7 lessons from Sigmund Freud that will help you understand your dreams better

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Sigmund Freud is generally regarded as the father of modern psychology. This Viennese doctor paved the way for more than a century’s worth of psychological investigation after him, and was one of the first people to unlock the inner world of desires and dreams we all carry around with us.

Psychiatry has moved on a lot since Freud’s day, but his work on the analysis of dreams still forms the basis of a lot of dream interpretation today.

Because while they may sometimes seem completely random, dreams are anything but. They are messages from the subconscious mind, telling us things about ourselves and about the world around us that our conscious minds remain unaware of.

If you want to understand yourself better, you need to understand your dreams.

Here are some lessons from Sigmund Freud that can help you.

1) The symbols are your own

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.” – Sigmund Freud

Often, people think that Freud argued that certain images in dreams always mean the same thing. So if you see, for example, a flying house, that must mean the same thing regardless of whose dream it appears in.

But Freud didn’t believe this at all.

Instead, Freud knew that while images in dreams are often symbolic, each dreamer creates their own symbols.

A very common image in dreams is to find your teeth falling out. But the interpretation of what that means varies from one person to another. It could mean anything from telling you you’ve been communicating poorly lately to a fear of losing control to having said too much to anxiety over your appearance.

So how are you supposed to interpret the sometimes wild and scary images you dream at night? Well, Freud had an answer for that.

2) Free association unlocks the meaning of the symbols

When interpreting his patients’ dreams, Freud would often have them free associate.

In other words, he would ask them to say whatever popped into their mind when they thought about the imagery of their dreams, without holding back or censoring anything.

It’s very important that this association be truly free. If you censor yourself at all, you allow the conscious mind to step back in and interfere with the subconscious.

The idea is to tap back into your subconscious to discover what it was trying to tell you, so don’t try to rationalize, understand, or hide anything embarrassing.

You can do this by yourself or with a therapist. It may be a good idea to record what you say so you can concentrate solely on your thoughts, then worry about analyzing them afterward.

3) Your dream may be wish fulfillment

This is probably the simplest interpretation of dreams, and it’s certainly not the only one. After all, we all have the experience of dreaming about things we would never want to happen in real life.

At the same time, just because something is simple doesn’t mean we should discount it.

Some dreams, Freud argued, are exactly that. Often, we dream of things we want and can’t have.

This is especially common in children. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud uses one of his daughter Anna’s dreams to give an example of dreams as simple wish fulfillment:

“My little girl, who was nineteen months old at the time, had been sick one morning so had been kept without food all day. During the following night, she was heard calling out excitedly in her sleep:

“Anna Freud, stwawbewwies, wild stwawbewwies, omblet, pudden!”

The child went to bed hungry and so dreamed of food.

Freud goes on to explain that strawberries were exactly the food Anna had been forbidden the most. Therefore, our dreams often provide us a way to get what we are not permitted to have in our waking life.

4) Dreams should not be taken at face value

Anyone who has ever had a nightmare knows that there is more to dreams than just wish fulfillment. Often, we dream of things that terrify us.

Other times, we dream of things that seem nonsensical, things that are far from what we actually want.

But Freud warns us that we should not take dreams at face value.

When you look deeper, you can often find elements of wish fulfillment even in a dream that seems negative.

Freud differentiated between two types of dream content:

  •  manifest content, which is the dream as we remember it;
  • latent content, the underlying thoughts behind the dream.

Humans are complicated creatures. Sometimes we don’t want to admit what we want, even to ourselves. And if we want something we wish we didn’t, we will often disguise that wish in our dreams as something else.

That’s why we shouldn’t take our dreams at face value. Even frightening or disgusting images may be clues to things we secretly desire but don’t want to admit to ourselves.

5) Unravel the dream-work

“The task of dream interpretation is to unravel what the dream-work has woven.” – Sigmund Freud

‘Dream-work’ is Freud’s term for the unconscious encoding that your mind does to transform the dream’s latent content – what you really want – into the manifest content – what your mind shows you in dreams.

So interpreting dreams involves undoing that encoding.

Freud further breaks down this method of dream interpretation into four stages:

  • Condensation. This is where a number of different elements of the dream are combined into one. So you may see people that are more than one person at the same time, or hear words that combine elements of two or more different words into one.
  • Displacement. This is when important concepts from the latent content of the dream are replaced by seemingly insignificant aspects of the manifest content, or vice versa. This is why dreams can seem to be about one thing, but are really about another. It also means that the emotion you should feel attached to a dream image may be instead attached to another where it doesn’t belong.
  • Secondary revision. Some dreams seem to make no sense at all, while others can be surprisingly clear and logical. According to Freud, this is because of secondary revision. This is something your brain does at the end of the dream creation process, patching up the cracks and holes in your dream to create a coherent narrative.
  • Considerations of representation. Ultimately, dreams are made of images, not words. So the thoughts behind the dream have to be converted into images before they can enter your dreams.

Your subconscious brain can show incredible creativity in doing this, a creativity most people struggle to achieve in their waking life.

Often, when we put our dreams into words, we realize that the images were representing words all along, which is why dream interpretation often requires writing down your dreams or speaking them out loud to reconvert the symbolic images into words.

6) Think about your childhood

Freud argued that while some of the latent content of dreams comes from our present or recent past, other content dates back to our earliest memories and desires.

To make things even more confusing, multiple latent wishes can be stacked on top of each other and represented in the same dream image.

For example, you may dream of flying a plane. You have a big trip coming up that you are anxious about, so the image may represent your desire to get where you’re going on time.

But it may also remind you of how your father was often late for things and how your mother used to complain about it. So flying the plane in your dream can represent your desire to have control over the way your parents related to one another.

7) Respect the unconscious

Freud also pointed out that the same complex forces that operate in our dreams also influence our waking life.

The subconscious can show itself in many different ways while we are awake, including:

  • slips of the tongue (the famous Freudian slip)
  • daydreams
  • memory lapses
  • mistakes
  • random thoughts

Dream interpretation can tell us a lot about ourselves. To Sigmund Freud, nothing we dreamed was accidental or meaningless. Instead, the imagery of dreams points the way to our deepest desires.

Interpreting dreams

Our minds are fantastically complicated things. Often, they are trying to tell us something at the same time they are trying to hide that same thing from us.

And nowhere is that more apparent than in our dreams.

Dream interpretation is a skill that requires practice and effort. But the reward is a deeper connection with your own wishes, desires, and subconscious motivations.

Lost Your Sense of Purpose?

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Ryan Frawley

“Ryan Frawley is a France-based writer with a passion for psychology, philosophy, science, and anything that attempts to answer life’s biggest questions. Reach out at ryan@ryanfrawley.com”

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