Interpreting Dreams: Myths and Realities

by Kassandra Lamb ~ I belong to an online chapter of Sisters in Crime. Awhile back, someone started a conversation on there regarding inner monologues and mental images. That was interesting enough, discussing the variety of people’s experiences. (Apparently, not everyone talks to themselves internally, and some folks cannot visualize things in their minds readily.) And then the conversation segued into how we dream and how we should go about interpreting dreams.

photo by Claudia Manas on

That reminded me of an experience I had in graduate school, regarding interpreting dreams, that was really interesting.

But first let me clear up some things about dreaming.

(1) Everybody dreams. Some of us almost never remember our dreams, but we’re still having them. Every night, several per night.

(2) There is no right or wrong way to dream. Some people dream in black and white, others in vivid color, some like me in between. (The colors in my dreams tend to be washed out.) Some people hear noises and dialogue in their dreams; others don’t. They are more like silent movies.

(3) Not every dream is significant or symbolic of something. Our minds use dreaming to process the things that happened to us the day before (or sometimes several days before). But many of these dreams are rather jumbled bits and pieces (that we probably won’t remember) or they’re just playing out mundane scenes.

(4) There are no universal symbols or formulas for interpreting dreams. Only the person who had the dream can say what the components of it mean. Others, such as a therapist or a friend, might make suggestions about what something means. But if it doesn’t resonate with the dreamer, it’s not the correct interpretation.

So now to the interesting thing that happened in grad school.

It’s a great example of how only the dreamer can interpret the dream.

During my last year of my masters’ program, I took a course in Gestalt Therapy and we were given the assignment to interpret one of our own dreams using the Gestalt “empty chair” technique. The dreamer imagines one of the significant people or objects from the dream is in an empty chair.

photo by Fred J, CC-BY-SA 1.0 Wikimedia Commons

One can visualize the empty chair as I did, or you can actually sit down across from a real empty chair and imagine the person/object in it. Then you talk to them/it, ask questions, tell them/it how you feel, etc. And the meaning of the dream becomes evident after a while. (It’s a really great method for interpreting dreams.)

Now around that same time, I was trying to decide if I wanted to go on and get my doctorate. The masters degree I was about to receive qualified me to do what I wanted to do—mental health counseling. But a PhD would be more prestigious and would allow me to make more money.

I was rather tired of going to school, however, plus it put a strain on our family’s budget and took time away from my young son.

And recently my advisor had told me that many psychology PhD programs put unreasonable barriers up, to either make it hard to get into their programs or to graduate from them. I won’t go into what those barriers are. They aren’t relevant to the story of what happened when I sat down to analyze my dream for the class project.

photo by Zalfa Imani on

Here’s the dream:

I’m at an art auction sponsored by a local charity to raise money (something that had happened in real life a few months before that). I’m wandering around the gallery and debating if I should even bother getting a bidder’s number. I don’t have money to spend on artwork, even though it’s for a good cause.

Then I see a painting that I really like, and I decide I will bid on it. Maybe I’ll get lucky and the bidding won’t go too high.

So I race back to the registration table, where I’m told that I need the identification number for whatever paintings I want to bid on, because they’re not going to hold the paintings up during the bidding, for the audience to see them. They’re just going to announce the ID number.

I’m thinking this is an extremely dumb way to run an art auction. But I head back to the painting I liked to get the number off of it. And just as I get there, they turn the lights out in the gallery because the auction is starting. The only part of the room still lit is the stage where the auctioneer is.

I can’t make out the number at the bottom of the painting, so I get mad and leave.

And here’s what happened when I put the painting in the empty chair and had a chat with it:

Mainly I talked to it. The picture didn’t have anything to say back.

“You’re very attractive,” I told it. “And I would enjoy hanging you on my wall.”

“And people would be impressed by you.”

“But you cost money that I don’t really have to spare.”

“And they’ve made it so hard to get you, for no good reason. You’re just not worth it.”

For my paper, I wrote out all those things I had said to the painting. And then I wrote across the bottom of the page. “And I think I’ve just made my decision about getting a PhD. Not happening at this point in my life.”

The professor of that course was also my advisor, so I knew he wouldn’t need any more explanation than that.

What have you been told about interpreting dreams? Did you ever have a dream (like mine) that ended up having a profound impact on your life?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida, and the C.o.P. on the Scene police procedurals, set in northern Florida. She also writes romantic suspense under the pen name of Jessica Dale.

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  • Reply
    Pamela Ruth Meyer
    March 28, 2023 at 7:11 am

    This post was so much fun to read, Kassandra. Still, I find myself wondering–did you ever regret that final decision?

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 28, 2023 at 1:23 pm

      Only very occasionally, and only in passing. I was able to carve out the career I wanted with the masters degree.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Pam!

  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    March 28, 2023 at 10:45 am

    A really interesting technique for interpreting dreams and a fascinating story, Kass! You definitely made the right decision. *wink*

    I’m not aware of having any dream that helped me make a decision, but I had a very bizarre dream the night before I was scheduled to take my comps (a day-long test where you write essays in response to a series of questions – for me, questions about 19th century British Literature). It was the next step after grad course work and the final requirement before I could start on my doctoral dissertation. Preparation involved months of reading/studying, so I was pretty nervous. All of us grad students would joke about bringing Tums and Depends to the exam, and we’d share matchbooks with ads about truck-drivers’ school, in case we bombed out on comps.

    I won’t go into detail about the dream…suffice to say that it started out as your typical late-for-the-test kind of thing, but got super weird in terms of the unreasonable things the testers expected me to be able to do as if it was perfectly normal. After the dream, it struck me that, in real life, there was nothing they could throw at me that I wasn’t already prepared for. And it made a funny story to tell during breaks with the other grad students taking the test.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    March 28, 2023 at 1:29 pm

    Oh, what a fun dream (although it probably wasn’t while you were dreaming it). I’m imagining all kinds of strange things that they asked you to do.

    And that certainly fits with the emotions of that situation. I remember prepping for comps all too well. One really is afraid they will throw stupid stuff at you and expect the impossible (I memorized the publication dates of all of Freud’s books, just in case…lol).

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