4 Simple and Helpful Steps to Better Dream Interpretation

I have long been fascinated by dreams, but suspicious of books and websites that purport to interpret them for me. I agreed with the argument that only the dreamer can interpret the dream, but knew my interpretations to be superficial, self-serving and almost always wrong. Then my editor, who knew a lot about Carl Jung, turned me in the direction of various Jungian analysts. I found the work of Robert Johnson and dream interpretation has been easier, illuminating, and right-feeling ever since.

Dream Interpretation, Jung Style

Carl Jung believed that dreams did the “work of integrating our conscious and unconscious lives.”  Jung referred to this process of integration as individuation, nicely explained on this site as “the mind’s quest for wholeness, or that quality of applied wisdom that separates elders from grumpy old men.”

Dreams are expressed as mythic narratives. They are ‘mythic’ because sometimes the symbols and images in our dreams are archetypes–universal psychological patterns that human beings have in common. Archetypes may be patterns in events (the hero’s journey, birth, marriage…), roles (the great mother, the wise old man, the trickster…) or motifs (the creation, the apocalypse…). Although all archetypes are present in every person’s unconscious, they combine in different ways in each of us.

Jung believed that dreams would do their work whether you interpreted them or not. However, says Robert Johnson, “By learning to do your own inner work, you gain insight into the conflicts and challenges that your life presents. You are able to search the hidden depths of your own unconscious to find the strengths and resources that wait to be discovered there.” (p.13) Working with your dreams helps you to know yourself and thereby live a more authentic life.

These were the ghost hours of the night. The hazy cataract dream of time, where we come unmoored from our lives, floating in non-space, in non-time, divorced from the context that makes us who we are.

Noah Hawley

A Dream Example

I’d prefer to keep my dreams to myself. They feel too personal and, often, too silly to share. But Johnson’s four steps of dream interpretation are a bit confusing without an example, so here goes. This is a dream I had a couple of weeks ago. I got up at 4:00 a.m., wrote it down, and went back to bed. As it turns out, the writing wasn’t really necessary. This dream stayed in my mind, suggesting that it would prove to be important to me.

I am in an empty women’s washroom. There are perhaps a dozen toilets in doorless stalls. I need to go and am just about to sit down, when a man bustles in. He looks around and grins sheepishly, seeming startled and uncomfortable. I am very nurturing and caring, offering to show him where the men’s washroom is located.

I take the man outside and point to the sign for the men’s washroom. He is in a hurry and obviously uncomfortable but, as I watch, he gets in what turns out be a long, unmoving line snaking outside the men’s washroom into the open area. I think we must be in a mall or conference centre. It’s a covered area, huge trees in pots, lots of glass and sun coming in from above, metal railings because we are on the second floor.

The man–somehow I know his name is Mr. Liberty–is late middle-aged, very affable. He joins the line. I really need to go to the washroom myself but I go over and get him, telling him to come with me. As we return to the women’s washroom, I’m in charge and explaining the plan. I reassure Mr. Liberty that I will go in first, make sure the coast is clear, then I’ll stand guard at the door. He’s looking grateful, uncertain, like a little boy counting on me to be his saviour.

The dream splits into several fragments at once. In one version there’s a woman washing her hands. She argues when I ask her to leave. In another version, the same woman leaves when asked, no problem. In a third, no one is in the washroom and I’m thinking about taking a quick second to go myself before letting Mr. Liberty in.

I wake up needing, of course, to go to the washroom!

Dreams say what they mean, but they don’t say it in daytime language.

Gail Godwin

Step One: Make Associations

Make a list of each image in your dream. Beside each image, list all of the associations (feelings, words, ideas) that come to mind. Here are mine:

  • women’s washroom —choice, female, elemental
  • needing to go–hidden message, elemental, urgency
  • man–embarrassed, needing care, worried about his feelings, obedient, silent
  • long line–sheep, passivity
  • public space–money, comfort, conferences
  • Mr. Liberty–freedom, liberty bell, “give me liberty or give me death”, secretive, formal-no first name
  • me–taking charge, strong, capable, directive
  • woman in washroom–choice 

The critically important point is to return to the image for each association. In other words, don’t create chains of associations. A simple example is that I gave ‘sheep’ as an association for ‘long line’. If I had chained that association, I might have gone to “farms, woolly, bleating.” Those words would have taken me away from the dream’s meaning, not towards it.

No dream symbol can be separated from the individual who dreams it.

Carl Jung

If your dream contains an archetype (mine didn’t), the dream will have a mythical quality to it. As Johnson explains, “Instead of scenes that seem like the everyday world, the dream takes you to a place that feels ancient, from another time, or like a fairy tale….Another sign is that things are bigger than life or smaller than life. Archetypes may also present themselves as otherworldly animals: talking lions, griffins, dragons, flying horses. (p.61)

My experience is that archetypal dreams feel exceptionally important and stay with you for a very long time. The sea turtle that is the logo for Profound Journey came to me in a very powerful dream some years ago; a dream whose details I remember still. When you have an archetypal dream, it’s very helpful to do some research in mythology or religion to better understand the archetype and the role it might be playing in your life.

The final part of this step is to choose an association for each image. Choose the association that clicks; the one that feels right. I have italicized the associations above that are most significant to me.

Step Two: Connect to Your Inner Life

Jung believed that everything in a dream referred to the dreamer and to an aspect of her/his inner life. If you dream about someone else, for example,  it’s likely that your unconscious is working on a trait you share with that person.

In this second step, you therefore connect each image’s energetic association to yourself by asking, “What part of me is that? Where have I seen it functioning in my life lately?”

This step takes time, but it is fascinating time that is well spent. As Johnson tells us, this most important step in dream work is “the one that determines whether you will find the wisdom in your dreams.”

Here is an example from my dream. I wrote the questions, “What part of me is take charge? Where have I seen take charge functioning in my life lately?” The ‘take charge’ part of my personality is well established. I didn’t think I’d learn anything new. But in writing my response to the question, in the context of my dream, I surprised myself.

I want to take charge of myself, to find a new purpose in life. But I am afraid to take charge in the wrong direction. I want to take charge in loving self-acceptance. But my usual way of taking charge is in bullying self-flagellation, slavishly adhering to restrictive routines, and making work all-consuming. Reading more of Johnson’s book, I can see that the take charge, directive part of me is doing battle with the part of me that feels unimportant and disconnected from the world. That’s the part I’ve called Liberty.

A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read.

The Talmud

Step Three: Interpret the Dream

At this point, you take all of the work you have done and you answer the question, “What is the single most important message that this dream is communicating to me?”

A satisfactory dream interpretation gives you not only a significant insight, but a direct application to your personal life and how you are going to live.

Johnson offers principles for testing the validity of your interpretation. They are:

  • Choose the interpretation that tells you something you didn’t already know. Assume your dream came to challenge you and help you grow.
  • Avoid interpretations that make you look good or are self-congratulatory. Dreams are always focused on the unfinished business in your life.
  • Avoid interpretations that are about other people being at fault or other people changing. Dreams are always about you.

Here’s the first paragraph of my dream interpretation:

This dream has helped me see that the old me–the take charge, work until you drop, do for others in the public arena, logic not feeling–that old me is not who I want to be. Liberty is the new me that wants to emerge.  She is feeling and love, self-acceptance and self-understanding. Liberty wants to emerge. But not through therapy or marriage or getting heavily involved in other people’s lives. Liberty wants to read, dream, journal, make art, and learn to write scenes and true sentences.

Step Four: Create a Ritual

The word ‘ritual’ sounds a bit woo-woo, but Johnson is simply asking us to honour the dream by doing some small, concrete action. The dream is there to help you live your life so you need to do something to bring what you’ve learned into your conscious life.

In my case, my ritual is that I will spend a minimum of thirty minutes a day in my art studio, doing whatever comes to mind at the time. Sometimes, I turn to Jill Mellick’s book The Art of Dreaming where I always find creative ways to explore my dreams. Please see my post where I use the above Liberty dream to share five of Mellick’s creative activities.

What do you think? I hope you’ll give Johnson’s dream interpretation framework a try. If you do, please let us know what worked and what didn’t in the comments below.


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  1. Thanks for sharing your dream with us, Karen. You were so right the steps would have been harder to understand without an example. Your dream analysis was indeed fascinating. I like that “Liberty” wants to emerge! What I find really great is that the old you took compassion on Liberty and tried to help him out. To me, that sounds like the old you is wanting the change too. At first, I was confused as to why your dream Mr. Liberty was male but then I realized that were it a woman she would have been free to use the women’s washroom with no help at all. Mr. Liberty being a male meant that you had the ability to facilitate a solution to his problem by allowing him to avoid waiting in a long lineup.

    Congratulations on putting the minimum half hour block of time spent in your art studio into your daily schedule as I am sure Mr. Liberty will really appreciate it. 😉

    Sometimes I remember my dreams but that hasn’t happened for a while now. I think the next time I do remember a dream I will try these steps and see if it uncovers something profound for me. If it does I will come back to this post and share the results.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Susan. I too found it interesting that Mr. Liberty was male. I think that was important for the reasons you suggest, but also because of Jung’s theory about animus and anima. That’s as far as I can get – remembering those words – because I don’t know much about the theory but it has something to do with the masculine and feminine in each of us. When I find out more, I’ll do a post about it!
      If a dream wakes you in the night, take a quick minute to scribble down a few words, even in the dark. That can help you remember it the next day. And I hope you do have a dream and try the interpretation process. It’s pretty neat!

      1. LOL, I like my interpretation of why Mr. Liberty was male….Jung’s theory sounds a little too complicated for me. Things should be kept basic whenever possible and not need fancy $12 words to describe a simple concept. I will try to remember to jot down a few words to capture my dreams. The interpretation process is pretty neat. 🙂

  2. I agree that dream analysis is very fascinating. I am one of those people who seldom remembers dreams….or my memories of my dreams are very fragile and tend to disappear shortly after waking. There are whole theories out there on people who tend to remember their dreams and people who don’t. For example, some theories say that people who more vividly remember their dreams may be more reactive to stimuli, such as sounds, and thus wake up more frequently during the night.
    Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Hi Donna,
    Most of my dreams also disappear upon waking. I find that when I tell myself to remember before I go to sleep, that sometimes work. The theories you mention sound interesting. I’m going to have to look up more about that. I do wake up a lot at night, usually in the midst of a dream, but I thought that was just menopause!

  4. Hi Karen, Susan and Donna.

    I enjoyed the post and your comments.

    I dream a lot and have been keeping a dream journal for many years now.

    I find that when I meditate, my dreams are more vivid and I remember them better.

    I’ve had prophetic dreams and lucid dreams, I’ve dreamed in colour (the colour is always red when this happens and these tend to be prophetic), and I’ve had mythic quality dreams (these tend to be prophetic, too).

    Re your comments about animus and anima, Karen….

    Maureen Murdock, a psychotherapist who deals mostly with women, says the masculine, like the feminine, is an archetypal force, a creative force that lies within all of us. When we start to heal our wounds, we start to develop a relationship with our positive inner masculine. This positive inner masculine energy supports us with compassion and strength as we heal our tired egos. (You were supporting him!) This allows us to reclaim our deep feminine wisdom. But the positive “Man with Heart” will only emerge when we begin to honour our feminine nature. With courage, patience, humility, and time, our masculine and feminine energies will eventually merge. Murdock calls this “the sacred marriage.” It’s a marriage between our ego and our self. She says it’s the job of the heroine to heal the imbalance within herself by bringing “the light of consciousness into the darkness.” She writes, “This requires a conscious sacrifice of mindless attachments to ego power, financial gain, and hypnotic, passive living.” The challenge many women have is one of acceptance. We have to accept the nameless, unloved parts of ourselves that have become tyrannical. Everyone has “dragons” lurking in the shadows. “It is the job of the heroine to enlighten the world by loving it – starting with herself.” We have to become spiritual warriors. This means we must “earn the delicate art of balance and have the patience for the slow, subtle integration of the feminine and the masculine aspects of ourselves. When we can serve the needs of others and value and be responsive to our own needs as well, that is the sacred marriage of the feminine and the masculine.

    This comes from Murdock’s book The Heroine’s Journey. You might want to give it a read. I loved it. It helped me a lot on my own personal journey.

    I talk about some of my dreams in Shattering My Internal Glass Ceiling: One Woman’s Struggle for Change. (That’s my next book. I hope to release it later this year. It’s the story of my own Heroine’s Journey. I think you’ll find it interesting and helpful, too.)

    Thanks for the brave and wonderful post!


    1. Hi Debbie,
      Thanks for your comment, and especially for the information about animus and anima. It’s making a lot more sense now!
      I’m ordering The Heroine’s Journey – looks fascinating, and will also be looking for your book when you’re ready to publish. I love the title!

      1. Karen, I think you’ll really like The Heroine’s Journey. It’s from the late 80s/early 90s but is still very relevant today. I adore the book. It helped me on my journey tremendously. I suspect it will help you, too.

        I started my journey about 7 years ago and I’ve come out the other side to a wonderful new life….truly. You’ll do the same but it will take time. A lot of time, actually, because the re-integration of our masculine and feminine aspects (the sacred marriage) is a very slow process but one absolutely worth pursuing. (Just being honest about the length of time…there is no rushing the process.) ‘m really happy you are on the path. It’s no coincidence that you are rescuing a puppy all while rescuing yourself. Instead of rescuing a puppy, I took on my mother’s care while she struggled with pulmonary fibrosis.

        I’m just finishing up my final re-writes for the book now. I suspect you (and other women who are trying to heal) will find it really helpful. It’s a feminist career memoir with a spiritual twist. (At least, that’s how my editor sees it.) I see it as a Big Idea Nonfiction book (Global Genre) with Action Adventure as the External Genre and Epic Rebellion as the Action Sub Genre. The Big Idea is this: Right now women have a quest in our culture. It’s a quest to learn how to wake up, to value ourselves, fully embrace our feminine nature, and heal our deep wounds. This is a very important quest – and totally necessary – if we want to heal ourselves, each other, the men in our lives, and even the entire world.

        I wish you all the best on your own personal healing journey!

        1. Your new book sounds fascinating, Debbie. I shake my head over all of the genre labels. I was just reading something that said that audiences for books are becoming smaller and smaller, more and more refined, because of the increasingly specific genre categorizations.

          I appreciate the confirmation about healing taking a lot of time. I’m certainly experiencing that.

  5. Really interesting Karen – I have always thought that dreams are your conscious mind’s way of looking at the problems of the day and “resolving” them one way or another. I have also tried writing them down as soon as I wake up and trying to figure out what they mean – and sometimes they do make sense in light of what has been happening during the day. This post certainly gives me another way of interpreting what they mean and what the unconscious me is trying to tell the conscious me.

  6. Hi Anna – I think that dreams are certainly about helping you to resolve things that are happening inside of you, although not necessarily from a particular day. I hope you’ll find Johnson’s four steps helpful the next time you have a dream. I suggest trying to disconnect from thinking about the dream’s relationship to your day and just go with the associations and other steps in Johnson’s process. Have fun! I’ll bet it will be very revealing and helpful!

  7. Karen, it was fascinating to read about your dream and the interpretations you drew from it. As an outsider, the themes that jumped out at me when I read the dream narrative were that you were nurturing and caring towards others (Mr. Liberty), and put their (his/men’s/person with authority’s?) needs above your own, deferring your own self-gratification until others had been looked after. Yet, after all, the authority figure turned out to be passive and helpless, and you were the one with the power to help. So it was very interesting to me that you gave the dream a very different interpretation.

    Some years ago, during a difficult time in my life, I kept a dream journal. I wrote down each dream, and my analysis of the dream. I think it helped me work through the matters that were troubling me. I also found that as began writing dreams down, I remembered them more and more often.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Jude. And thank you for your interpretation. The variety of interpretations of a single dream are just fascinating. I’m happy that Jung took such pains to reassure us that dreams are unique to the dreamer. It’s no wonder that people are unsure of what to do with their dreams if they don’t have a process they can follow.
      I’ve often heard that dreams occur more frequently and are better remembered when you get in the habit of writing them down. After the one I wrote about here, I did have another the very next night. I hope it continues to be a productive dream time.

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