Dreams are like letters from the unconscious mind—if only they were written in the same language we use in waking reality.
Dream interpretation begins with paying attention to dream symbols. Start by writing notes in a dream journal every morning and underlining all the characters, objects, places, events, and themes that stand out as having potential significance. Any time a dream sign feels like it could be important, pull on that thread.
All dream symbols are derived from factors in your waking life. They're formed through the creation of conscious or unconscious associations and expressed by the dreaming mind, expressing hopes, fears, desires, and all kinds of "lizard brain" emotions (that is, the animalistic feelings that drive our fundamental fight for survival). Often enough, dream signs are influenced by our shared culture and so their true meaning is common to many people.
This is how we can have an A to Z list of dream symbols that can be used in dream analysis. However, you must still build personal dream context into the picture. For instance, a dream of killing can be interpreted many ways: are you the murderer or the victim? How did the person die? Did they spring back to life afterwards? Did they want to die? In dreams, such scenarios can be more complicated than real life, and all these unreal elements must also factor into the dream meaning.
So while we have these universal definitions, dream analysis also relies on the dreamer explaining their dream in full. When you make your records, note your choice of words and where you focus your attention in the retelling. These are the most important messages of the dream, because they caught your attention, whether consciously or not. This process of self-awareness and reflection will better connect you to your inner self who is, after all, the ultimate dreamer of your dreams.
Animals in dreams can represent the part of your psyche that feels connected to nature and survival, or they can represent literal influences from waking life like pets. The specific type of animal and the dream context is important; for instance, if you're being chased by a predator, you could be holding repressed emotions like fear or aggression, which have become so overwhelming as to demand expression during a dream. Meanwhile, dreaming of a very small or baby animal reflects a desire to nurture.
Dreams of babies can represent new beginnings, growth, potential, or innocence, as well as your own childlike qualities coming to the fore. Depending on the scenario and any emotions involved, babies can also symbolize your feelings of vulnerability or responsibility. Sometimes it's just a literal desire to become a parent and your inner self is rehearsing how that might feel.
A dream of being chased is one of the most common dream symbols in all cultures. It reflects a sense of threat, fear, or avoidance. The identity of the chaser, the location, and your dream actions in response offer clues as to the perceived danger. Being chased can also symbolize the pursuit of a goal or a desire, especially if you feel empowered to overcome an obstacle.
Wearing unusual clothes in your dreams reflects a concern about how you present yourself to others or how you see yourself. For instance, if your dream symbol is shabby clothing, you may feel unattractive or worn out. The color, style, and condition of the clothes can convey different meanings—such as confidence, identity, status, or disguise.
Crosses in dreams can represent various spiritual, religious, or cultural beliefs. Depending on your personal associations, crosses can signify hope, redemption, or sacrifice, as well as guilt, fear, or confusion. Crosses can also appear in dreams as a symbol of protection or guidance, especially if events in waking life are uncertain or chaotic.
Taking an exam may be a dream symbol that reflects feelings of preparedness, competence, or self-evaluation in a specific area of your life. Depending on the context, it can mean there's an opportunity for growth, recognition, or validation, or it can point to a fear of failure, judgment, or rejection. Exam dreams may also be a symbol of your desire to learn or to prove yourself, or your anxiety about meeting expectations or facing challenges.
Dreams of death can be unsettling. Death can represent endings, transformation, or renewal, as well as fears of loss, change, or the unknown. If you're recently bereaved, death as a dream symbol may be an attempt to come to terms with the event, and may even offer insights into your own feelings about mortality, relationships, or personal identity.
Falling is a powerful dream symbol about letting go, losing control, or being overwhelmed by a situation or emotion. They may occur when you feel vulnerable, powerless, and insecure, highlighting your need for support or guidance. However, falling dreams can also reflect physical sensations or movements during sleep, and in lucid dreams are a way to explore gravity in a safe environment.
When you dream, parts of your brain are shut down, including the areas that deal with logical and linguistic functions. This is why mechanical and electrical objects don't work properly in dreams, or you suddenly find it very difficult to read. It can be impossible to use a smartphone, tell the time, or apply car brakes unless you're lucid. Symbolically, however, faulty machinery can represent obstacles or setbacks, as well as frustrations about your ability to perform.
Some types of dream food can symbolize pleasure, indulgence, guilt, or excess. Other foods may reflect your relationship with your body, satisfaction or deprivation, or your attitude towards sharing and hospitality. Food can be a dream symbol for knowledge because it nourishes the body, just as information nourishes the brain. However, sometimes it could just be food; a very common feature of our everyday lives that crops up in dreams because of the waking frequency factor.
Demons are sneaky evil entities that embody fear, guilt, or negative impulses. These menacing entities may represent inner conflicts and unresolved emotions, and you may secretly feel the need to fix bad behaviors. Depending on the context, demons are symbols of repressed desires, trauma, addiction, or even a spiritual crisis.
Hair is a dream symbol that relates to identity, self-image, and social status. Consider whether the dream hair made you feel attractive, confident, powerful, vulnerable, rebellious, or creative. Hair can also represent different stages of aging. Freud believed hairy dreams had significant ties with sexuality, with abundant hair symbolizing virility and losing hair symbolizing a loss of libido. Hair loss may also express a literal fear of going bald.
Your hands are always present in your dreams, but you certainly don't always notice them. If they're involved in a particularly meaningful way, there is probably a meaning to it. For instance, having your hands tied can represent feelings of futility, while washing your hands may express guilt. Looking closely at your hands in a dream is a good way to become lucid because it forces self-awareness as a dreamer within a dream.
In dreams, any house or building is often associated with the inner psyche. Individual rooms or floors can be dream symbols in themselves for different emotions and interpretations of meaningful events; for instance, is a room cluttered and chaotic, or clean and organized? Is the house lonely, peaceful, noisy, or full of life? The vibe from each part of the house can represent specific times in your life, feelings about life in general, or aspects of your inner self. More literally, though, houses can sometimes reflect your sense of safety, comfort, or belonging, or a desire for change or stability.
To kill someone in your dream doesn't make you a closet murderer, but it can represent your desire to "kill" or eliminate part of your own personality. Exactly who you kill in your dream may be telling; was the victim good or evil? Murder can also symbolize anger, frustration, or revenge towards a specific person, as well as fear, guilt, or the need to seize control over an issue in real life. If you're bothered by recurring violent dreams, please seek professional help.
Getting married in a dream may be a literal desire to wed, or it can reflect a merging of the feminine and masculine parts of your psyche. For many people, marriage in dreams symbolizes commitment, partnership, and the merging of identities and goals. For others, though, marriage dreams can reflect anxiety, uncertainty, or pressure to conform to social expectations or cultural norms. Consider the context, your own beliefs about marriage, and any other dream symbols to uncover more.
Dreams of television or the internet can symbolize communication channels between the conscious and unconscious mind, so look for direct or indirect messages, even through hashtags or subtitles. They can also represent your social life, escapism, distraction, entertainment, a desire for stimulation, connection, or intellectual engagement. Review the context of the what you were consuming as this can give you pointers as to the dream's hidden meaning.
The dream symbol of missing a flight (or any kind of scheduled transport) is quite common, relating to the fear and frustration of missing opportunities in life. It's most common when you're struggling to make a big decision or feel like you're failing to achieve important goals. Missing a flight in a dream can also mean you're worried about being left behind or abandoned by someone in real life.
Dreams of money can symbolize self-worth, the quality of your personal and social life, or more literally, your sense of financial security, success, and the attainment of material goods. For others, money in dreams can reflect anxiety, greed, or a fear of poverty. If you dream of exchanging money, it may mean you're anticipating big changes in your life. Depending on the specific context, money in dreams can also reveal your desires for financial independence, personal freedom, or recognition.
In the dream world, mountains usually mean obstacles, challenges, or opportunities for growth. Climbing a mountain can represent the pursuit of a goal, the desire for adventure, or the need to overcome obstacles or fears. If you take it to the top of your dream mountain, you're probably feeling pretty confident about life. Meanwhile, looking at a mountain from a distance, or viewing the world from the top of a mountain, can represent a sense of perspective, clarity, or awe over your life as a whole.
Nudity is another classic dream symbol, thought to reveal vulnerability, honesty, and the exposure of your true self or innermost desires. It can also represent a sense of freedom, a desire for recognition, sexual urges, or a desire for intimacy and connection. In certain public contexts, naked dreams can reflect anxiety, shame, or a fear of being judged or rejected by others. Identify the context by considering the dream characters, the setting, and the emotions you experienced during the dream.
Dream characters are sometimes reflections of your own psyche, including qualities that you admire or reject. People can also represent emotions or conflicts that you're experiencing in waking life. To interpret the meaning of individual dream figures, think about the emotions you experienced and any other dream symbols around them. For instance, meeting a stranger in a dream can symbolize a new opportunity, while meeting a friend may mean you seek support. If you run into an enemy, they may reflect your own beliefs or something external to you. When lucid, you can always ask your dream figure a question.
The dreaming mind can be quite predictable in the way it applies metaphors and meanings, and roads are the perfect example. A dream road is a metaphor for the journey of life, the choices we make, the obstacles we must overcome, and the opportunities that await us. Pay attention to the condition or the state of the road in the dream, such as its width, length, smoothness, and the general environment, as this can enrich the dream meaning.
If you're not in school in real life, a school dream can be a symbol for learning, growth, and development. It may mean you're thinking about acquiring new skills or training, as well as the socialization and interaction with others needed for personal growth and development. Depending on the context, going back to school in a dream can represent a desire for achievement or discipline, the feeling of being tested, or the need to resolved a trauma from your younger years.
Sex dreams can symbolize intimacy and a literal desire for sex, intimacy, and connection. However, sex in dreams can also represent the integration of your masculine and feminine archetypes (the anima and the animus, according to Jung) or the need to balance them. Sometimes, dream sex can also mean you desire power, control, or domination over someone or something. Overall though, sex in dreams can be a complex and multifaceted symbol.
Aside from being a literal manifestation of a person in real life, a dream teacher can represent an authority figure with the power to enlighten you. They may represent guidance, knowledge, discipline, or a need for structure. Depending on the specific details of the dream, teachers may represent a positive or negative influence in your waking life. In a lucid dream, meeting a teacher or similar authority figure is the perfect opportunity to ask questions about growth and wisdom.
Teeth are weirdly common dream symbols. They can represent a variety of concepts ranging from strength and confidence, to vulnerability and weakness. Teeth can symbolize the ability to communicate effectively—or losing the ability to do so. Depending on the context, seeing your teeth fall out may represent a need for self-care or a fear of aging and losing your youth. Indeed, this is a particularly common dream symbol relating to the fear of loss, change, or powerlessness.
Being trapped, physically, is a common nightmare theme. It can represent a feeling of being stuck or limited in some aspect of your life (like a job or relationship) and so is a kind of metaphor for a desire for more freedom and independence. Similarly, being trapped can also represent a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness in a specific circumstance, or a more general fear of the unknown. It's a powerful dream symbol with many outcomes, suggesting you need to find a way to break free from your pain and move forward.
Vehicles are dream symbols associated with control. A smooth, easy journey may suggest you feel in control of your life and are making good progress, while a bumpy or difficult ride suggests frustration at the obstacles in your way. Being driven by someone else may symbolize the need to relinquish control of something altogether. Vehicles can also represent your physical body and overall state of health or wellbeing, so notice the condition and performance of the car itself. Sometimes, dream vehicles represent a need for speed and excitement; other times, a desire for safety and security.
Water comes in many forms in dreams, and is commonly known to symbolize emotions or the unconscious mind. For instance, a calm lake may reflect inner peace, while a choppy ocean can be suggestive of deep unease. Water can also mean purification, cleansing, and renewal, as well as a need for emotional release or healing. Sometimes, water can symbolize a need for adaptability, or a desire for stability and grounding.
Not every single element of your dreams have hidden meanings. Sometimes, it's just background noise, or a literal projection of your waking world.
To identify the most important symbols in your dreams, keep a dream journal. Write in the present tense as if you're re-living the dream, and underline any unusual or poignant aspects which are central to the story, or which simply attract your attention.
Refer these dream symbols to the list above. If they're not on the list, you can find more definitions in a complete dream dictionary such as Cloud Nine: A Dreamer's Dictionary.
With these definitions in hand, you can interpret your dream symbols within the context of your dream narrative, your personal attachments to the symbols, and your current life circumstances.