How To *Actually* Interpret Your Dreams

Rip up your Dream Dictionary and instead, focus on your feelings

Mark Starmach
6 min readSep 25, 2022
Illustrations: Mark Starmach

It’s 3AM and I’m a miniature cow made of exposed bloody muscles, trying to evade an evil alien space god.

I’ve rolled in lawn clippings that have clung to my sticky red musculature to form a grassy layer of camouflage. I’ve also befriended a Swiss-Family-Robinson-eque family who are trying to smuggle me up a mountain. At the top of the mountain is a Stargate-like portal, through which I can jump to escape the space god’s juju mind magic — but he keeps seeing us and zapping us back to the base of the mountain, over and over again.

It’s getting nowhere. Bloody clumps of lawn drop off and I roll in the itchy grass to try stay disguised. Climb. Climb. Climb. Zap! Zap! Zap!

I stir.

I wake.

And I think…

“What the fuck was that?”

I’ve long held the belief that most dream analysis is woo. How can there be a single universal meaning to entirely subjective images and sensations flitting by your mind’s eye in a state of semiconsciousness?

Flying is meant to mean happiness. Teeth falling out is supposedly about a sense of loss. According to Google, being naked in public is about vulnerability and change.

But what if you’re a nudist?

Often these interpretations are caveated to high heaven, saying that they’re loose ideas only and that your personal context really matters and that dreams are very individualistic.

Case in point: Vampires. On this Tumblr, dreaming of a vampire is confidently broken down into ‘If a vampire is following you…’, ‘If you’re the vampire…’, ‘If you’re being bitten…’, ‘If it’s a traditional vampire…’, ‘If it’s a sexy vampire…’ — but how can any outsider say what a vampire means to you? Maybe you had a weird childhood fascination with the Count from Sesame Street. All these spin-off interpretations feel more like they’re covering their bases than emanating any confident psychic truth.

Which begs the question, how useful or applicable are these broad interpretations anyway? It feels a bit like tealeaves, in which you do the heavy lifting to make the readings resonate. They’re more like conversation starters or thought framers than anything else. Some people might need that to help guide their thinking — but I second-guess the need to outsource it to a third party. Chances are they’ll give you a bum steer.

I’m also dubious about dreams being capable of predicting the future. Like, how would that even work? Propose me the mechanism. Does your mind, which seems inextricably linked to the wrinkly grey organ floating in your head (if lobotomy-recipients are anything to go by), float off somehow and travel through wormholes to different multiverses to observe alternate timelines, but also somehow in a bodied way with ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ that can surveil those scenarios? I want to believe it, but it seems farfetched.

What seems easier to believe is that, whenever someone ‘predicts’ something via a dream, it’s only ever in retrospect, when something happens in the real world and they go “Oh! I had a dream about that last Wednesday!”. No, I’m pretty sure you just got a rush of dopamine because something happened that suddenly triggered a memory of last Wednesday’s dream. You know, like how 99.9999% of most memory works.

The best scientific theories about what dreams are is that they’re mental car washes — rinse cycles that process the preceding day’s events.

I think I’m coming across as some hardcore hard-nosed skeptic right now.

I’m not.

I’m actually a very spiritually and psychologically inquisitive person. I’m drawn to the idea of emergent consciousness, the prospect of human consciousness as a hyperobject, of God and the figurative realness of Yeats’ Spiritus Mundi — a sort of “world soul” or cosmic vat of humanity’s memory, out of which symbols rise and return. I’m intrigued by the archetypal stories explored by Jung and their relation to our Id, Ego, and Superego. I’m curious about Schema Therapy and the inner child — and I’ve even written about how we’re each a pastiche of these overlapping psychological forms.

I really do believe that dreams are beautiful and bizarre and compelling and meaningful, and often inspire great creative works. And while I doubt they’re magical or supernatural, I do think they’re self-revealing and oftentimes instructive. Because, through my own exploration, I think I’ve landed on what I find to be the most fruitful method of analysis for understanding my dreams. And it’s a very simple shift— far simpler than breaking down vampiric specificities.

Instead of thinking, “What did each of those symbols in my dream represent or mean?”, I think, “How did I feel emotionally at each moment in that dream? What was the overarching emotional feeling I had during that dream?”

Often, people think of their dreams like movies.

It might look like a movie. Sound like a movie. Feel like a movie.

But it’s not a movie.

It hasn’t been stitched together consciously enough to deliver a high-level conceptual message. Because that would then mean your dream is an act of language — and have you heard yourself sleep-talk? That shit’s grammarless, let alone meaningful.

But what dreams do seem to convey is a more basic form of psychological expression. One that’s wordless. Formless. It’s emotional information. Dreams seem to evoke feelings and sensations arising within you that exist before language and symbolism and representation — feelings and sensations that you mightn’t be fully aware of in conscious daylight, but that at night appear like nocturnal truthbombs.

If we’re to use the movie analogy, it’s sorta like recalling a movie you watched a few years ago.

You probably don’t remember every line of dialogue, or every shot. But you probably do remember, (or ‘re-feel’), the emotions that movie made you experience.

My idea of dream analysis is about taking a similar step back, disregarding the exactitude of what you saw or heard, and instead reflecting on the general emotional impression you were left with throughout it.

Were you confused? Overwhelmed? Disappointed? Anxious? Frustrated? Did you feel a sense of shame, mischief, or boredom? Guilt, or pure child-like joy?

If you dream of having sex with a tiger and you’re really enjoying it, it probably doesn’t mean you’re into bestiality. Perhaps you’re just feeling happy and playful in life right now. And low-key horny.

Likewise, dreaming of stabbing someone angrily with a knife mightn’t mean you’re a soon-to-be serial killer, but it might mean that on some level you feel angry. Really, really, existentially angry.

From there, perhaps you can think about why you might be feeling that way. What’s happening in your waking life (or your past) that might’ve triggered those feelings in your sleep?

Don’t read the content. Read the feelings.

When I awoke from being a bloody cow evading an alien space god, I thought about how I had felt during that dream.

On one level, I was amused and entertained by the weirdness of what was happening. On another level, I was really frustrated and annoyed. I felt a sense of not getting anywhere, of being constantly set back.

And I thought — this is how I feel at work right now. Stimulated and excited, but also stressed and emotionally itchy.

During the day, the former dwarfed the latter. But at night, that mental itchiness came out in the very literal form of a hyperallergenic nightmare — grass clippings clung to raw red muscles.

I often think of stress as a gas stove silently filling an apartment. It can be hard to feel it building up. Perhaps dreams are one way it’s made visible before it becomes a fireball.

After my weird cow dream, I prioritised stress relief. Good sleep. Treating my mind with gentleness and kindness. Genuinely switching off from work when the workday was done. And I found my mood shifting, lightening. An anxiety I hadn’t fully been aware of, lifted. My mind got clearer. I actually did my work better. And my dreams made me feel happier too.

In a strange way, I made it to the Stargate at the top of the mountain.

No thanks to Swiss Family Robinson, though.

If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy ‘Insomniac’ — my ongoing series about sleep, sleeplessness, and anxiety, written from an ex-insomniac. You can read the rest of ‘Insomniac’ here:


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