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Dream Interpretation

by Abbi

Dream Interpretation

When I first started talking and listening to other people who had suffered a sexual assault or abuse, I became aware that many survivors have to deal with nightmares. More often than not, many of us spend a considerable amount of time trying to understand these terrifying and often very confusing nightmares and try to interpret their meaning in a way that makes sense to us. I do not claim that I'm an expert on this subject. However, over time, I have discovered that frequently when I hear other survivors describe their dreams, I can clearly see a situation that they are possibly experiencing in the present waking life. So, I'd like to share with you my thoughts about dreams and what has helped me.

What are dreams? Why do we have them?

When we start facing nightmares in the midst of dealing with the traumas we've survived, dreams tend to become part of the tangle of complicated emotions we experience on a daily basis. Dreams become something that seem to heighten our fear or shame about sexual abuse / assault and it feels like one more thing we need to somehow survive. There's often pain, humiliation and shame associated with a lot of these dreams. There may be feelings of disgust, self-hatred, and/or guilt at some of these dreams because we can't seem to control what they're about and feel like we ought to be able to.

Sharing these dreams with others, either by talking about them or writing about them, is a great first step. It can help take away the power we feel the dream has over us. It can help to box it up into a corner on the paper and push it away from our minds. It's important to acknowledge how we feel about them, because as survivors our feelings have been so completely ignored. It can be theraputic to use our voice and say how the dream effected us. With enough practice in doing this, we may find the courage to speak up on how we feel today within our friendships and with our therapist and other people in our life.

But sometimes the shame and guilt about some of these dreams leaves us wondering what's wrong with us. How could we possibly dream about someone we love attacking us? Alternatively, how could we possibly dream about wanting to be attacked by our abuser or even finding ourselves attacking others? If we're lucky, we have a therapist who is somewhat versed on dream interpretation and can help us work through these feelings. It may not occur to us that dreams are actually a very useful tool to help us through anything that comes up in our life. Dreams can be a powerful ally.

So why do we have dreams, and what's their purpose? Dreams are a way for our subconscious mind to allow us the freedom to express repressed feelings. They can also offer up a clear description of how we're feeling in a specific situation in our current life. Dreams can also offer us a clear direction or advice on a problem we can't seem to figure out or solve. Sometimes dreams are a way for us to access new memories or ideas that are too frightening to face head on.

Symbolic, Memory, or Other?

There are different types of dreams, although the majority of them are highly symbolic (often referred to as Signal dreams).


These are one type of dreams that many of us are familiar with. There's a feeling of terror, guilt, and shame often accompanying these. Nightmares are a normal response to the trauma we have survived. It's a way for us to struggle through the feelings of helplessness we felt.


Signal dreams (or highly symbolic dreams) are the most frequent dreams the majority of people have. They can help you to figure out how to deal with present unresolved issues and to find solutions to them. These dreams may involve highlighting areas within your life such as problems at work, something triggering a friend or loved one said or did, and how to approach these situations.


These type of dreams are where you experience the same situation with the same people and the same feeling. You can experience these over a period of years in your lifetime.

For example: Over the first 20 years of my life, I had a dream of two locations. The first part of the dream involved zeroing in on a balcony/second story of a house. I knew that it was an apartment however, and that there was something important about it. The next part of the dream zeroed in on a single-story house that was green. There wasn't anything threatening or exciting about this dream, however it felt extremely important. Fast forward 20 years to after the time I reconnected with my biological Mom who had given me up. As I asked her numerous questions, dug into any and all paperwork, drove by old locations, I discovered something tremendous. The apartment was an actual place of where I lived with her as a toddler. Some time later, I came across a picture in a photo album of her relatives. It was the green house. I was stunned and got chills. I asked them, whose house is this? To which they replied it was my Grandparent's. I had lived with them as well before the adoption. I haven't had that dream since, because it had been resolved in my conscious/waking life.


This can be learned through practice. Many of us have had the experience of being in the midst of a dream, stopping and realizing, "Wait a minute, this is only a dream" at which point we wake up. That is what lucid dreaming is. The ability to recognize that you are in fact dreaming. With practice, you can actually change your dream as it is happening rather than feeling helpless, that the dream is happening TO you. I haven't practiced this myself, but have had the experience of knowing that I was dreaming and would wake up then.


These can feel like psychic dreams. Sometime after these dreams occur, it seems like the same situation actually happens in waking life. Depending on your beliefs, you may think this can be coming from God, from your Higher Self, from the collective unconscious, or rather some deep intuition inside of yourself seeing a logical conclusion that'll be happening if you continue down this road.


These type of dreams are our subconscious signaling to us that there is a physical problem that needs our attention. It can hint at what type of problem it is, even before we have any sort of physical symptoms.


These type are extremely vivid and have the feeling of utmost importance. They give the feeling of a major and profound shift in who we are or the way we think about something. There's a quality about them that stays with you for years.


These can happen spontaneously, or with practice can be developed. They can be with a friend who lives on the other side of the world, or your partner who sleeps in the same bed.


These are self-explanatory. Sometimes this is the safest way our subconscious knows to let us know what's happened to us.

Sometimes you can have dreams that overlap the above categories. For example:

My ex gave psychic readings for a number of years and was "communing" on a daily basis with her guides. I have a lot of sensitivity as well. There were many nights where I had the strange sensation that I was actually having direct conversations with her subconscious and/or her Higher Self. I tested it one morning, giving her a piece of information that I knew was pertinent to her which she denied flat out. About an hour later, she was astonished to learn within herself that it was in fact true.

I also had a dream that had the feel that I was having a fully disclosed conversation with her honest self at that point in time. I dreamt that we were at the grocery store shopping for lettuce. She insisted we get some dandelions too, and began to pull them out between the cracks in the asphalt in the parking lot. I gently expressed to her that I was concerned, that the dandelions she chose weren't good for her health (having soaked up the exhaust from cars), that organic was so much better. She turned around and blasted me with, "No! I don't want to be anything like you!" In waking from the dream, I felt as if somehow she hated who I truly was as a person, or what I represented for her. To top it off, in reality, she was emotionally and verbally abusive towards me. That dream was certainly letting me know that she would never see me for who I truly was, nor would she ever accept me for being myself.

Personal Dream Code

Each of us has what I'm going to call a "personal dream code". While there seem to be some universal symbols that pertain to most people, there are as many meanings for the same symbol as there are individuals in the world.

Specific Symbols:

It takes time, trial and error to figure out if we have particular symbols that have only one meaning. Such as, does dreaming of an orange cat always mean that a current situation is making you feel "insecure"? Or does it only mean that if the cat stops to have a bath?

I have used the following example a few times on the boards and am happy to share it with you again:

Every now and then I will have what I call "lava dreams". Where a lot of people would probably react with fear if they dreamed of lava, I tend not to. I came to realize pretty quickly that the warm (not hot and deadly) red liquid that slowly enveloped or followed me represented a big shift or change in my life. It helped to prepare me for some big things that came up, such as new ideas or memories.

Some time later, I started having lava dreams with a different tone. The entire dream world still was dark where lava appeared, but now I was in a cave. The lava was no longer comforting, and my fear grew. I couldn't stop it from overflowing, and there seemed no end to it bursting out all over the place. With the help of my therapist I discovered that, in this context, the caves were my deep subconscious mind, and that a lot of memories that I didn't feel ready to cope with were bursting at the seams into my waking mind. So while the lava did still represent change for me, the tone of how it acted in the dream changed how I felt about the situation in my waking life. It was no longer an acceptance, or something to prepare for. It became a fight against something I felt I couldn't cope with.

Do you have any particular things or people or places that keep popping up in your dreams? Do you have the response of, "Oh, not again!" to these particular symbols? That's a big hint that on a level you do recognize what that symbol in your dream means to you. It could be helpful to write down a list of your dream symbols and the feelings attached to them. After a period of time, see how many of the symbols kept repeating and how the symbol made you feel in the dream. That can give you a big clue to what it means to you. Also, pay attention to what situations are occurring in your life at the time.

Some General Symbols

There are some universal symbols that seem to be the same from person to person. I personally try not to look at that too closely, as we are still all individuals. It can be harmful to us if we try and fit ourselves into someone else's definition. We may end up missing valuable information for ourselves, or become frustrated at not understanding how the dream doesn't seem to relate to anything in our current situation.

*******The following paragraph may be triggering*********

I especially hesitate to look at any dream dictionaries either in print or online. Several of them seem to have a Freudian slant to them, or a rigid/fixed definition for things. Such as if you look up the meaning for a dream about rape it might start out telling you that unconsciously there's a part of you that wanted to be overpowered. I don't believe that and feel it's extremely harmful to us as survivors and society as a whole. I firmly believe the best person to know what your dreams mean is you.

One symbol I can share with you is if you dream of a house. Now, I'm only speaking in the general sense of a house. This house would be in a "regular" or "signal" dream. If you dream of a house in this context, it's most likely representing you, your self. To understand the context, you would need to know the look and feel of the house, is it light or dark, and what area of the house are you in. All of these things can give you clues as to what the dream is asking you to look at or think about.

"Fill in the Blank"

It just occurred to me today that this exercise may be helpful to try and pick apart our nightmares and what they mean. I don't know if there's an actual exercise such as this, I just know that it came to me as I was responding to a post. I'm going to do my best at "making up" a dream and giving an example of how this would work. Now remember, this is a "made up dream". I haven't dreamt this, nor has anyone related anything like this to me.


I had a task in front of me. For some reason I knew that I had to climb this huge staircase all the way to the top. I couldn't even see the top from where I stood at the bottom. As I began to walk up, I realized I wasn't getting anywhere. It didn't feel like a staircase anymore but an escalator. I felt like I was never going to reach the top. The scene shifted, and my adoptive father was all of a sudden "there" in front of me (in real life he's one of my abusers). He stood between me and a house that was up for sale. I really wanted to get inside that house and away from him. He kept stepping in front of my path, and finally physically pulling me away when I was on the ground trying to claw/crawl my way to the house. I woke up feeling afraid.

Other information:

So say that I had this dream while I was still with my ex-gf. She was emotionally and verbally abusive towards me (in real life). So if I had a dream like that while I was still with her, I would already feel afraid and wonder why I had to be afraid in my dreams too. I would probably try and get far away from thinking about the dream.


So here is how it might go.

"Task in front of me" If something is in front of me, in my face, I might think of that as being the present, or a present situation.

"I had to climb this huge staircase all the way to the top. I realized I wasn't getting anywhere. I felt like I was never going to reach the top."

I had to (an action) this huge (fill in the blank) to (a place, destination).

I realized I wasn't (fill in the blank).

I felt like I was never (fill in the blank).

I had (have) to deal with this overwhelming fear and take my life back.

I realize I'm not going anywhere, just spinning my wheels. Nothing is changing.

I felt like this was never going to end. Nothing would ever change. I had an idea that I needed to go somewhere and do something about it, but I couldn't see a way out of my current situation.

The next piece:

The scene shifted, and my adoptive father was all of a sudden "there" in front of me (in real life he's one of my abusers). He stood between me and a house that was up for sale. I really wanted to get inside that house and away from him. He kept stepping in front of my path, and finally physically pulling me away when I was on the ground trying to claw/crawl my way to the house. I woke up feeling afraid."

(who is reminding me of my father?) was all of a sudden "there" in front of me.

(this person) stood between me and a house (what in my life am I being kept away from?) that was up for sale.

I really wanted to (what do I want?) away from (is this person trying to stop me from doing what I need?).

(this person) kept stepping in front of my path, and finally physically pulling me away when I was on the ground trying to claw/crawl my way to the house.

I woke up feeling afraid.

My (now) ex was all of a sudden in my face all the time.

She's standing between me and my issues (my own personal headspace and boundaries).

I really want to get back into my own issues and healing and somehow get her to stop putting her feeling and issues ahead of mine, like hers are way more important than mine.

And the rest of it is how it seems to get worse, the more I try and get back to my self (house a lot of the time stands for the self).

Final Interpretation:

So if my present situation was I was in an abusive situation and I had this dream, I could interpret it to mean that I don't believe the abuse will ever end. That it's important to me (finally) to try and find a way out, even if I don't know how to do that or what that would look like. That no matter what I do, it's not going to change the relationship, so it's important to leave.

The second part is showing me my adoptive father as a symbol. Some of the things my ex said or did reminded me of him. He is in my face, in my way... of me. He's keeping me from being myself, of living in my own skin and my own life. Boy that's familiar, isn't it? My ex's feelings took precedence over anything I might be going through. I didn't care enough, I didn't do enough, I was making her feel upset on purpose (etc.). All the while, in the dream, there was a progression of a forcefulness that NO she would never let me be myself or find my way back home to myself.

And another thing to note is how the house is "up for sale". In that light, it could very well mean that I had given up on myself, had allowed my ex to push me out of the house, or push me into believing I had to sell the house. In a lot of ways, how she treated me was exactly that, that I had no rights to my own feelings or sense of self because she was more important than I was.

I hope from that example it'll help you to pick apart your dreams. Just remember to substitute people or places or things in your dream, with the ever present question to yourself of, "Who/what does this symbol or feeling remind me of in my life?"


Now this may seem rather odd that I have included a section for people who are DID. There are a couple notes I wanted to make that's unique in this area.

When people who have DID are asleep, or at least most parts are sleeping, it's easier for co-consciousness to happen. There's less resistance and barriers in place. So sometimes there will be a sharing of feelings or memories that happens. Perhaps there's a part that's upset they weren't heard by another part. Or there's a big change that another part needs desperately. Communication is made easier through dreams and/or sleep. So sometimes this needs to be taken into consideration when interpreting dreams. It may just be that one part is communicating with you directly.

The other thing that I've had happen is experiencing a dream that another part is dreaming. There are people in our past that they will dream about that I've never had any direct contact with before. It seemed odd to me to have a dream about someone one of the others had had a friendship with years earlier, when I had never met them. It took me a while to understand that it wasn't my dream, but that of another part.


As I mentioned before, I don't personally rely on any books or online "dictionaries". However, you are free to google them if you feel you need to.

I did want to include one link I came across in a search I did. It talks about dream interpretation in the context of therapy. I think this might be helpful for further thoughts about our dreams/nightmares, and maybe even broach the subject with your T if you believe it might help.


Thank you for taking the time to read what I had to say. I hope that it has been helpful to you, even if it was one piece of information.


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