The Freudian Symbolism in Your Dreams

According to Freud, what is really lurking beneath the surface of your dreams?

Posted Jan 01, 2018

Sigmund Freud/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Sigmund Freud/Wikimedia Commons

Everyone is interested in dreaming—in my introductory psychology course, it is always one of my students’ favorite topics.

But do dreams really mean anything? 

Psychologists are genuinely divided over the function and meaning of dreaming. Some psychologists think that dreams are nothing more than the result of random brain activity that occurs while we are sleeping, while others accept the perspective of people such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung that dreams can reveal a person’s deepest unconscious wishes and desires.

In a nutshell, psychoanalysts such as Freud and Jung believe that we disguise disturbing impulses by substituting more acceptable symbolic objects to stand in for the latent content of our dreams.

Freudian Dream Symbols

Freud wrote about dreams in many different places, most notably in his book The Interpretation of Dreams. According to Freud, the number of things represented by symbols in dreams is not great: The human body, parents, children, siblings, birth, death, nakedness, and a few others.

The person as a whole is often represented in the form of a house—houses with smooth walls are men, and those with projections and balconies to which one might cling are women. Parents appear in dreams as kings, queens, or other highly respected persons; children and siblings are symbolized as small animals or vermin.

Birth is almost always represented by some reference to water: Either one plunges into water or climbs out of it, rescues someone from water or gets rescued from water (indicating a mother-like relationship to that person). Death is replaced in dreams by taking a journey; nakedness is symbolized by clothing, especially uniforms.

The Knight's Dream, Antonio de Pereda, 1655/Wikimedia Commons
Source: The Knight's Dream, Antonio de Pereda, 1655/Wikimedia Commons

The richest collection of symbols, however, is reserved for the sphere of sexual life. According to Freud, the great majority of symbols in dreams are sex symbols. The number three is a symbolic substitute for the entire male genital, whereas the penis alone is represented by long and upright objects such as sticks, umbrellas, poles, trees, or the Washington Monument. It can also be symbolized by objects that can penetrate the body and cause injury—think of knives, daggers, lances, swords, and firearms (especially revolvers). Also substituted for male genitalia are objects out of which water flows, such as faucets and fountains, or objects that can be elongated such as telescopes and collapsible pencils. In the words of the old song by the folk singer Melanie, anything that is longer than it is wide can be a phallic symbol.

The extraordinary characteristic of an erection (in which the penis raises itself against the force of gravity) results in symbolic representation by balloons, airplanes, missiles, and rockets. In some cases, the entire person becomes a representation of the sex organ if the person pictures himself flying. Other less obvious male symbols include reptiles, especially snakes, and fish, hats, and coats.

The female genitals are symbolically represented by objects which enclose a space capable of being filled by something—for example, pits, caves, bottles, boxes, trunks, jars, suitcases, pockets, ships, the mouth, churches, and shoes. Wooden and paper objects are symbols of women, whereas breasts are represented by apples, peaches, and fruits in general.

Jewels and treasure may represent a beloved person, while sweets frequently stand in for sexual delight. Masturbation may be disguised as sliding, coasting, or tearing branches off of trees.  Dreaming of one’s teeth falling out (or being pulled) indicates a fear of castration as a punishment for masturbation. Sexual intercourse may be symbolized by an array of scenes and interaction between male and female symbols.

As much fun as all of this, always keep in mind that a Freudian analysis of dreams is not simple; it takes many years of training to understand the factors that need to be taken into account to conduct a proper interpretation of dreams.

And after all, as Freud himself once said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

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