A simple introduction to the dream interpretation process in 3 easy-to-remember steps.
Are you ready to have a go at interpreting your dreams, but not sure where to start?
In this article we will break the process into 3 easy-to-remember steps.
This approach will probably appeal to a more logical-minded person and is geared towards Christians, but I have included lots of general tips, and hope everyone will find some useful ideas.
I approach dream interpretation from a biblical perspective. My belief is that our dreams can come from God, and understanding them is best understood within the context of an ongoing relationship with Him.
As a follower of Jesus Christ and church leader who has interpreted my dreams for more than 15 years, I have found that there are certain things that greatly help me with unravelling dreams.
For simplicity, I have grouped these things into three main steps or stages.
Before we jump into the dream interpretation method, there are a few things that it is important to know:
Dreams are symbolic
It’s very tempting to think our dreams are literal, partucularly when we first start taking notice of them. But in general, dreams are like little night parables or illustrations, which are tailored to our personal experiences. The language is mostly metaphorical, and therefore needs interpreting.
Some people do have a greater proportion of literal dreams than others. But I find it is usually safe to start by assuming a dream is symbolic and consider that option first. This approach has always worked well for me.
If you have just come across this post and are new to dream interpretation, You might find it helpful to read up on the basics below to give you a foundation. I include lots of biblical examples, plus real dreams.
The interpretation belongs to God
If you read my blog regularly, you will have gathered that I believe that dreams come from God. I have tested this theory out over many years of dream interpretation. This has several implications for understanding dreams. It means that:
- God is the ultimate authority on what our dream means.
- We will need to learn to listen to God’s Spirit as we seek out the meaning of the dream.
- Genesis 40:8, NASB And they said to him, “We have had a dream, and there is no one to interpret it.” Then Joseph said to them, “Do interpretations not belong to God? Tell it to me, please.”
I, and many other Christians, have found that when we hit upon the God-intended meaning of a dream, we get a witness in our spirit. This has sometimes been described as a ‘ping’ or an ‘a-ha’ moment. Look out for that Holy Spirit witness as you work through the following process.
Remember to pray before you start
So before you start trying to interpret the dream, it is good to stop and pray about it. here are some pointers:
- Ask God to show you the meaning He intended for the dream.
- Continue to pray and listen to the Holy Spirit at you work through the steps.
- Keep going until you have witness in your spirit that you have the right meaning.
Check out this article for prayers and preparation…
Dream interpretation – the 3 steps
Interpreting dreams is rather like putting together a jigsaw puzzle:
- First you start with the edge pieces to give the puzzle some shape
- Then you focus in on individual pieces
- Then you fit the pieces together to make the picture on the box (hopefully)!
I approach dream interpretation in a similar way. I have identified three main stages to the process; these steps form a cycle, and we may have to go round the cycle a number of times before finding the right meaning!
The three steps are as follows:
- Consider the big picture (like putting in the edge pieces)
- Zoom in on specific elements (like examining puzzle pieces)
- Can you relate it to real life (putting it together to make the picture)?
The process is like a 3 step cycle
In the rest of this article we will consider each of these steps in turn, and what is included in each stage.
When interpreting s dream it may be necessary to go round the cycle a few times.
It may not be necessary to go through all the steps every time. But they can be very helpful when you are first starting to learn. And if you are stuck on a dream it can be helpful to check every possibility, and go through the cycle a few times.
This process involves having certain details about the dream to hand. Check out my article below on what information to record, to make sure you don’t miss anything when writing them down.
Step 1: Consider the big picture
Getting a good grasp of the big picture of a dream is like doing the edges of the jigsaw puzzle to identify the shape – and it gives us a frame of reference for interpreting the dream.
By the end of this stage you should have a grasp of:
- The main story and setting
- Who the dream is probably about
- The likely source of the dream
Understand the main story
The first aim is to understand the main points of the dream and fix it in your mind. It might be necessary to read it through a few times to grasp it properly. You could try reading it aloud and then recount the story back as simply as possible. Picture the scene, and – if it is your own dream – relive it in your memory.
If the dream is particularly long, treat each scene as a separate dream. Otherwise, it can be impossible to get a grasp of the dream. I usually limit it to three or four paragraphs per notebook page, or 3 to 4 main points. If the dream is typed into an electronic notebook it is easy to copy it and break it down into shorter scenes when you come to look at it.
Give the dream a title
Choose a title that will help you remember the details of the dream itself. When you read the title, you want the dream to come back into your memory! I try to include key words that are unique to that specific dream.
Don’t be tempted to title the dream according to what you think it means, or you may have to change the title when you revise the interpretation (I know from experience!!).
Include some more details to make it specific. To illustrate this, here are some examples of titles from my dream journal this year. Each one of those titles brings back a memory of the dream itself:
- Yellow boats dangling over Niagara Falls
- Packing up the car after a blue boat trip
- Visiting our daughter in flat 599
Sometimes, as you get more experienced, the act of writing the title can give a clue as to the meaning, or at least be an early indicator.
Identify the dream setting
The setting is the backdrop to the dream, or the main action involved. It gives the dream a frame of reference. For example, it could be:
- The place where it happens
- The main activity (e.g. on a car journey, trying to get home)
- The main people you were with
In particular, if you have written the dream down, take notice of the opening sentence which often gives it away. For example, ‘I was in my childhood home doing…’, or ‘I was on a train journey to…’
The dream setting can metaphorically represent the real-life context of the dream and give an early indicator of what area of life the dream might be about. Here are some meanings for a couple of common settings:
- A place or building could represent the area of our life that it is about.
- Travelling in a dream could represent an aspect of our life journey.
Who is the dream about?
This is a good time to check whether the dream is about you or someone else. It is most likely about yourself – the dreamer.
Nearly all the dreams we have are about ourselves. In other words, they are about our own life or something we are involved in. It is easy, particularly when other people feature in our dreams, to assume that the dream is about them – but most often they are symbolizing something or reflecting an aspect of our own life.
Occasionally we find we are just observing something, rather than taking part in the dream activity. This is most common for prophetic people, or intercessors who regularly pray for others . But, unless we are very obviously not involved in the dream action, it is safe to assume it is probably about our own life. And even when we are observing something it could still be reflecting ourselves.
Unless you are very obviously observing and not involved in the dream action, it is safe to assume it is probably about your own life.
What is the main feeling/colour/atmosphere?
Finally, during this stage, it is good to determine where the dream is likely to be coming from.
Colour, feeling and atmosphere is very important in dreams. My experience is that dreams are like a window into the supernatural world. In actual fact, I believe that we can meet heavenly beings (both good and bad) in our dreams. We can receive communications from the spiritual world, and we can even meet God and have conversations with Him!
Like all thoughts and ideas, dreams can be broadly organised into coming from three sources:
- Dreams from a positive spiritual source (God)
- Dreams from our own soul (subconscious mind, will and emotions)
- Dreams from a negative spiritual source (the enemy)
Broadly speaking, dreams from God are usually bright or normal colour. Dreams from our own soul tend to be muted colour or confusing; sometimes it looks like there is a filter over the dream. Dreams from the enemy tend to be obviously black and white, or monochrome. Every type of dream is useful, as long as we know what we are dealing with.
I have found that my discernment is generally more accurate in my dreams that when I am awake. So take a moment to consider what you felt about the things in your dream. Consider the overall colour/atmosphere and what that indicates.
Step 2: Zoom in on specific dream elements
This step is like focusing in on specific pieces of the puzzle.
By now you should have a good introductory grasp of the dream. You may already have an idea about the meaning from completing the first step. If so, that’s great. But even if you think you know what it means, do continue with this step as a way of confirming the meaning.
This is the stage where we focus on the dream symbols and other details. By the end of it you should have a grasp of:
- What the dream symbols could represent
- Common and repeating themes
- Potential meanings of the dream
Brainstorm ideas for the dream elements
I normally start at the beginning of the dream and work through all the main symbols. This includes things like:
- People and names
I write my dream symbol notes electronically straight after the dream, so they are right there if I want to come back to the dream another time. I make a subheading called ‘notes’ under the dream, and then start writing down all my ideas.
I list each dream symbol down, one at a time. For each one, I consider lots of potential meanings: anything and everything I can think of. I look up meanings of things I don’t know like places, names, numbers and colours.
Questions to consider for each element
Here is a list of 10 clues/questions that are worth considering for each symbol:
- Is it positive or negative?
- Is it in the bible?
- Does it have a personal meaning?
- Does it have a cultural meaning?
- Is it a recurring or familiar dream symbol?
- What is the object used for?
- What is the object made of?
- What is its appearance/colour?
- Is it a wordplay?
- Carry out a search for more ideas
I wrote about each of these in much more detail, along with general advice on how to interpret the symbols in your dreams. You can find all this information in the following article:
For more about dream symbols…
Look for familiar dream symbols
As you become more practised at dream interpretation, you will become familiar with certain symbols and what they commonly mean. That can be a good starting point and speed up the process.
Also, if you interpret your dreams regularly, you will notice that certain symbols reoccur. When that happens, it is helpful to record them in a personal dream dictionary – as you will save a lot of time with future dreams.
Note down personal dream symbol meanings in a master list.
If you do this, then when that symbol next appears in a dream, you can look it up in your master list.
A word of caution though: Sometimes the meaning of a dream symbol changes or is used differently. So, even if you think a symbol is familiar, always check whether it still seems to make sense with your current dream.
Look for repeating themes
Dreams often repeat the same message several times using different symbols or illustrations.
So, once you have finished brainstorming ideas, you can look to see if there is any overlap or repeated meanings.
- Different scenes in a dream are often about the same thing, but providing extra insight, or saying it in another way. For example, one part may set the context, the next give an encouragement, and another give something to overcome. But not necessarily in that order!
- Often one part of a dream links into another part. When this happens it is like taking a magnifying glass to one particular area of the dream and then expanding that in a different part of the dream.
- Some elements appear in a dream simply to give us confidence that we have the right meaning. The different dream elements match up to confirm the interpretation.
Listen to the Holy Spirit
Listing ideas can feel like an academic exercise, so make sure to pray throughout this section. Stop periodically and ask God for His perspective. Note down anything that comes to mind and then check it out.
Also take note of whether any of the meanings jump out at you as you read them. That could be God’s Spirit highlighting it to you.
If you need help to think more creatively, read:
Step 3: Can you relate the dream to real life?
This step is like trying to complete the puzzle! If a piece is out of place, then the puzzle can’t be completed, and it won’t match the picture on the box. But if you’ve got it right then all the pieces will come together!
By now you probably have a better idea of what the dream might mean. But how does it relate to real life? How do you know you’ve got the right meaning? This can be the hardest part of the process!
It is rather like taking a map and trying to match it up with a geographical landscape so it can be used to navigate. We need to see how the dream story matches a real-life situation.
By the end of the section you should:
- Have an idea what life situation the dream could relate to
- Checked out your theory with the whole dream
- Written down an interpretation attempt
Factors to consider
This is where it is a great advantage to be interpreting your own dreams, because you know all these things! Consider the following areas:
- Can you relate the emotions to an area of your life?
Sometimes there are strong emotions in dreams. In those instances, stop and think about your life. You may be able to identify a situation where you feel the same emotions – so then you can revisit your dream with that situation in mind.
- Can you relate the basic story to an area of your life?
Go back to the simplified dream story, armed with the potential symbolic meanings that you have now discovered. Then, with those in mind, consider whether you can relate the illustration to any part of your life.
- What was on your mind at the time of dreaming?
Increasingly I am realising that God is often addressing the things that are on my mind, questions I am asking, or issues I am facing at the time of dreaming. I recommend making a note of these sorts of things when you write your dreams down. Then assume that your dream could hold the answer!
Check out your theory!
Once you have an idea what area the dream is about, then complete the puzzle: Work through the dream and see whether everything ties up now that you understand.
I have found from personal experience that God does not put things in dreams by chance. If we have understood the message correctly then everything will tie up and confirm it. In fact, that is why I love dreams as a way of hearing God It is frustrating while you don’t understand, but when you hit on the right meaning you know-that-you-know that God has spoken.
If it doesn’t feel quite right – then it probably isn’t! Don’t worry, it happens to me all the time. Pray some more. Go back round the cycle again – and try out a different idea.
If it doesn’t feel quite right – then it probably isn’t. Pray some more and go round the cycle again.
Record your interpretation
Once you think you know what the dream means, have an attempt at writing down an interpretation. Keep it simple; aim for one or two sentences. Make sure you think about why God gave you the dream, and include that in the interpretation.
This is vital, because otherwise you could forget what you thought – and all your hard work will be wasted. It also means you have to clarify the meaning, rather than just having a vague idea.
Summarize in a few sentences what you believe to be the main message of the dream and why God gave it to you.
I record my interpretation attempt straight after my brainstorming notes; I make a new heading called ‘interpretation’ and write it down there. If I’m not sure I’ve got it quite right yet, I still write down my interpretation, but make a note that it’s just my initial attempt.
I keep all of my ideas so I can jump straight back in if I want to revisit the dream in future. Sometimes I end up with a whole string of ideas until I finally understand the true meaning!
Conclusion and summary
In this article we have discussed three main stages of interpreting dreams, and what each stage involves. we have discussed lots of useful hints and tips, with links to other articles.
Here is a summary of what we have learned. (Click on the image below to view in downloadable pdf form.)
Don’t give up!
The most imprtant thing is to have a go! It takes practice and perseverance to learn the process.
Remember, a dream interpretation is not guaranteed – at least not straight away anyway! Sometimes the meaning only becomes clear later on – often in a flash of inspiration! However, none of your effort will have been wasted! Anything you do to think and pray about the dream will set you up to understand the dream when the time is right.
If you have written everything down during the process, it will be easy to come back to the dream in the future – and pick up where you left off – with the benefit of hindsight.
And – excitingly – if you have a genuine desire to learn and hear God through your dreams, then God will personally mentor you in the process!
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I hope you found this article helpful. If you want to know more, do subscribe to emails to receive regular dream interpretation tips.
The purpose of this blog is to provide biblical foundations for interpreting dreams and encourage others to make their own dream journey. I am primarily a writer and bible teacher – who loves dreams, and I hope you will be inspired to learn to interpret your own dreams.
It is not currently my aim to routinely engage in dream interpretations or provide training, except through writing blog posts. You can read my most up to date position on interpreting dreams here: Requests for dream interpretations.
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The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this article are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article. Jennifer Needham disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article.
10 simple clues for understanding dream symbols
How to understand dream symbols: 10 questions to help identify their meaning, with real dream examples – plus infographic.
Essential information to include when writing down dreams
Essential details to include when recording your night dreams – and why.
Understand your dreams: A bible-based introduction to dream language
Taking inspiration from the bible to understand the symbolic language of dreams, plus real dream examples.
- Dream symbols: Sun, wind, rain, storms, and other types of weather
- Why you don’t need a prophetic gift to interpret dreams
- Dream symbols: Gardens, plants, and flowers – and what they mean
- How dreams can help with renewing the mind
- Meeting God in your dreams