Freud, in his seminal book, The Interpretation of Dreams, notes that a dream is the representation of a wish.  The rest of a dream is the enjoyment of the wish or the undoing, covering up or distortion of that wish.

Nightmares, as Freud believed, cover up of a forbidden wish.

Our dreams are also influenced by the occurrences of the things that go on in a persons life throughout the day (Work or interactions), the environment around the sleeping person (For example, feeling trapped because one is trapped in their blankets) and the bodily experiences of the person while asleep (Like dreaming of urinating because the dreamer’s body needs to actually urinate.).

To look at an example,  Freud writes of a man who had fallen asleep after the death of his son, who had been laying in the next room by candle light.  Freud writes, “[a]fter a few hours’ sleep, the father had a dream that his child was standing beside his bed, caught him by the arm and whispered to him reproachfully: ‘Father, don’t you see I’m burning?’ He woke up, noticed a bright glare of light from the next room, hurried into it, and found that the old watchman had dropped off to sleep and that the wrappings and one of the arms of his beloved child’s dead body had been burned by a lighted candle that had fallen on them” (7.1.2).

The dreams occurs, according to Freud, because the man likely saw the flash of light from the fire through closed eyelids.  His son standing beside him was a wish fulfilled –to see his son alive for a moment longer.

If you have an interesting dream, you may benefit from asking yourself the following questions to gain insight and understanding about its meaning:

  1.  Does the dream remind you of anything or anyone? Sometimes the first thing that comes to mind is a clue to what the dream is about.
  2. To look for the hidden wish, ask yourself, what is the first part of the dream? 
  3. What feelings come up for you when you suspect a forbidden wish is represented in the dream?  Guilt? Shame? Embarrassment? Anger? Uncomfortable feelings can also be hidden from day to day life.
  4.  Have there been any recent significant life experiences or interactions with others that were upsetting, meaningful or evocative?  Does it seem like the dream could be related to those experiences?
  5. Are there any parts of the dream you can’t remember?  What are they? The forgotten parts of a dream can often be another way one hides forbidden wishes.
  6. Is there anything unusual in the dream that comes to mind? A number? An expression or phrase?  A dream may seem absurd yet there is a clue hidden in the dream to it’s meaning.

Finally, further consideration must be given to those that dream about traumatic experiences.  Naturally, it is difficult to argue that anyone would wish to relive trauma from their past.  One way to look dreams of past trauma is that the dreams are a representation of a wish to master the trauma in a way that it could not have been mastered in real life.