For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Isaac Newton

The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life.

Sigmund Freud

The reaction narrative component of dreams shows how you feel and provides clues for what the symbolism means. Dream reactions are raw, honest, and from the gut. Subconsciously you know what the symbolism means, and while dreaming you react more so to the symbolism than to the overt imagery or actions.

Your reaction can be the most important clue to the meaning of a dream or a scene within it if you answer the question, “Why did I react that way?”

Your reactions can really stick out, especially when they’re disproportionate to the situation. Why run from the baby in your dream if it’s just a baby? Because it symbolizes a small problem you fear will grow big. Or it answers the question of whether you want to have children. Reacting by running away screams hell no!

You know what the baby symbolizes, and your reaction says everything. Remember, though, a baby in a dream has various possibilities for meaning.

When you act or react out of character in a dream, it’s a sign of symbolism. When you react strongly to what happens, especially when it’s relatively minor, it’s a sign that you feel strongly about something addressed by the dream. But remember, you react to the true meaning of the symbol.

An abbreviated version of this lesson.

Choose your own adventure

Reactions can determine what happens next in the story like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. For example, instead of running from the baby in the dream, you take it in and love it. It might mean that you are willing to address the problem, or have children, or nurture yourself, or take on a new challenge. That reaction changes how the story unfolds.

In waking life, your reaction says everything when someone you’ve been dating says, “I love you,” or you hear that your ex is dating someone, or you get a Christmas present other than what you really want, or a friend asks for help moving. Same goes for dream life. Your reactions show your true feelings.

Or your reaction might act out the script, just part of the story. You can tell the difference based on how much control you have. Is your reaction the result of your free will, or is it beyond your control?

For example, a man dreams that he watches another man get stomped to death and does nothing to intervene, then dreams about a fire at a nightclub and he gets out before warning anyone else. In both dream scenarios he’s put into situations that test his reactions. He has free will — the dreams are only partially scripted — and decides to use it to watch out for #1 instead of automatically coming the aid of people during emergencies.

Interpretation: He’s acting out his feelings about always coming to the rescue of people in his life, and subconsciously he knows this when he reacts. It’s an old pattern and he’s ready to break it. His reactions are based on the symbolism presented by the dream scenarios, and his feelings show in his reactions. While dreaming, he acts out the symbolism, and what it shows is he wants to break the pattern.

Now look at those dreams without knowing that the dreamer’s reactions are symbolism. You might think he has a secret wish to commit violence or watch the world burn. You might think he’s been watching snuff films or gets off by torturing puppies. The man himself wondered if his dreams show a serious moral defect or latent wickedness. However, in the context of his life, the dream makes sense.

Yes, it’s exaggerated. He’d never leave someone to die, but in an exaggerated way the dreams tell the story of how he feels.

Yes, it’s amplified. The dreams are saying he’s at a crossroads and really needs to change.

Step back and simplify the dream, though, and all it really says is he’s tired of coming to the rescue. He could have chosen to follow the old pattern and automatically come to the rescue, but he didn’t. His choice determines how the story unfolds.

Reactions in dreams determine how the story unfolds

A common misconception is that dreams allow Mr. Hyde to emerge from Dr. Jekyll, that dreams remove the mask of civility and allow the wild animal to emerge, and that’s just not the case. The opposite is true. Yes, dreams can act as wish fulfillment. They sidestep your internal filters. They allow the real inner you to show. And, except in cases of strong repression or psychosis, what they usually reveal is the virtuous person within you. More often than not, your dreams show the better person within you that you are, or can become.

When you act or react out of character, focus on decoding the true meaning. It can be the master key that unlocks the meaning of the rest of the dream.

Reacting out of character is a first step to recognizing patterns and scripts you follow unconsciously. You ask why you react that way, and with honest self-reflection you are likely to come to the personal significance of the dream.

Show your true feelings

Reactions in dreams are largely based on feelings and emotions, and strong reactions tell you that the related feelings and emotions are strong. See the example at the bottom of this page “Gender-Switching Sex Dream.”

Alternatively, if you don’t react strongly to dream imagery that should provoke potent feelings—such as witnessing a murder or watching the world about to end—you can bet that the underlying symbolism isn’t connected with strong feelings. For example, reacting mildly to the world ending could mean that your favorite television show is ending and, well, it’s sad but inevitable. But reacting strongly can mean that something about your world is ending, such as when a loved one dies.

Testing, testing

Dreams can create scenarios to test your reactions as a way of showing you your true thoughts and feeling. They are like virtual reality simulations. Dreams simulate future situations, too. For example, if you normally freeze up when the spotlight of group attention shines on you, you might dream about being on stage with all eyes on you. How do you react? If it’s with newfound confidence, it could be a turning point for you.

Or, you are deathly afraid of spiders and dream about a big, nasty spider. Quell your fear of the spider while dreaming and it will carry over to your waking life.

Acting or reacting out of character is a strong indication of symbolism. Focus in while interpreting the dream and see if you can decode the meaning.

author and dream interpreter jm debord

Reactions reveal

Reactions in dreams help reveal the underlying subject and define the symbolism, as in the following example.

An adult woman dreams that when she was a child she used to go to a summer camp, which never actually happened in her waking life. While she’s away at camp a man breaks into her room and steals some items. She finds out about it and follows the man back to his home. When he leaves the house she breaks in and takes back her items. Then she goes home and tells her dad about it. He reacts by telling her she could get in trouble and should consider returning the items.

This dream has two reactions to analyze, one from the dreamer when she decides to take back the items stolen from her, and one from the father character when she tells him about it. These reactions reveal the meaning of the dream. The dreamer’s reaction determines how the story unfolds.

Ask yourself what her options are. It’s a way of noticing how her reactions affect the story. Instead of taking back the items, she could decide it isn’t worth the risk. She could call the police. She could grab a weapon and confront the man. She has a decision to make. That decision determines what happens next in the dream.

You will understand the father character’s reaction after I explain what the dream means. His reaction is not autonomous like the dreamer’s is; it’s scripted as part of the story. Let’s begin with what having something stolen from you in a dream can symbolize in relation to your waking life. Expand on the idea. You can have your heart stolen. You can have your self-worth stolen. And you can have your freedom and independence stolen.

The dreamer had her independence stolen. Her parents controlled everything about her life when she was a child, and as an adult they still make her decisions for her. That’s the personal context needed to understand this dream. When she takes back the stolen items, she’s really deciding that she wants back her independence.

The summer camp — a dream setting to analyze — referred to at the beginning of the dream is a clue to the meaning because summer camp is where children experience some freedom from their parents. The dreamer never actually went to a summer camp. That discrepancy with reality tells us to focus in because the dream uses the camp setting as symbolism. It’s based on her impression. Summer camp equals freedom from parents. symbolically. That clue connects the dots of the rest of the story.

Now look at her father character’s reaction when he finds out she took back her items. He says she could get in trouble and should return them. That’s a way of saying she should remain like a dependent child under his control. The man who stole her items is actually a surrogate dream character for her father. He took the dreamer’s independence to begin with and continues to control her life. Of course he’s going to tell her to return the items! They represent freedom, independence, and the ability to make her own choices.

The dream is sparked by a specific situation. Her life is at a crossroads. She has a job offer to teach English in China, but her parents don’t want her to go. She’s leaning toward following their wishes, but realizes to do so means passing up an opportunity to have something she wants more than anything else. By analyzing the dream and its implications, the dreamer is able to make the best decision for herself, not for her parents as she’s always done. She decides to take the job.

Dream reactions example #2

Here is another dream where the dreamer’s reaction defines the underlying subject of the dream. As you read the description, look for the reactions.

I appear on live television on Rachel Maddow’s show. Rachel asks me to marry her. To avoid embarrassing her I say yes, I’ll marry her. After the show I tell her I can’t marry her.

Shared at Reddit Dreams

There are two reactions here to analyze. One, following the marriage proposal, and two, following the show.

The first reaction is part of the dream’s story. It’s related to a social cause the dreamer has been asked to commit to. Marriage is a commitment, so in dreams marriage can symbolize commitment. The social cause is symbolized by Rachel Maddow because she is a television host known for being a social crusader. Marrying Rachel means marrying the cause, in a sense. In her waking life, the dreamer is initially asked to make the commitment in a public setting, symbolized as the live television show. She agrees in order to avoid creating embarrassment.

But afterward when she has a chance to think about it she realizes she doesn’t want to make the commitment. That’s symbolized by the dreamer’s second reaction when she tells Rachel she won’t marry her. The dream creates a scenario that parallels a situation in her life. She has a decision to make about sticking to a commitment or backing out. In the dream she decides to back out.

Note: Whether she actually backs out of her commitment to the social cause is now up to her to decide. The dream does its part by showing her how she really feels.

The shock factor

When a shocking action takes place in a dream and the dreamer reacts nonchalantly, look for symbolism. Sometimes a lack of normal reaction is a clue that whatever is being symbolized is OK with the dreamer. It might even be beneficial.

For example, a college student dreams she is forced at gunpoint to fly a see-through plane. She doubts at first that she can do it but figures it out. She lands the plane on an alien planet. Outside the plane, she walks through a scene of carnage. Aliens blast people to death, and dead bodies stack up. Gore and blood everywhere, but the dreamer is nonplussed. She doesn’t react to the carnage the way you’d expect. Instead, she walks among the bodies like it’s no big deal.

Her reaction is the key to understanding the dream. It tells me that whatever death represents in the dream is something good for the dreamer, or it’s not as bad as it appears.

That narrows down the possibilities and provides a point of departure for interpreting the dream. The dead bodies symbolize parts of the dreamer that are dying off in the figurative sense. She used to be a couch potato, unmotivated and lazy. Then one day she decides things must change. She gets off the couch and starts exercising. She takes a second job and focuses hard on her college classes.

With that personal context, the dots connect. Flying a plane symbolizes taking her life to a new place. The plane is see-through because the changes in the dreamer are obvious from the outside, something other people can see. The way she is forced to fly it symbolizes how she motivates herself. She figuratively points a gun at herself and makes herself get moving, do-or-die. Aliens in this dream symbolize “foreign” in the sense that the new, motivated version of the dreamer is foreign to her. It’s this new person who is “killing off” her couch potato ways.

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Dream reaction show the source

Reactions can show the source of something that isn’t depicted in the dream. For example, a young male dreams that he finds a dead rat in his bed. Then, oddly, he screams at his parents, who aren’t in the room and aren’t mentioned to that point in the dream. Nowhere are they shown doing anything that deserves his ire. That’s a clue to the meaning. Rats in dreams can symbolize betrayal. The dreamer feels betrayed by something his parents recently did (he wouldn’t tell me what it was). They put the rat in his bed, figuratively. He screams at them in the dream because he’s angry about their betrayal.

His reaction of screaming at his parents helps to define the symbolism of the rat in the bed. Other interpretations of rat symbolism are possible—guilt, repulsion, decay, dirtiness—but his reaction tells me that he is angry with them. Which leads naturally to questioning why he is angry with them. Betrayal is the most likely candidate because a rat is involved (a “rat” is another word for a snitch, and a snitch is someone who betrays). The bed also helps to define the symbolism because it indicates something close and personal to him, and parents are close and personal!

Reacting illogically in dreams

Reacting illogically or irrationally is a clue to the underlying symbolism. These reactions stick out. They say, “look here!” For example, a man dreams that he is scheduled to have his leg amputated. He doesn’t ask why. He doesn’t object. He goes along with it.

That raises the question why he would go along with something that in waking life would spark a strong reaction. It’s because he knows subconsciously what the symbolism represents.

To interpret the dream, I began with the symbolism of the leg. Legs are used to move. Movement in a dream can symbolize movement in life, as in “going places in life.” With that in mind I figure that amputating the leg symbolizes something related to doing harm to the dreamer’s ability to move his life toward his goals.

The morning after the dream, the dreamer intended to drop a college course. While in school his wife supported both of them. Dropping the class would be a real setback because it would mean he would have to go to school for an extra semester. The class wasn’t offered again until the next year. Dropping the class was akin to amputating a leg.

The symbolic connections go deeper. The class he planned to drop was anatomy. That morning a test was scheduled. The test was about leg anatomy!

The dreamer’s illogical reaction stems from subconsciously knowing that he is voluntarily doing something that will hinder his school plans. Cutting off a leg has other possible interpretations. The dreamer has diabetes, and amputations are sometimes necessary when the disease runs rampant. But he gives up too easily, and to me that says there’s something else that’s important he’s giving up too easily, but it’s not on par with actually losing a leg.

If the dream is literal in the sense of deciding to really have his leg amputated, his reaction would be stronger, not nonchalant. For example, if the context of his life is that he’s been told by doctors he has to better control his disease or he could lose a limb, you’d expect the prospect of limb amputation to provoke a stronger reaction.

Cutting off a body part is a pretty common theme that has many possibilities for symbolism. In one dream I interpreted, the dreamer cut off his head. It enacts symbolism related to “losing your head,” meaning not thinking clearly or rationally. In another dream, a female is forced to cut off her hand. It symbolizes her inability to take actions on her own, instead of depending too much on her parents to make her decisions and fight her battles. We figure that out based on how she reacts after cutting off her hand. She seeks help from her dad, who says, “it’s all right honey; I’ll take care of everything.”

In both cases the dreamer’s reactions stuck out to me as irrational. Granted, dreams aren’t rational. They don’t follow waking-life logic. But the incongruity sticks out. It raises the question why someone would agree to have a leg amputated without exploring alternatives, or why someone would cut off their own head or hand. It’s because the dreamers are enacting symbolism, and their reactions reveal what it means.

The same idea applies when a person you know is in your dream and acts out of character. Here is an example, a dream about a boyfriend that acts out of character. His actions are a projection of the dreamer’s feelings.

Pay close attention to your reactions in your dreams. They are a major component of the narrative and clues to the meaning.

Next lesson:

Dream Resolution

Explore further: reactions in dreams