What Dreams Mean
Written by: the Editors of goop
Published on: June 11, 2015
Updated on: July 26, 2022
Photo by Beth Hoeckel
Did you ever have a dream as a kid that sent you scurrying to your parent’s room? You were convinced that the dream was real, but your parents reassured you it was not. They may have said, “Don’t worry. It was only a dream. It wasn’t real.” As you curled up between them and fell back asleep there was a whisper of safety tucked in next to you. The two people you trusted most had delivered a message that was designed to lull you back to sleep. And it did.
No wonder most people disregard their dreams. We’ve been conditioned to believe that they’re insignificant and unimportant—we discard them like the unread sections of the morning paper. We live in a culture that is focused on what is real. We want to know more about the things we can see and touch—like how to make a heart in the foam of a decaf latte or who makes the softest t-shirts. There is so much external stimulation drawing us out, we have forgotten how to look inside.
This was not always the case.
We used to look inside ourselves for much of what we needed to know. Many primitive and indigenous cultures considered dreams to be invaluable. Dreams were a source of vital information that brought guidance and hope to the village. The wisdom of the grandfathers passed on through the lineage of dreaming, as the imagery was decoded according to ancient folklore and tradition. Carl Jung, considered by many to be the most influential psychological mind of the 20th century, believed that dreams held the keys to unlocking our true happiness and sense of purpose. He analyzed several thousand dreams in his lifetime. He believed that dreams were real.
“There is a shared understanding among therapists in my field that dreams are compensatory, meaning that they are not arbitrary and meaningless but have a distinct intention and purpose, which is to bring material from the unconscious into consciousness.”
Most of us dream every night. Our dreams are filled with powerful images and colorful people. They are full of substance. They remind us of places we have been and take us to kingdoms we are visiting for the first time. We encounter the things that go bump in the night and surge through the planets with our arms extended like wings. We visit with mythical creatures and walk naked into final exams. We cannot find one of our shoes and know we will be late. We reunite with a friend who has passed away and get to hug her one more time. And when we wake up we remember our dream with clarity and precision. We can see the faces of our friends and ancestors still sifting all around us. But then they are gone. We let them vanish into the crowded streets of our mind as we walk towards the front door of logic. It was only a dream, we remember. It was only a dream.
Like Jung, I strongly believe that dreams are real. I am a trained dream analyst and depth psychotherapist who works with clients in private practice. There is a shared understanding among therapists in my field that dreams are compensatory, meaning that they are not arbitrary and meaningless but have a distinct intention and purpose, which is to bring material from the unconscious into consciousness. When we sleep we hover in a realm that traverses these two states of being. The images in our dreams are meant to help us rebalance ourselves when the psyche becomes damaged and fractured. They are a lantern in the darkest of night to shepherd us back to health and well-being.
“We call this psychological reservoir the collective unconscious. It is the place where the knowledge and history of the universe is stored. We often access it when we dream.”
Dreams speak to us in a forgotten language of metaphors, symbols, images, and archetypes. Archetypes are images and patterns from the dawn of time that we all share and know instinctively—they bind us together with a common thread of knowledge. An example would be the idea of a good mother. Whether or not we had one ourselves, we share a common understanding that they do exist. We probably have an image that comes to mind of what one looks like. This is an image of the archetype. Although we all dream about different things, there are many patterns in our dreams that are universal. We dream about death, flying, losing our teeth, and strange creatures lurking in the shadows. These images and events are not literal, of course, but have archetypal resonance. Each of these dreams is unique to the dreamer but connects to a well of shared information. We call this psychological reservoir the collective unconscious. It is the place where the knowledge and history of the universe is stored. We often access it when we dream.
Humans are spiritual beings. We are comprised of both essence and matter. We have a shape from flesh and bone that encapsulates our purest self—the soul, which is our most authentic being. It is the part of us that feels deep love and resounds in great joy. It is our elemental self lodged in faith and understanding. We were born into the world in this perfect and ethereal form and from that moment our humanness began to grow. As soon as we experienced pain, loss, or fear we began to develop the counterpart to the soul—our shadow. Our shadow consists of the qualities we repress, deny, or dislike in ourselves. It is the dark side of our personality. The shadow grows as we experience suffering and hardship in our human form. Each one of us is a hybrid blend of shadow and soul. We are both dark and light. Filled with fear and love. Brimming with confidence and saddled by doubt. We are a balance of what is seen and unseen.
“If you are a woman who has been dreaming about a male figure who is handsome, intriguing, sexy, wholesome, and familiar, you are dreaming about your soul.”
You may not know this but you have been dreaming about these characters for quite some time. If you are a woman who has been dreaming about a male figure who is handsome, intriguing, sexy, wholesome, and familiar, you are dreaming about your soul. If you have dreamt about a frightening, strange, decrepit woman who feels deceitful or manipulative, this is your shadow. The soul is represented as masculine in a woman and the shadow is represented as feminine. The opposite is true for men whose soul is shown through a captivating, beautiful, and intriguing woman and whose shadow is portrayed as an ugly, destructive, and undesirable man. When you are feeling connected, spiritual, and healthy your soul may appear in your dreams. When we are overwrought with feelings of anger or fear, the shadow figure may dominate your dream space.
In fact, all of the figures in our dreams represent aspects of ourselves. We are incredibly diverse and complicated beings. There is not one but many of us present at any given moment. You are a mother, a businesswoman, a friend, a chef, an artist, a diva, and a romantic all in the same breath. The multiple people living inside you are called personas. So, if you dream about an encounter with a painter or writer, you are dreaming about the creative energy inside your psyche. If you dream about having lunch with a group of children, you are viewing the childlike qualities that remain with you. A dream filled with angels corresponds to your most spiritual nature. You can glean hidden insight from these wonderful sleepy-time excursions with your personas. Perhaps you need to pay more attention to that childlike essence, artistic nature, or spiritual side. If you listen carefully to these lively characters, they will lead you towards wholeness, balance, and regeneration.
“When we are overwrought with feelings of anger or fear, the shadow figure may dominate your dream space.”
The symbols that we dream about have significance as well. If you dream about traveling in a red car to a house with a blue door, mind the details. What do the colors red and blue mean to you? A door may symbolize making a transition in your life. Are you on your way to enter this new phase? Think about each element in the dream and see how it resonates. Are there any feelings attached with these objects? Are they real memories from your conscious life? If so, what do they represent? We call this process unpacking the dream images. Find how the images traverse the actual lines of your life. What do you remember? Often dream images will unlock memories from our childhood. Perhaps our earliest memories. What a blessing this is when it happens. Imagine that psyche is presenting you with something you forgot even existed. Maybe it was your old crusty sled or the wisp of a feather you held in your hand. Remember, it is appearing in your dream for a reason.
I had a dream in 2004 that changed my life. I was going through a rough spell, and felt disillusioned and lost.
In the dream I was sitting in a large cavern inside a mountain. The walls were aglow with lanterns and the floor was painted with a large intricate mandala. I sat across from a young Dalai Lama who bowed his head in prayer. He looked up and told me that he had been expecting me. He extended his hands and adorned me with wooden beads. This is what he said to me, “Hold these in your hand and remember your own divinity. You are perfect and whole and need nothing more. I am always here for you and will never turn my back. My love is eternal and I have put it inside of you. You know these things but I am here to help you remember. Try not to forget this again.” In the dream I wept with tears streaming down my face. I felt so blessed to be reminded of these sacred teachings. I felt free again and full of spiritual energy. And then The Dalai Lama got up and led me through a cave to the side of a mountain. As we looked down in to the snow-filled valley we heard the howls of a pack of wild animals. He bowed his head and said, “Now you are the keeper of the wolves.”
“If you listen carefully to these lively characters, they will lead you towards wholeness, balance, and regeneration.”
This was an archetypal dream as I visited with a divine being who showed me the way. I had always admired wolves for their sense of family and determination. There is an ominous nature to them that is characterized by their powerful and majestic presence. So many wolves have been affected by severe climate changes in recent years. I thought about the artificial corrosion of their natural habitat and the depletion of their food and resources. Soon after I had this dream I quit my job as a producer in the film industry to go back to school to get a masters degree in psychology. When I graduated I began to work with marginalized families that were suffering from deprivation and poverty. I realized that I was now helping people who shared many of the characteristics of wolves. My dream had actualized into my waking life.
Dreams have been a source of inspiration for me and many of my clients. I encourage you to keep a dream journal on your bedside table. As you wake up with dream images fresh in your mind, write them down. Just a few images will help you drop back into the dream when you revisit it at a later time. Dreams are important and happen to us for a reason: Listen to them with excitement and curiosity. They will help you to understand yourself in a deeper and more honest way.
Dreams are powerful. Dreams have a distinct aim and purpose. Dreams are real.
THE DREAM GLOSSARY
These are common dreams that many people have during different phases of life and their meanings.
Losing teeth: This is a dream you may have when moving through a transition in life, i.e. moving, changing jobs, breaking up, etc. It simply means that you are growing out of one phase and into the next—like a child losing his/her teeth. Embrace the change!
Falling: This is a dream you may have when you are feeling overwhelmed. Symbolically, the earth beneath your feet has vanished and you don’t feel like you have solid footing or a firm foundation in life. Maybe you have taken on too much and need to slow down. Take care of yourself.
People You Know: When you dream about people you know it is only natural to interpret this at face value. This is not the case. Remember that the people in your dreams represent aspects of yourself. If you dream about a close friend, then think about their strongest character traits. If you think of them as being humble then you are dreaming about the humble side of yourself.
Flying: This can be a wonderful or scary dream. If you’re up in the sky looking down and feeling blissful like a bird, this simply means you’re gaining a new perspective on something. If you’re afraid, then this could mean you’re holding onto old ideas and do not want to change your understanding.
Losing Someone: This is another unsettling dream. We tend to be afraid that we will never find them again. If you dream that you are losing your child it refers to ignoring those childlike qualities in yourself. So, play more and stop being such a grown-up. If you lose your spouse there may be a need for you to address the masculine or feminine energy that pulses through you. Remember, you are the perfect blend of both.
Being Chased: This can be a frightening dream, often demonstrating that some unresolved part of your personality needs attention. Perhaps you are being dishonest with someone or are ignoring something that has been difficult to admit. This is a shadow dream and whatever chases you is simply an unwanted aspect of yourself. Do not ignore this or it will get bigger. If you feel you cannot move and are stuck this means that you feel helpless and are not sure how to address the issue.
Dying/Being Killed/Death: These can be disturbing and confusing dreams. Do not worry—this is not a premonition that your death is near. These dreams refer to a part of yourself having a symbolic death. What in your life that is slowly slipping away? Is it your anger or your lust? Is it your dream of becoming an actress? When something in us dies we go through a natural grieving process so don’t be surprised if you feel sad. You are saying good-bye to something you have known. This can actually be a good thing as you may be losing something that was not serving you anymore. If it is someone who is killing you then you are probably in conflict about letting go. Your narcissistic need for adoration could be killing your hope for real intimacy.
Naked: This can be an unsettling dream. It refers to the fact that you feel unprotected and vulnerable, as though the shield you have put up is not working and people can now see the real you. This may create anxiety, because in our most natural form we are exposed for all to see. You may feel unprepared and shy to show the real you. Don’t worry, you’re beautiful.
Home: If you’re dreaming about a house, castle, or other structure you are usually dreaming about the unconscious part of yourself called psyche. There may be many rooms filled with different artifacts, furniture, or people. These may represent different times in your life, your personas, feelings, or character traits. Look around you and pay attention to what you see. Bring those wonderful elements back with you into consciousness. They will be fun to play with.
Water: Water represents the unconscious. Submerging in any body of water means exploring your psyche. Enjoy!
Keep in mind that all of these archetypes live inside of you and may appear at different moments in your life.
The Soul: This is our most authentic being and spiritual essence. In a woman’s dream the soul is represented by an attractive, alluring, confident, dashing man. In a man’s dream the soul is represented by a beautiful, kind, nurturing woman. Are you feeling centered, balanced, and whole? Will you pass that loving energy on to those around you?
The Shadow: This is the repressed and unwanted part of our personality. The things we do not like about ourselves. Our dishonesty, addictions, fear, and anger. In a woman’s dream this is represented by a frightening, strange, decrepit woman. In a man’s dream this is represented by an ugly, destructive, and undesirable man. What unwanted character trait is knocking at the door? If you try to hide, the knocks will get louder.
The Hero: Represented by a dominant male/female figure who is valiant and brave. A rescuer or a champion. A warrior. Someone who can slay the dragon. This figure may show up when you’re feeling challenged in your life and have to overcome difficult obstacles. Are you battling something difficult in your life?
The Divine Child: This image is represented by a beautiful boy or girl with radiance and hope. This figure may appear during periods of new beginnings, reinventing yourself, a spiritual rebirth, and a time of cleansing. Would a change be good for you?
The Wise Old Man: This image is represented by a kind, aged, softened man or woman. This figure will appear when you are learning something new about yourself, acquiring wisdom, making a smart choice, or have a thirst for knowledge and understanding. Is it time to remember what you have learned?
The Trickster: This dream image is often represented by a coyote or a slick, shifty-looking character. When there is dishonesty deceit, or a sense of betrayal in your life the trickster may appear in your dream. Do you not trust someone who is close to you?
The Good Mother: When you are filled with maternal energy, the archetype of the good mother may appear as a wholesome, loving, nurturing, kind woman who is a protector and teacher. Do you need to mother some aspect of yourself that feels neglected?
The Good Father: The dream image is of a powerful, decisive, strong man who takes control. This archetype may be present when you feel a need to surge forward and get things done without too much thought or emotion. Is it time to take control and be proactive about that thing you have been putting off?
God Image: This dream image may be represented by a Divine Maternal or Paternal figure, a shining star, a planet, the sun, or Mother Nature. This archetype appears in our dreams when we are ready to embrace and surrender to our most spiritual side. Do you believe in God?
The Orphan: Represented as a sad boy or girl who is lost and alone. This powerful archetype may appear in our dreams when we feel left out, disconnected with others, ignored by someone we love, and in need of guidance. Is there some aspect of yourself that needs attention? A part of you that feels lonely?
The Lover: If you are feeling a swell of sexual energy, being intimate with a partner, or have new romance in your life, you may dream about the lover archetype. This will be represented by images of flowers, sexual encounters, intertwined hands, and a sense of belonging. Is it time for a romantic getaway?
The Rebel: This is shown as the rule breaker, free, and uninhibited, the wild child who calls for the revolution. If you are at a crossroads in your life and are frustrated with conventional living this archetype may show up. Do you need to stand up for your beliefs and tell the truth?