Actions speak louder than words.

famous idiom

The action narrative component of a dream is a primary place to focus for decoding the symbolism. Dream actions show symbolism. Actions add definition to your dream symbols by showing the meaning. It’s meaning in motion. Or think of it as metaphor in motion.

Stop for a moment and fully absorb that last paragraph. Most people don’t know that the actions in their dreams are symbolism. A symbol in motion is symbolism.

Action tells the dream-story. It moves the plot forward and is found in the verbs you use to describe the dream: run, swim, drive, hide, fall, swim, float, talk, eat. For example:

  • Flying can symbolize the process of getting to destination in life such as in career, family, and personal life.
  • Hiding can mean you want to conceal or avoid, such as when you conceal or avoid your true thoughts or feelings.
  • Eating can mean to take something into yourself such as opinions, beliefs, knowledge or nutrition.

These actions have entries in The Dream Interpretation Dictionary and have more possible meanings than described here. Point is, learn to identify the actions of your dreams and think of them as symbols in motion.

A brief video lesson about dream actions

Dream actions: Acting out the story

When you participate as a character in a dream, you are like an actor in a story. You help to act out the dream’s meaning. Your actions are often symbolic. Anytime you do something in a dream and it’s like your follow a script, assume it’s symbolism.

When you have a choice, view it as a reaction.

When people commit a horrible act in a dream — murder, rape, suicide — they assume it must be a moral defect when it’s just symbolism acted out. You wouldn’t condemn an actor for playing the bad guy, so don’t condemn yourself when you’re the bad guy in your dreams.

Acting out symbolism

In dreams, you act out your feelings, emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and so on. For example, you act out feelings of frustration by kicking someone in a dream, or act out feelings of elation by flying or floating in a dream. You act out thoughts of regret by cutting off a limb such as a hand, the same hand that did something that makes you feel regretful. Your actions are symbolism.

Now expand that idea and consider actions that happen to you. For example, you dream about a friend lighting you on fire and it expresses fear that the person could “burn” you by exposing intimate secrets. You dream about a co-worker crashing her car into yours, symbolizing a conflict in your schedules.

The action can be a modifier of other symbolism and point right to where meaning is found, such as how you drive a car—fast, slow, forward, in reverse. The car symbolizes your life or something about it, and the movement—speed, direction, control—tells the story. Continue this discussion here:

Explore dream symbolism

Action in dream analysis

I begin analyzing a dream by describing it in simplest terms. The method applies to all dream symbolism, including the action. With any scene in a dream, ask yourself, what is the essence of the action(s) portrayed? For example:

  1. You’re in a restaurant ordering from a menu. The essence of what’s going on is you’re making a choice from among possibilities.
  2. You lock the doors of your house. The essence of that action is you’re protecting yourself from intrusion or trying to keep something out.
  3. You watch your father cross a bridge over a river. The essence of that action is you are observing your father pass over an obstacle.

Once you describe the essence of the action, compare it to your recent life. If you dream about ordering from a menu, ask what kind of choices you are making. If you lock a door, ask you what are protecting yourself from or want to keep away. If you see your father cross a bridge, ask what sorts of obstacles you want to overcome.

The above examples are simplistic, but you have to start somewhere when interpreting a dream, and I like to begin with what’s most obvious. If it’s a dead end, I keep sorting through the possibilities.

As with all symbolism, you don’t look at any single detail to make your interpretation and draw your conclusions. The details all fit together to form a picture. The actions are viewed together with the other story elements and narrative components.

Example dreams

Here is an example to illustrate what I mean. The dreamer is a female in high school:

I walk in a line with my female peers. One at a time we walk across a platform, like a plank, that spans a dark pit. The platform is tricky and can suddenly flip over. Some of my peers fall off into the pit. I walk across and make it to the other side. I enter a room with a sign overhead that says “PROM.” Inside is a group of bored classmates and a picked-over food buffet.

This dream says so much in a couple simple scenes. The meaning is found in the actions. First, the dreamer walks in a line with her female peers. The essence of that action is she is participating in something that other girls her age are also doing, like a rite of passage. The phrase “rite of passage” is enacted by the girls walking over a dark pit and passing to the other side. More meaning is enacted when the platform flips over and dumps some of the girls into the dark pit. Think of these actions as metaphors in motion.

The scene at the end gives away the meaning when the dreamer walks into the room and finds bored classmates and a picked-over foot buffet. Along with other clues, it tells us what walking over the pit means. But let’s start from the beginning with the knowledge that becoming sexually active is the rite of passage this female teen is dreaming about.

The dream compares becoming sexually active to walking in a line with her peers. One at a time they all “take the plunge.” It’s an experience filled with potential for peril. One wrong move and a girl could get pregnant, catch a disease, or ruin her reputation. That’s the meaning of falling off the platform into the dark pit.

The dreamer avoids those pitfalls when she becomes sexually active, but apparently the experience fails to live up to her expectations. She gets to the other side of the pit and enters a room marked by the word PROM. Prom is the big event when some of her peers lose their virginity. The bored teens and picked-over food buffet express her feelings about it. It was nothing to be excited about.

dream actions
The action of being stabbed in the heart can point right to where a person is wounded

Pro Tip

Dreams that feature a primary action involving a story element such as a setting or character can be interpreted by focusing on that action and decoding the meaning. Everything else falls into place once you know what it means. For example, you dream that you burn down a school. Burning is the action and the school is the focus of the action.

Now figure out what the school symbolizes. If the school represents authority, burning it down could represent defiance or rebellion. Or it could symbolize anger against authority structures or “hot” feelings about something involving the symbolism of the school. If the school is one you attend or attended, the underlying subject or central idea is likely to somehow relate specifically to a situation, circumstance, thought, feeling etc. related to your involvement with that school.

During story analysis you’d that you are the instigator of the dream action; you set the fire. That implies direct involvement. You are neck-deep. It’s personal.

When dreams put you in the role of observer instead of instigator of the dream’s action or participant, it’s a clue that the underlying subject or idea is something which indirectly involves you. In the above example, if the school is on fire but you had nothing to do with causing it, you’d work under the assumption that you are not the cause or source or the underlying subject or idea is not personal. For example, the scenario could be an observation that the school you attend is “in an uproar” or “going up in flames” or “melting down.” Or the school burning down is a way of saying you are rapidly changing away from the person you were during your school days.

In the example about walking the tricky platform, the actions of walking and flipping both involve the platform. The platform is the primary focus of the actions so that’s a place to focus your attention. When you figure out that it represents a potentially risky rite of passage, all other details constellate around it.

Interpret this dream action: Poisoning your beloved Dog

In my dream my mother hands me a bottle and explains why I have to poison my dog. I don’t remember the reason, but it eventually makes sense to me in my dream. I pour the poison in with my dog’s kibble. She eats it. A few minutes later she starts walking slowly, becoming tired. So I sit down on the floor and hold her in my lap with both arms, waiting for her to die. Her body immediately becomes limp, heavy, and cold. I start hyperventilating and screaming.

I storm out of the room and my family, in an uncaring way, asks why I am hysterical. I explain that my mother convinced me to kill my dog and I don’t know why I did it. My mother starts laughing. I grab her by her collar and repeatedly punch her in the face. I feel the resistance in my knuckles, the smacking and cracking of bones in her face, the weight of her head snapping back. No matter how much I punch her she doesn’t seem fazed. No one stops me, they just step back and say I’m overreacting.

The main action in this dream is the dreamer poisons her dog. She’s convinced by her mother to do it. To understand the dream, first we must understand what poisoning her dog means and how it involves her mom.

Dogs are man’s best friend, and in dreams they can symbolize friends or the subject of friendship. With that clue we look at the action of poisoning the dog and ask if it really means poisoning a friendship. What’s going on in this person’s life that would poison a friendship, and how is her mother involved?

The dreamer was being pushed by her family—her mother, especially—to marry her best friend. It caused a huge argument with her best friend that almost ended their relationship. Her mother is a manipulative narcissist according to the dreamer, who tries to convince her to do things she doesn’t want to do. This background information—life context—explains the scene where she is convinced by her mother to poison her dog. Extended members of her family witness what’s happening and take mom’s side, expressed in the dream when her family accuses her of overreacting and dismiss her feelings.

The second scene enacts the dreamer’s feelings about the situation. Punching someone in the face is an action that, in this case, expresses hot anger and extreme frustration. This dreamer is both angry and frustrated with her mother, and nothing she does changes the dynamics of the situation. She can punch as hard and as much as she wants and her mom will be the same manipulative bitch.

RadOwl's Crash Course in Dream Interpretation
My Crash Course in Dream Interpretation uses example dreams to teach the basics of dream interpretation

Interpret this action: Daughter runs away

I dream that I am a single dad with two daughters (I don’t actually have kids). Never wanted kids before, but I feel sick when one of them leaves and her sister tells me that she went back to our home (we were traveling). I run after her to try to catch up before she gets too far.

The simple idea of the action is that something important gets away from the dreamer and he’s trying to retrieve it. Is something important to the dreamer getting away from him in the figurative sense? That’s how you simplify the idea expressed in the action and search for parallels in the dreamer’s life.

The possibilities can be narrowed down by considering the symbolism of a child. A child is a creation. A creation of the dreamer is getting away from him. Because two of his children are in the scene, it could be two creations. Another clue is found in his reaction. When he finds out the child left to go back home he feels sick and runs after her.

Turns out, the dreamer had a short film project that was getting away from him in the figurative sense, symbolized in the dream as his child. The child is obviously symbolic since he doesn’t actually have children. He said he was “watching the project dissolve around me right now.” Filming a movie usually requires travel to locations, so that could explain why the dreamer is away from home when the child gets away. And the child going back home could symbolize the idea of going back to the drawing board. Home in one sense means the place where something originates from. If the movie project falls apart, the dreamer has to start over.

When a dreamer voluntarily does something dangerous, it’s a clue that the action symbolizes something happening in waking life that is done voluntarily, although voluntary might not be the best word to describe it. Perhaps “compelled” or “obligated” or a similar word might fit better, as in the next example.

Interpret this action: Jump into icy hole

I am somewhere in the Arctic with snow blustering around me and my party. I am saddled with the heart-wrenching and undeniable knowledge that one of us is going to have to die in order to save the others. In a noble gesture I can’t say I’d repeat in real life, I jump into what looks like an ice fishing hole and am immediately satisfied to know that I’ve saved all my peoples’ lives.

I start sinking down into the blackness, waiting for panic, fear, freezing pain and my eventual drowning death. I realize then that I’m not getting cold and I can breathe, but I’m still sinking and it’s getting darker. And I’m wildly afraid of the ocean so I decide that if I’m clearly not dying today, I better start swimming. So I begin struggling back up to the surface of the water.

The action of this dream tells the story. The dreamer jumps into an icy hole that he thinks will spell death, but he’s willing to do it to save the lives of his friends. That detail defines, metaphorically, why he risks his life.

After decoding the symbolism and thinking about how the action connects with his life, the dreamer recognizes the theme of sacrificing himself for his friends. The dream shows it exaggerated and amplified — indeed, he admits if confronted with such a situation in waking life he might not be so heroic — but it’s an apt way of describing how he sacrifices himself for his friends.

The second scene, after he jumps into the water, shows that the dreamer is coming to terms with his impulse to sacrifice himself. The dream appears to say that it’s not always necessary. He can step back and understand the personal narrative script he follows that makes him feel like it’s always his duty to sacrifice.

When figuring out the meaning of a dream, take special note of the actions. Connect them with your life. See how they help define the symbols and other connective dream details.

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