I disagree with the dream interpretation that says, “Water means X and lions mean Y.”
Your brain is actually much more creative and unique in how it forms your dreams than such an approach can explain.
Before we get into how you can tell what is going on in your dreams, let’s look at the purpose of sleep itself. It’s all about recharging.
Your sense of self, which developed from conception until you were two and a half years old, stores how you feel about being human. It literally stores it as two kinds of energy that I call your natural well-being and Learned Distress, which is the feeling you absorbed early on that “there is something wrong with me being just as I am.”
Past the age of two and a half, your sense of self is like a battery whose job it is to generate every moment of your life.
Just like a battery, the energy in your sense of self gets depleted as it creates the moments of your life, so it must be recharged. Sleep is when your sense of self is getting recharged—specifically REM sleep, when you dream. (The other parts of the sleep cycle produce physical and mental rejuvenation and repair.) The energy your sense of self recharges with is the feeling you have experienced about yourself during the day. Of course, that day was generated by your sense of self, so your well-being and Learned Distress just keeps on recharging night after night.
Dreams are the mechanism for this recharging process. Your brain puts people, places, animals, objects, and even time frames into dreams based on the feeling they trigger about you, so that you can recharge that feeling.
For instance, someone might dream that he hasn’t yet finished a paper for a graduate school history class. In this case, I would ask my client what feeling he lived with through grad school, or in relation to history classes, or writing papers. If he said, “I was always afraid that my papers wouldn’t get good grades,” we would guess that the feeling getting recharged is, “I’m not smart enough to achieve what matters to me.” But if he said, “My history professor in graduate school was someone I looked up to and whose approval I really valued,” it’s likely that the feeling of getting recharged by not being able to finish the paper would be, “I’m not worthy of getting approval.”
Even when another person is featured prominently in a dream, it’s not about that person. It’s about the feeling they trigger about being yourself.
If you’re trying to figure out a dream, ask yourself, “How do I feel about being me when I am/or was around that person?” Your dreaming brain is pretty general about feelings—like a two-year-old would be. So, these feelings will likely fit in big realms like, “I do/don’t matter,” “I do/don’t fit exactly as I am,” “I’m not/have to be perfect,” etc.
The transformational work I do with my clients actually leverages dreams to remove layers of Learned Distress, rather than recharge them. When a dream brings in a person, place, or thing that triggers a negative feeling, and then my client does something about whatever is wrong in the dream, they are actually unlearning a layer of Learned Distress that the subject of the dream triggers. (This is a natural part of dreaming, not anything that the client is consciously doing to interact with or control their dreams. In fact, this change only happens if dreams are allowed to unfold without conscious input.)
This can make dreams pretty interesting.
For instance, I had a client recently who was trying to kill his mother in a dream. His mother’s tendency to give into addictive behaviors triggers in him a reminder of his own tendency to do that, so when he was trying to kill her in the dream, he was working on “killing” the Learned Distress that triggers addictive behaviors in himself.
Who or what tends to show up in your dreams, and what feelings about being you do they trigger? Your answer can give you a window into the feelings your brain is recharging for you at night.
Editor: Brianna Bemel