The meaning of dreams: why we see them and how to interpret them

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Dreaming is one of the most fascinating things that our mind is capable of giving birth to. They involve us immensely, they confuse us, they drag us emotionally during the night, and then, once we wake up, they leave us with the feeling of not understanding them. It is perfectly normal, and, in fact, an essential component of the dream: they are not made to “stick” directly to our rational memory because they are made of elaborate symbols that distance themselves from the content that generated them, for a reason that we will see shortly.

The first to study dreams in a scientific and complete way was obviously Sigmund Freud, and his book The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899 and defined the writing from which modern psychology was born, it is still a perfectly valid tool to understand them today. In this article, we will explain what dreams are and why they exist within our psychological structure, in order to understand the meaning of their presence in our life.

Why do we dream?

Behind every dream, there is an unconscious content that needs to be expressed and had not enough space in consciousness. They can be subconscious desires, anxieties, fears, feelings, desires to act, etc. The fundamental point is that, during the day, those contents were blocked by our most rational side and therefore remained below the level of consciousness. Dreams are a tool for our minds to symbolically bring that content to light, in an attempt to “trick” the rational part of our mind, which is also present during sleep.

To better understand this mechanism, it is necessary to explain the structure of the human psyche, in the way Freud described it. Let’s go deep into the most fascinating folds of our minds.

The structure of our psyche

According to Freud’s teachings, our psyche has three entities: the id, the ego, and the superego. Let’s see what they consist of:

  • The id is the most unconscious part of our mind. The one that contains our often forbidden wishes, infantile contents, the most selfish desires, sexual instincts, unjustified fears, anxieties, paranoia, obsessions. It is where all our rawest instincts live. All of that content, if released without control, would make us socially unacceptable people. It is the part of us that makes us creative, passionate, enthusiastic, but as long as those contents are filtered and dampened by the other parts of our psyche.
  • The superego is, in fact, the necessary counterpart to the Es. It is a combination of all our moral, social, ethical, religious values, which comes from our education and from our intellectual component. It is the part that deals with “censoring” the contents of the id. Not all them, and not always, of course: its role is to allow an acceptable expression of these contents, blocking things that are not socially acceptable and forcing those contents to transform into something different. For example, If we experience uncontrollable anger, the superego is what prevents us from punishing a stranger, and perhaps allowing that anger to be expressed through an insult or a dirty word. If instead, we feel a strong physical attraction for someone, the superego is something that does not allow us to slap the person we like on the ass but insists on finding more acceptable expression channels, like a compliment.
  • The ego is the part of our mind that we identify with. It is the one who stands in the middle and has to decide how to behave, between the thrusts of the id, the censorships of the super-ego and the conventions of the external world. Whenever we have to choose within a thorny situation, it is our ego that tries to find a compromise among all these forces. Obviously, this is not always possible: sometimes we have been too instinctive and the super-ego is judging us, some others we have been too rational and our id is shaking, pushing its contents through some irrational sensations that we fel but we don’t understand.

On the basis of what has been said, during our waking life we ​​constantly see unconscious contents arise from our id. However, such contents do not receive expressions because they are blocked by the super-ego. Instincts are filtered by our rationality, if we want to put it in simpler words. However, they are contents existing within us and they must be expressed in some way. And the ways can be many: inexplicable anxieties, tics, nail-biting, lapsus, small psychopathologies of everyday life. But the main way out of these unspoken contents is one and only one: dreams.

Again: so why do we dream?

Now we can understand it more deeply: we dream because we have a series of unconscious contents which was censored by our superego during waking hours but have not been resolved yet, and are there in our id, stirring without peace. During sleep, our superego is less present, but it does not completely disappear: it is always there, in the form of our education, of the image we have of ourselves, of our moral and ethical principles. So even during sleep, even if we have the ability to see dream images and experience imagined stories without a practical effect in reality, nevertheless the id must still find a way to transform those contents into something more acceptable.

For this reason, our imaginative psychic structure invents an amazing series of symbols that conceal the original content. Every dream serves to express a desire, a fear, or some other unconscious content, but it does so in a hidden way, transforming the objects of our instincts into apparently disconnected symbols. For this reason, maybe we dream of a rabbit running around the rooms of the house, and behind it is a sexual desire in which the genitals of men and women are cleverly masked. Or we dream of talking to a close relative of ours while in our original instinct we are interacting with a different person with whom there may be a suspended emotional story, blocked by our Super-ego to protect us. Or we dream ourselves, once again facing a difficult exam at school as a sign of the challenge that life is posing us at the moment, and that reminds us that in the past we have overcome many challenges that at first seemed insurmountable. Or we dream of falling from a great height or dying in danger, in order to win the fear that we won’t survive (physically or psychologically) a certain life challenge, reminding us that after all, after waking up, this is indeed just a fear.

These are just a few practical examples of what dreams can mean. Each of us dreams differently, based on our life, on the thoughts that invade our mind, on the way we grew up, the sensitivity that leads us in one or the other direction. The content behind our dreams is obviously very personal, and often underlies very private content that we don’t want anyone to know about. But once discovered alone with ourselves, it can help us live a better life.

How are dreams interpreted?

Learning to interpret dreams requires a certain amount of practice and various knowledge, and that is why Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is such a full-bodied and fascinating book. However, here we can give some practical suggestions to arrive at an effective interpretation of the symbols of our dreams or of others:

  • As soon as you wake up, write down the dream in the most detailed way possible: the writing here must be quick, without thinking too much about the format or acceptability of the content. Don’t worry if some details seem insignificant: if they instinctively come to mind as soon as you wake up, it is very likely that they are related to the content of the dream, so it is important to take note of them.
  • During the analysis process, scroll through the written elements again: this is a process that can be done several times, with the assumption that something new will come up every time. It could be a detail that has been forgotten or the meaning behind any symbol that was initially ignored.
  • Try to figure out what each symbol hides: each element of the dream underlies something else. If you dream of some person, the original content is often about someone else (if it really was the person who gave birth to the dream, it’s likely that he would have been censored by the superego and forced to present himself under a different symbol). Every event, mechanism, passage of the dream tends to represent something that we would like to happen, or a perspective we are afraid of, or something we want to live again.
  • Listen to your sensations: as you rethink the elements of the dream, listen to what kind of sensations you have, free from filters, then think about what thoughts or events of the last few days that may have influenced these feelings. The majority of dreams originate from the events and emotions that we have experienced in the last 3-4 days or from the unresolved memories of childhood. In both cases, contents that have decisively influenced our psyche. By browsing through our sensations it will be possible to understand what is behind each sign, and by analyzing what happens in the dream, with a little experience we can understand what is bothering us in this period or what has caused us pain and anxiety.

Dream analysis is the main tool to identify the things which are stirring within our psyche and which often don’t emerge on a conscious level. That is why it is one of the most widespread practices in psychotherapy.

This article was translates from here by Zulfee Akhter

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