Welcome! You want to know how to interpret dreams. I can show you how I do it using my three simple facts about dreams and three simple steps to interpret them. I’m J.M. DeBord, aka RadOwl, best-selling author and creator of Dream School, and this page is the Cliff’s Notes version of my DREAMS 1-2-3 dream interpretation process, aka D3.

J.M. DeBord dream interpreter and author

D3 is simple and effective, but truly understanding dreams and their interpretation requires extensive learning and practice. Everything you need to begin interpreting your dreams is at this website, and I will offer you opportunities to learn even more at my other websites and through my books and online classes. If you want to interpret dreams, I’ll show you how. It begins with…

3 simple facts + 3 simple steps

The three simple facts:

  1. Subconsciously you know what your dreams mean.
  2. Dreams are stories.
  3. Dreams use symbolism.

The three simple steps:

  1. Identify the dream’s story elements (settings, characters, symbols) and narrative components (action, reaction, resolution)
  2. Interpret the symbolism and analyze the story
  3. Connect the dots in context and reflect on your life

It’s that’s simple, and with practice you can sail through the steps and at least begin penetrating to the heart of a dream’s meaning and message.

I tell my students that giving their dreams close attention is the most important step, though. The unconscious mind (where dreams are created) is aware and intelligent and wise, and it engages with you when you engage with it. It WANTS you to understand your dreams and will work with you. It’s also INDEPENDENT of the ego and has its own agenda, a little-known fact.

Think of the unconscious as the soil out of which the conscious mind and ego grow. When you dream, you access the mind of nature itself and the collective experience of humanity going back to our origins!

The Self archetype, a super structure at the heart of the psyche in the unconscious, is the source of your most meaningful and potent dreams. The Self creates dreams that help you grow and evolve to become the best you can be.

Now I’ve got a lot to teach you. Much of it is available in my book, RadOwl’s Crash Course in Dream Interpretation. It’s a short book that teaches my interpretation process through demonstrations on fascinating example dreams that have common themes you are likely to recognize from your dream life.

RadOwl's Crash Course in Dream Interpretation

Let’s begin: What happens as you dream

You dream to process and consolidate memories, that much everyone who studies the subject scientifically can agree on. Another fact that’s commonly accepted is dreams help you learn. Research studies focus primarily on how dreaming facilitates learning related to knowledge, memorization, and skills, but most of what you learn daily is about yourself, your life, and the world. You continually take in new information and have new experiences that you assimilate while dreaming. Dr. Rubin Naiman at the University of Arizona says dreaming is “psychological digestion.” Great summary.

Dreaming is critical for helping you digest and process your daily experience of life and fit it into the big picture of who and what you are. Dreaming clears your short-term memory banks and releases emotions, to start fresh the next day. Dreaming even changes your brain’s wiring, a process known as neuroplasticity.

But there’s more. Dr. Carl Jung says dreaming is part of a long-term process he calls “individuation,” to become the unique individual you are born to be. Dreams help you become a whole and complete person. You are born with an “ideal me” blueprint embedded in your mind, and your dreams are the #1 way to access it.

Dreams also connect with mysterious deeper layers of consciousness and reality. That’s why I say my D3 process will help you understand your conventional experiences of dreaming, but you can have unconventional experiences that require a different set of tools than I offer here.

Knowing the reasons why you dream can help you understand what you dream. Here’s a more extensive lesson:

Find the source of a dream

Dreams usually relate to what happened the previous day or two in your life, or anticipate what’s coming up. You can understand the meaning of most dreams by reflecting on the events, situations, and circumstances of your recent life, especially your inner life and how you respond internally to what happens externally.

When dreams refer to the more distant past, something in the present is relevant to it. Some pattern(s), notion(s), belief(s), or idea(s) started back then that persists today, and a dream refers to the past to show how it’s affecting you presently. Or some recent reminder of your past triggered a response in your dreams. It could even be a subconscious trigger. For example, you drive past a sign that says “Springfield” and it happens to be the name of the town where you grew up. That night you dream about Springfield or something related to it such as your old friends or where you went to school.

In this example, the dreamer is subconsciously reminded of an illness he experienced as a child and it triggers a dream that looks back on those memories. When subconscious reminders trigger memories of powerful events or powerful emotions, the related dreams are likely to be more engaging and memorable than the average dream. You dream vividly for a a quarter of the time you sleep, and dream less vividly another quarter of the time, and what you are most likely to remember are the most vivid, engaging, emotional, and important dreams.

Tracing dreams to their source is an important part of the D3 process. When you find the source memories it can help to explain the dream content.

Dream content can parallel events of outer life, but your inner life and your emotions, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are the primary focus. A very valuable insight from Dr. Jung teaches us that the events of your inner life register with the same importance and validity as events of outer life.

The dream experience

As a dream expert and moderator of a popular online place to share dreams, I hear a lot of statements such as, “oh, it was just a dream.” The person wakes up from a dream about falling in love, for example, and they’re so disappointed that “it’s not real.” And I say, “but it was real while you were dreaming. Appreciate it as a real experience.”

You believe a dream is really happening while you are experiencing it. That’s why I often say that a person “experiences” a dream. Simple fact #1 tells us that subconsciously we know what our dreams mean because we are the creators of our dreams. Which means that we give ourselves the experiences. Which means we do it for good reasons!

So I invite you to always keep that fact in mind as you interpret your dreams, and ask yourself why you gave yourself the experience.

Tap the image below to find online dream interpretation classes to take you deeper into this subject.

dream school by jm debord

Simple fact #1: You know what your dreams mean

You create your dreams. An obvious fact, but dreams can seem foreign and disconnected from waking reality, giving the impression that they must be beamed into your head from outer space or something. Some people really believe that!

Because you know what your dreams means, dream interpretation is largely a process of reminding yourself what you already know. I compare it to remembering a word that’s on the tip of your tongue. Most dream interpretation techniques are designed to help you get around your conscious filters and tap into your feelings, intuitions, and hunches.

Carl Jung says that dreams invariably show us what we do not know or understand. There’s always something new to be learned from a dream, says my friend and colleague Linda Schiller. It also means that you must want to know the truth about yourself and see into your unlit spaces to have the best chance of correctly interpreting your dreams. One of the main reasons why people avoid their dreams is because of the uncomfortable truths they bring up.

It’s simple: Dreams are stories told using symbolism

Simple fact #2 is dreams are stories, which means you can analyze them like stories, and that’s home turf for you, me, and everyone because we are raised on stories and our media is full of them. Life is a story, and dream life is where it’s written and the memories encoded as symbols. Dreams are the record of the story of your life as it’s written. Most of us learn better through stories than through lectures, especially when there’s a moral, point, or lesson.

Simple fact #3 is dreams speak the language of symbolism. It’s a language of picture, sensing, and metaphor. I’ll give you your first lessons later. You need a deeper education than I can offer here, but you can check out my Dream Symbols Course Bundle at Dream School.

D3 dream interpretation process
Symbolic meaning is the information that “hatches” out of a dream symbol

Carl Jung said if you want to interpret dreams, first master symbolism. Symbolism is a language, and comprehension of the language of dreams is essential.

Decoding symbolism is like a game of Charades. Your dreams give you mostly nonverbal clues. You know when you make the right guess because it feels right. Something inside you clicks. You already know what the dream means, you just have to be reminded.

Symbol vs. symbolism

Symbolism is defined as:

The practice of giving special meaning to objects, things, relationships or events. An example of symbolism is Christians making the cross a representation of Jesus.

— Source: yourdictionary.com

When a Christian sees the cross they think of Jesus, and not just him but everything they associate with him. It’s information embedded in the symbol. It’s a picture a thousands words.

A symbol is a shorthand way of expressing an idea. A symbol used in a story to convey meaning is symbolism. Popular culture emphasizes dream symbols, but that’s like emphasizing the tree instead of the forest. The tree is part of the forest; a symbol is part of a dream.

Your first major lesson on dream symbolism is here:

The universal translator

Think of your dreaming mind as a translator. It translates input from the mind and body while sleeping—thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, bodily messages, etc.—and spits out symbols, which are then strung together as symbolism in meaningful dreams. Dreams that aren’t meaningful can be full of symbols which don’t string together into narratives or symbolism. It’s mostly memory dump.

Most dreams are meaningful, and some aren’t

Some dreams don’t have meaning, which is not to say that no dreams have meaning. In my experience, the most memorable and engaging dreams are the most meaningful. Dreams that lack personal significance have no message, lesson, moral, or point. Below is a link to an expanded lesson at my other dream website, dreams123.net.

Dreams are simulations

Dreams are simulated environments to test yourself and drive home lessons. People who play a lot of video games, for example, are shown to have better reflexes and feel more empowered to handle threats than non-gamers. Gamers practice dealing with threat scenarios and solving problems in simulated environments. So do dreamers. Dreams help you feel more empowered to deal with life.

I started writing a book for children to understand their dreams, and sentence number is, “Dreams are make-believe.” It’s how I’d answer a child’s question if they asked me what a dream is. To adult audiences, I answer the question as, “dreams are simulations.” They are so much more than just make-believe or simulations, but I think it’s important to begin with the simplest understanding.

Step back and think about it. A simulation is a scenario created to test, refine, and learn. Usually a simulation is responsive to the moment-by-moment actions of the participants. And it usually takes place in a location or multiple locations chosen purposefully. Now, what is a dream? Most dreams look a lot like simulations.

Learning-simulation dreams are common for people who spend their day intensely focused on exercises of the mind and body. For example, Larry Page was focused on coming up with the subject for his PhD study in Computer Science at Stanford when he literally dreamed up the core idea for the Google search engine.

Musicians and athletes are two other groups who report dreaming frequently about whatever they were focused on during the day. They play an instrument or practice a skill by day, then dream about it by night and integrate it deeper by making connections with multiple areas of the brain. For example, music is mostly processed through the auditory centers of the brain, but for making music, other centers of the brain are involved too, such as manual dexterity and pattern recognition. The more something such as a skill can be cross-referenced in the mind, the more brain power can be applied to it.

By the way, my friend Ian Wilson runs a subreddit for learning how to program dream experiences like video games.


Emotions and feelings in dreams

Some dreams are created to trigger emotions you’ve experienced recently so they can be processed and released. In fact, every dream symbol has an emotional dynamic or component. In dream groups and therapeutic settings, a common question you hear is “how does that make you feel?” Every detail of a dream can be tested with that question. For some people, it’s the only tool they need to interpret their dreams.

Dreaming is a full-body experience and your body knows as much or more than the mind about the dreams you experience. There’s even a school of dream interpretation called embodied dreamwork taught by psychotherapist Linda Schiller that relies on cues from the body. So when I say “feelings” I include physical feelings.

Now you’re ready to learn the three steps of the D3 dream interpretation process..

Identify the dream’s story elements and narrative components

In short, I call this step Elements and Components. The dream is a story (simple fact #2), and each part of the story can have meaning symbolically and through storytelling. When you interpret a dream you focus on the parts (Step 1), interpret and analyze them (Step 2), then tie everything together in context and find the parallel(s) with your life (Step 3).

By looking at the dream in parts you can chew on a little at a time. Plus, this practice drives home the very important point of viewing the dream as a story.

Identify story elements: settings, characters, symbols.

Dream Settings | Story Elements

Settings set the stage for the story. They are symbolic, just like the rest of a dream. The symbolism is often derived from a setting’s function in everyday life. For example, a dream can use a library setting to symbolize gaining information or knowledge. A restaurant setting is a natural choice to say something about your decisions and choices. A home improvement store is a great stage to tell a story about getting in shape, developing your mind, or some other self-improvement.

With dream symbolism, nothing is automatic. A setting in a dream can relate to recent events in the same setting or one similar to it. For example, if you spend a lot of time at work or school you are bound to dream about it. The setting might look the same as the place from your waking life, or it might not, in which case you know the discrepancy with reality is symbolism and a good place to focus your interpretation efforts.

Dream Characters | Story Elements

Dream characters help tell the story. They are like actors following a script. Most dream characters represent something about you. The #1 guideline for working with dream characters is to ask what you see about yourself in them.

The possibilities for what a dream character represents about you are as broad and varied as your inner world. You might think it’s just you the ego in there, but your psyche is composed of dozens of major parts and many more minor ones. At some point they will take shape in your dreams. The characters in your dreams can represent aspects of your personality, structures of the mind, personal qualities, mental functions, and archetypes. They can represents your thoughts, emotions, feelings, perceptions, memories.

People we know or know of such as celebrities are frequent visitors in our dreams, but don’t be confused by appearance. It’s usually something about you that’s hidden behind the mask. This teaching is especially important when interpreting dream characters that look like people you know. It’s not the person, it’s actually you. For example, you have a friend who tends to get grouchy when fatigued. You dream about the friend running around your house threatening your family, and really the dream is an exaggeration of you acting grouchy after a hard day.

You can dream about events, situations, or circumstances that involve people you know, and those characters are what I call “direct representations.” Your interaction with them is like a telepathic video chat. But discerning this rare type of dream from the usual kind requires practice and deep understanding of dreams and consciousness.

Dream Symbols | Story Elements

A dream symbol is a shorthand way of expressing an idea. The information is embedded in the symbol. Some ideas are simple, and some are complex.

Some symbols are specific to certain cultures, times, and places. Others are universal and part of what Carl Jung calls the “collective unconscious.” These symbols are recognized by everyone, everywhere, and you are born with their meaning imprinted in your mind. For example, everyone understands the sun as a symbol of life. It’s ingrained in people everywhere because the sun sustains life everywhere. No sun, no people.

Symbols are the words that dreams string together into sentences and paragraphs to create more complex ideas with symbolism. However, a picture can say a thousand word and just one symbol in a dream can be loaded with meaning.

Now identify narrative components: actions, reactions, resolution.

Action | Narrative Components

Dreams are stories, and actions are the main main component that tell a story. It’s what makes a story “move” and turns symbols into symbolism, because a symbol in action is symbolism. It’s metaphor in motion. The plot of a story can often be summed up by the actions that take place. The actions of a dream are often the main source of clues to figure out the meaning.

When analyzing the actions of a dream, think of it as telling a friend about a movie you watched. Sum up the plot. Give the dream a title, same as a movie has a title that sums up what it’s about. You know that dreams are almost entirely symbolic, so the actions are symbolic, too. What do you see of yourself in the action? How does it describe your life? What can it be compared to? Think figuratively.

For example, consider these scenarios that involve driving and what they can symbolize.

  • Driving in reverse… Going the wrong direction in life.
  • Driving out of control… Losing control of yourself or your life.
  • Driving on a narrow road… Feeling restricted or confined.
  • Spinning your wheels… Going nowhere despite effort.

Reaction | Narrative Components

Your reactions during a dream reveal how you really feel. They reveal the underlying symbolism, because you react based on your subconscious knowledge of what the symbolism means (see simple fact #1). This helps explain why you sometimes react inexplicably in a dream. Your reactions are raw and honest … and symbolic.

For example, a dreamer watches people drown and does nothing about it. If you look at it superficially, you might think the person is heartless. The dream is actually about the dreamer being tired of rescuing people in the figurative sense, and watching people drown is a way of saying he wants to let people in his life solve their own problems rather than dumping them on him. Once you understand the symbolism and know the dreamer’s situation, his reaction makes sense.

Here is another dramatic example. A woman dreams that she is driving and needs directions. She pulls into a parking lot to bring up a map on her phone. A man reaches through the window and snatches her phone. She chases him down and very deliberately shoves a knife through his heart. Seems like an overreaction, but if you know that the man symbolizes her ex-boyfriend who stole her sense of direction in life and she is really angry about it, her reaction makes sense.

Your reactions also determine what happens next in a dream. In the last example, the dreamer is presented with a choice after the man snatched her phone. She could say “oh well.” She could report it to the police. But instead she chose to chase him down. Sometimes you are carried along in a dream-story and don’t have much choice about what happens, but other times your dreams are like a Choose Your Own Adventure, and your reactions determine the course of the dream.

Resolution | Narrative Components

Offering resolution is essential for story craft, but in dream stories it’s often the hardest part to decipher. It’s not always present in the story. Instead, the resolution is up to you to figure out while awake. A dream presents a question, an issue, a problem, a situation. Question is, how to resolve it?

Do something with what you learn or gain. That’s how you create your own resolution. It’s up to you to be proactive about owning what a dream shows you. The resolution is a call to action.

  • Example 1: A dream puts you in a scenario where you are on a toilet in a bathroom and you are concerned because the door is missing. You realize the dream is about privacy and feeling exposed. The resolution is to do more to protect your privacy. Perhaps you reveal too much about yourself to people you don’t really know, or you rarely give yourself private time, or someone is constantly looking over your shoulder. These are situations that you have at least some power to change.
  • Example 2: A dream puts you in a scenario where you show up to class and have to take a big test and you are unprepared. You realize the dream is about feeling unprepared to meet the challenges and tests of life. To resolve the dream you look at the ways you feel unprepared and what you can do to change that.
  • Example 3: A dream puts you in a scenario where you are in the basement of your childhood home and a young child is down there, scared and alone. The child runs up to you seeking comfort and protection. You realize that your childhood home had a lot of instability and, even though you are older now, a young part of yourself is still seeking comfort and protection. You resolve to take better care of yourself, recognizing that your “inner child” is down in the “basement” of your mind. It needs you to be a good parent to yourself, and now that you are older you have the power to do that.

Interpret the symbolism and analyze the story

Once you identify the dream’s story elements and narrative components, it’s time to take Step 2 and figure out what they mean. To do that you interpret and analyze. To interpretation dream symbolism, the D3 process offers three tools: associate, simplify, amplify.

Associate | Interpret Symbolism

Association is really quite simple. Think of a detail from a dream and follow where your mind goes. What are the first thoughts that come to mind? The details are found mostly in the story elements and narrative components. Your associations can reveal the personal meaning because what appears to be spontaneous thoughts are actually based on your subconscious knowledge of what everything in a dream means. It works like this:

  • Detail: A bird.
  • Associations: Flying, freedom, “feathery,” singing, personal expression, your childhood pet.
  • Detail: A shopping mall.
  • Associations: Buying stuff, making choices, having many options, Christmas, commercialism, life in society.

Associations are places to begin interpreting dream symbolism. Think of it as brainstorming, or throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks. To show how associations are used in dream interpretation, let’s put the above associations into context. After all, rarely does a single detail reveal the meaning of a dream. Dreams are interpreted by connecting the dots. Usually it takes supporting details to reach a conclusion. We pick up with the previous details and put them into context by adding more details and making more associations. Then I’ll show what the dream scenarios can mean.

Detail: A bird. The bird is in a cage. It is quiet.

Associations with a cage: confinement, restriction, punishment.

Interpretation: One of the associations with a bird is freedom, but a bird in a cage is not free. Another association with a bird is singing, and singing is a form of expression. A bird in a cage could symbolize that the dreamer does not feel free to express herself, or is restricted or confined in some other way. A caged bird could symbolize feeling like you can’t show your true self, can’t make your own decisions, or are being punished for wanting your freedom.

Detail: A shopping mall. Looking for a particular store in the mall but can’t locate it.

Associations with being unable to find a particular store: lost, confused, frustrated.

Interpretation: A shopping mall is a place where you have options about where to shop. Shopping involves decisions and choices. As symbolism that can relate to anything in life that involves choosing among several options. For example, picking an employer to work for, a college to attend, or person to date. Now combine that idea with being unable to find a store. It can mean you can’t make a decision, or you want more options than you have.

Simplify | Interpret Symbolism

Keep it simple, at least initially. Dreams are built around a core idea or subject. Simplifying a dream down to a sentence, phrase, or word helps you discover what’s at the core. Dreams can appear complex and yeah, they can be, but by simplifying you make even the most complex dreams manageable.

A shortcut that can lead to the meaning of a dream is to describeit or detail of it simply. Then see if it fits what’s going on in your life. For example:

Dream: Someone tempts the dreamer to use cocaine. After going back and forth with himself he decides to try it and likes it. In waking life he has never done cocaine.

Simplify the idea: temptation.

I ask the dreamer if he’s been tempted by anything lately, and he remembers being in a store and seeing a powdered doughnut. He walks by it a few times before finally buying and eating it. The doughnut is the temptation symbolized by cocaine in the dream. The fact that it’s a powdered doughnut is a supporting detail, because cocaine often comes as a white powder. Plus, sugar can produce a pleasurable rush.

Dream: The dreamer is in the passenger seat of his mom’s truck as she drives on a snowy road. She misses a bridge and drives onto a frozen lake. The ice breaks and the dreamer has to rescue her. He admonishes her for bad driving.

Simplify the idea: Mom makes bad decisions

I ask the dreamer if his mom makes bad decisions and he has to rescue her, and he says yes, she has a habit of getting herself into predicaments and he has to bail her out. As her teenage son his life is affected by his mom’s bad leadership. She is “in the driver’s seat.”

The dream features other details that revolve around the central idea that mom is a bad decision-maker. During the interpretation we begin with the simple idea, find a personal parallel, and pursue it like a strong clue. The simple idea is a good start. Finding a personal parallel suggests we’re on the right track. But only when we discover supporting details such as when the dreamer rescues his mom can we be confident that the simple idea is the right one for interpreting the dream.

Step back and observe. Simplify. That’s how I interpreted this dream:

Amplify | Interpret Symbolism

Around half of your brain power at any given moment is used to process sensory input, mostly visual input. The other half tends to be used up by the train of thought rolling through your head.

That means a lot happens during the average day that doesn’t get consciously processed, especially the subtle stuff such as the vibes you pick up from people and the feelings and emotions that get pushed aside because you are preoccupied. However, it all registers subconsciously, and your dreams sort through that unprocessed material and pull out the most important stuff. If you miss something important, it gets amplified.

Dreams amplify so you can notice what you missed, what needs your attention, and what’s speaking from within you but not being heard. Nightmares are a classic example dreams amplifying to get your attention.

When dreams amplify, the purpose can be to compensate for something that you minimize. You could say that when you minimize, your dreams maximize. Compensation is a basic function of the self-regulating psyche.

You can also amplify a dream by searching for parallels in story, myth, and legend. Even modern music, video games, and movies are being assimilated by the dreaming mind for use in stories.

To analyze a dream’s story, the D3 process offers three tools: metaphor, exaggerate, comparison-contrast.

Metaphor | Story Analysis

Metaphorical symbolism is a go-to way for dreams to create meaning. I always look for use of metaphors in dreams because it’s often present. The dream doesn’t necessarily translate the metaphor directly. Instead, I say “metaphorical symbolism” because the dreaming mind uses the same approach as metaphors to create meaning.

a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money)


A metaphor is a comparison between two apparently dissimilar things to show a meaningful relationship. You can’t literally drown in money (though it would be interesting to try…) but money issues can figuratively drown a person. A dream could show the idea as drowning in green ink. It’s the same basic idea, and the dream uses green ink because green is the color of American currency.

Dreams are metaphors in motion. Dreams ENACT metaphors, and metaphors are expressed through figures of speech. Analyze a dream’s story for use of metaphors such as “driving a slippery road” and “broken heart,” two out of many examples of metaphors I’ve found in dream content. A dream takes an idea and visualizes it, so if it wants to say that you’re on a slippery road in life, it shows you driving on a slippery road. If it wants to say your heart is broken, well, you get the idea. But remember to think broadly.

Exercise: Think of three ways a dream can say “broken heart” without using words.

My answers: Heart surgery (the heart is broken). A broken pump (the heart pumps blood). The melody of the song “Un-break My Heart” plays in the dream.

Exaggerate | Story Analysis

Most people look at the surface story told by their dreams and can’t relate it to their lives because it’s so dramatic and sometimes unreal. They don’t recognize that the dream is exaggerating. For example:

  • You have an argument with someone and dream about a boxing match.
  • A friend says something mean about you behind your back and you dream about being stabbed in the back.
  • You feel like your workplace is dreary and dream about being trapped in a dungeon.

An argument can be like a boxing match with opponents trading blows. It’s metaphorical symbolism and it’s exaggerated (unless of course physical blows were involved in the argument). Exaggeration is good storytelling, plus it expresses the dynamics of how you feel. A friend betrays you and you feel stabbed in the back. It’s pretty dramatic, and the dream visualizes it. Or, your workplace is far from being an actual dungeon but you feel that way about working there. By exaggerating the dream is dramatizing, making the story memorable and telling how you really feel.

Comparison-Contrast | Story Analysis

Comparison is at the heart of most symbolism. A metaphor is a comparison between two apparently dissimilar things to show a meaningful relationship. An exaggeration such as “stabbed in the back” is a type of comparison that expresses situational and personal dynamics — you were betrayed and you feel betrayed, and the action of being stabbed in the back expresses both dynamics. “Stabbed in the back” is a figure of speech. It’s a metaphor. And the meaning is created through the comparison.

Sometimes though, what you get from a dream is just a comparison. For example, in a dream you go looking for your best friend and end up finding a friendly dog instead. The dog is a symbol for your friend because both are friendly companions.

Contrast is a way of showing you something important in stark relief. For example, an inflated ego can be contrasted in dreams by scenes of humility and lowliness. Ugliness can contrast with an inflated sense of personal beauty. Are you seeing the pattern? Dreams are known for weighting down the other end of the scales from something that’s out of balance in the dreamer’s personality or psyche. Contrast is also used to point to splits and cracks in the personality.

More ways to analyze a dream: Wordplay, pun, and more.

Step 3: Connect the dream’s details in context and reflect on your life

Working Steps 1 and 2 gives you the information you need to bring everything together and interpret the dream in Step 3: Connect and Reflect. All details of a dream connect symbolically and/or as parts of the story. They constellate around a subject or central idea, and a thread of personal meaning runs through it all.

Context | Connect and Reflect

Without context, you can’t interpret a dream. For one, you need the context to help you understand the dream symbols. Symbols are almost always presented in dreams in the context of a story and in connection with other symbols. For two, personal context defines the meaning. Symbols are created in your unconscious mind through dynamic interaction between the archetypes (a subject that requires its own chapter; archetypes are patterning forces in the base layer of the psyche that shape and influence behaviors, thoughts, and feelings). They are personal. A symbol in my dream in my dream can be presented the same way in your dream but mean something far different because of the personal context.

Teeth falling out is a common dream symbol, and sometimes the meaning is drawn from common experiences we all have involving loss of our teeth. Ask yourself, how does teeth falling out fit into the larger story of a dream? Do they fall out while you are talking? That can symbolize nervousness about your speaking skills or lack of confidence in what you say. Do they fall out when you look in a mirror? It can symbolize anxiety about your appearance or social presentation. Are they front teeth or back teeth? The loss of front teeth can symbolize something related to your appearance or how you think people perceive you, whereas the loss of back teeth like molars can symbolize loss of health or loss of a loved one.

These are common meanings and they fit the meaning in some cases. But let’s throw a curve ball and say that losing a tooth in your dream reminds you of (you associate with) your grandparent who is missing teeth. When you were a child you used to get distracted by staring at the gaps in your grandparent’s teeth. In your dream, the loss of teeth is now associated with distraction.

Every dream symbol has multiple possibilities for meaning. Context narrows down the possibilities and ultimately defines which meaning is applied to a particular symbol.

Connect the Dots | Connect and Reflect

The dream paints a big picture. In the picture is the meaning of the entire dream recognizable at a glance. Smaller pictures within the big one connect symbolically, oftentimes shown as separate scenes. Connect the dots and you see the picture.

The meaning is the thread that connects together the story. There is likely to be a subject or central idea of the dream that’s revealed in the opening scene.

For example, a dream opens by showing you shopping for shoes for work, but all the ones you like are too big for your feet. The store clerk comes by and says the credit card you have on file is maxed out. You worry you’ll end up barefoot.

Shopping for shoes can mean preparing for movement in your life. The dream gives context by saying the shoes are for work. Work life is the focus for finding context. The personal context is you are looking to “step up” to a higher-paying position, but more pay means bigger responsibilities, “big shoes to fill,” and you already feel “maxed out.” But your expenses are also maxed out; that’s why you want a higher-paying position. You fear going broke, which is symbolized as being barefoot. The opening scene lays out the subject of the dream. It connects the dots; all the details revolve around the situation of looking for a higher-paying position. The context of the dream’s story and your personal life explains what is meant in the opening scene.

Reflect on Your Life | Connect and Reflect

The last part of Step 3 is when you find the personal connections between a dream and your life. Most dreams connect with the recent past or look ahead to the near future. Simply be reflecting on your life and noting how dream imagery pulls from your recent memories, you can trace a dream back to its source.

That’s D3 Cliff’s Notes. There’s more to know and many fascinating variations of dreams to explore. Before wrapping up, I want to give you one more potential source of dream imagery:

Physical sources of dreams

Dreams can translate physical sensations to symbolism. For example:

Dream that a snake wraps around your head….Wake up with your arm wrapped around your head.

Dream about hearing a gunshot…. A book falls off a table and makes a loud sound.

Dream that you suffocate in outer space…. Airway is cutoff while sleeping.

You can still use D3 to interpret dreams like these, but you have to know the personal context (the physical cause) to understand the imagery.