 

In spite of their sobering effect, shadow-images (representing things we prefer to keep hidden and out of our own awareness) serve a crucial function. Like medical x-rays, they reveal how we are disempowered and fearful, where we have been injured or are susceptible to self-indulgence or excessive self-criticism. 

The benefit of Shadow Work — attending to the embarrassing aspects of our personalities — is that we can rectify what compromises us and thus regain our power.

5. Drawing premature conclusions about a dream without adequate information 

Dreams often strike us as obtuse and nonsensical because we do not have sufficient information to understand why dream figures acted as they did. Like coming into a movie halfway into the narrative, we often lack the necessary background to appreciate what motivates the figures in our dreams. 

The fifth guiding principle, Let Dream Presences Speak, encourages us to re-enter the memory of a dream once awake (not lucid dreaming) and hold a conversation with dream figures – posing questions, letting our imaginations spontaneously give us an idea of what they wish to say, and thus collect needed insight about them. 

For example, once out of your dream, it might prove insightful to ask why an angry dream figure wishes to harm you. Once the backstory is discovered, you will see the fuller picture, and your understanding of the dream will naturally evolve. 

6. Speculating about the meaning of a dream while divorced from sobering feelings 

The sixth guiding principle, Trust the Downward Pull, advises us to notice and value spontaneous emotions that arise when recalling (writing or describing) a dream, even if these feelings are difficult. Our feelings prioritize what’s important — amidst the many possible interpretations — thus leading to valuable insights. 

This guiding principle of dream interpretation promises that wisdom can be found in the depths of tender, vulnerable feelings, not in heady, speculative conjectures about a dream’s meaning.

7. Accepting plausible explanations about why you had a dream, but you are left unaffected, and nothing of value is added to your life 

The seventh guiding principle, Insist on Surprise, offers protection from meaningless dream interpretations. Instead, it encourages us to expect that a truthful understanding of a dream will give us a confirming feeling of surprise – an “aha” that we have discovered a new and valuable insight. 

This guiding principle presumes that dreams do not tell us what we already know, nor do they waste time in conveying banal, useless information. But instead they aim to challenge, encourage, and inspire us with insights that are useful for gaining wisdom. If you haven’t found a dream interpretation that surprises you, you probably should keep looking.

8. Wandering from the dream’s intention through Free Association 

A temptation, particularly common among psychotherapists, is to utilize a method of dream investigation introduced by Freud. By speaking about anything that spontaneously comes to mind when you discuss a dream, you can sometimes be led to potentially interesting and even evocative topics. However, the subject matter may have little to do with what the dream wanted you to know. 

The eighth guiding principle, Stay with the Image, helps avoid this mistake and keep us focused on the dream’s content and intention. 

9. Stopping once an interpretation has been found 

Most people are satisfied once they have found a meaningful insight about a dream. However, insight alone does not change us, nor does it make full use of the dream’s potential. 

Our ninth guiding principle, Merge with the Essence, encourages us to take an inspiring dream figure – like a strong elegant, a wise sage, or a former lover that keeps appearing in our dreams – and cultivate these same qualities within ourselves in the days, weeks, and months that follow. This guiding principle provides a practice that expands and matures the personality in ways never imagined possible.

10. Letting a disturbing dream remain unresolved  

In my view, the purpose of disturbing dreams is to elicit creative responses from us. By re-writing a nightmare so that you are proactive and not caught in over-reactive emergency strategies of fight, flight, or freeze, you move out of a victimized, disempowered position to one that is capable in the face of threat. 

The tenth guiding principle, Always Complete a Nightmare, urges you to step back into a dream once awake, and write a second version of the dream that reflects you acting with power, mastery, and wisdom. Doing so may lead you to become an advocate for yourself or someone oppressed, absorb a difficult truth, or stop and turn to someone chasing you (one awake, in your imagination) and ask them what they want. 

Note: I consider this last guiding principle to be of such importance that I’ve written an entire book on the subject. How to Complete a Nightmare: Responding Creatively to Disturbing Dreams.

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