Getting More Out of Your Dreams

Dreams can be a rich resource for creativity, decision making, problem solving, and self-understanding.

We actually do much of our information processing at night. Dreaming helps us integrate emotional and intellectual material from the day – without the defensiveness that characterizes our waking thoughts. Because we’re more honest with ourselves when we are asleep, we’re often more insightful as well.


You may not remember you dreams, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t have any. Everyone dreams at least four time a night. You can learn to recall your dreams by trying to “catch” them first thing in the morning.

Keep a pencil and pad by your bed. Jot down the date each night before you go to sleep. Immediately after waking up in the morning, write down a few lines about whatever is on your mind – even if all you write is, There is nothing on my mind. Within a week or two, you’ll find that you’re remembering plenty of your dreams.


Everyone has had the experience of “sleeping on a problem” – and waking up with the solution. We can make this process more deliberate by practicing what I call dream incubation. Here’s how you can do it:

Before you go to bed, write down a one-line phrase that clearly states an issue you want to understand better, a problem you’d like to resolve or the kind of idea you need.

Don’t worry about or try to solve the problem at this time. Turn out the light and repeat the phrase over and over – as calmly as though you were counting sheep – until you fall asleep.

As usual, when you wake up, write down what’s on your mind. Sometimes the answer will be straightforward – in the form of a simple idea rather than a dream.

People have used dream incubation to find ways of resolving conflicts with a friend or colleague…streamlining office paperwork…turning around a marketing campaign…coming up with ideas for a presentation.

Other answers may require more interpretation. You might have a dream that helps you understand the situation better, even if you don’t have the information to solve it completely. Or your dream may reframe the question. In rare cases, the dream incubation may not work – if another pressing problem comes up at the same time.

With my clients, I have found that dream incubation leads to helpful insights as much as 95% of the time. It sounds hard to believe, but it’s true.


Many people think of dream interpretation as a system of rigid Freudian symbols. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were on the right track in taking dreams seriously, but they drew on their cultural prejudices and attached specific meanings to various dream images.

Actually, each individual’s dream metaphors are very private and personal. I encourage people to dismiss their preconceptions about dream symbols and discover for themselves what they think about the images in their dreams. It’s not necessary to understand it. Record the main ideas and themes.

Then set up a dream interview with a friend, a therapist – or even yourself as interviewer – to clarify the dream’s meaning. The dream interview has three major steps:

  • Description. Describe each of the major elements – people, animals, objects, setting, action, and feelings – in the dream as if you were describing them to someone who comes from another planet and has never heard of them. If you are doing a self-interview, you might find it helpful to write down the descriptions the first few times.
  • Bridge. For each element, ask yourself, Is there something in my life – or anything about myself – that’s like this figure or action in my dream, which I describe?”
  • Summary. Tie together what you’ve learned by reviewing each description and its bridge. Think about how the dream as a whole could be a parable about your life.
  • Action. Reread your dream several times, and keep it in mind during the day. Your dream may give you the insight and courage to make important changes.

Though each person’s dream symbolism is highly individual, certain themes often have connotations that are common to many people. Examples:

The examination. In the dream, you’re about to take an important test and you haven’t studied all semester – or you can’t find the examination room. In waking life, you may be facing a challenge for which you don’t feel prepared.

If you are prepared, the dream may reflect simple anxiety. But it could also be a warning that you need to take steps to meet the challenge. Another possibility is that you’re living under such pressure that you never feel quite ready for anything. You may need to reevaluate whether you want to keep functioning that way.

Falling. Dreams in which you are falling have to do with the loss of control. Are there areas in which you’re out of control? Does this present a danger to your career or a personal relationship?

~by Dr. Gayle Delaney

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