Do you have vivid dreams? Most highly sensitive people do…and our dreams are a powerful resource of wisdom and insight.

Years ago, in graduate school, I had a nightmare in which someone I knew and loved turned on me and tried to kill me. I woke up terrified. After half a dozen of these disturbing dreams—each featuring a different “murderer, always someone I knew well in “real life”—I realized I needed help. I began seeing a counselor at the student health center.

I didn’t fully understand these dreams for a long time, and I didn’t know until later that vivid dreams are a hallmark of high sensitivity. But I did get one thing loud and clear: an important message was struggling to get through.

In order to understand that message, I made a commitment to learn the language of my dreams. Over a period of years, I recorded and pondered dozens of dreams. I marveled at their creativity, and their specificity. I discovered my “dream director” has a wicked sense of humor. She stoops to groaner puns. She loves vivid metaphors. And if I ignore her, she will send a nightmare to get my attention.

But she never, ever wastes my time. Some people assert that dreams are simply the recycled garbage of the unconscious mind. My dream journals offer overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even dreams that appear fragmented, trivial, or irrelevant on the surface contain useful insights once I unpack them.

Do you understand the language of your dreams? If you are a vivid dreamer, like most HSPs, but don’t know how to tap this source of wisdom, I strongly encourage you to learn more. This article will give you a solid start.

7 steps I follow to tap the wisdom of my dreams

  1. I keep a dedicated dream journal by my bed.
  2. Within a few minutes of waking up, I write down my dreams. I capture both the details and the overall feeling, and I note the context. If I can, I analyze the dreams right away. Otherwise I schedule time later that day to ponder them.
  3. I pull out and list the key words, symbols, people, actions, and events in the dream. With each symbol, I ask, “What significance does this symbol have for me personally, at this time?” Then I look up the symbol in my dream book to see if the book’s definition resonates or adds depth or clarity.
  4. I summarize the meaning of the dream and identify the theme. The theme becomes the title. (I make the titles large, using bright highlighter pens in varying colors: this way I can easily skim the book and see patterns over time.)\
  5. I ask myself, “Is there action I need to take, given what this dream is showing me?” Sometimes, if I don’t fully understand the dream, my next action is to ask for another clarifying dream.
  6. I take the action, if one is called for.
  7. If more questions arise, I write them down in my dream journal the next night, before I go to sleep.

To show this process in action, I’ll tell you about three dreams I had during a two-week period when my stress level was through the roof. As you’ll see, my dream director got my attention with a nightmare, before settling back into her more typical vivid metaphors and visual puns.

With each dream, I followed the seven steps above. Here are the results of that process of interpretation, which unfolded over two weeks. (Note: The symbols sound very clear written down like this. They weren’t, at first. I had to sit with each one, look it up, and sense for resonance with the different shades of meaning each symbol could have.)

Dream #1: Off the road at 80 miles per hour

Dream #1 description: I’m driving on a highway, going 80 miles an hour. The road curves. I lose control and drive off a cliff.

Context: I’m finalizing registration and new materials for a new weekly Focusing class, scheduled to start in two weeks; I’ve committed to create a 1500-word article each week for eight weeks for an online course for a big healing website; I’m writing a weekly article for this newsletter; and I’m working with clients as usual.

Key symbols: The car is mine, indicating my own body: I’m driving it hard. Going off the road indicates a pace that feels out of control to me. “80 miles an hour” is an expression I’ve always used to indicate an overwhelming pace: it reinforces the “out of control” message.

Summary and analysis: It’s true, I am feeling very stressed trying simultaneously to do all these projects at once. I’m driving myself dangerously hard. I feel out of control.

Action: I will try to cut back over the coming days.

Dream #2: Distracted meeting at the co-op grocery

After Dream #1, I struggled to follow through on my commitment to cut back. Everything I was doing seemed important. My stress level remained extremely high. So I asked for more guidance and got Dream #2.

Dream #2 description: I’m sitting in a meeting for my co-op grocery. I haven’t done what I was supposed to do to prepare for the meeting, and I’m struggling to focus on the meeting because there is a concert going on right outside the door. The performers are a trio: two women and a man so tiny that he has to set his violin on the floor on its side and reach up to turn the pegs. In the meeting, I’m upset to realize I am wearing a bright red watch that is not mine. I’m afraid the owner will think I have stolen it.

Context: Same as Dream #1

Key symbols: The co-op meeting represents a venture requiring many people to cooperate. The color red symbolizes doing and taking action. A red watch that is not mine seems to indicate the time is not right for something I’m doing. I’m not sure what that something is. The concert symbolizes some kind of harmony, in a performance that is happening; I’m not sure what it, or the very small violinist, represents.

Summary and analysis: I’m not sure what the two conflicting things are, but I get that I feel conflicted between two things (the meeting and the concert), and that the timing is wrong in some way. I don’t get the full significance of the trio or the small violinist.

Action: I will ask my dream director for more answers. Where is the conflict? What is the trio about? What does the violinist symbolize?

Dream #3: Puzzle in a plastic box

Dream #3 description: I’m starting my first class at a college located in a house. I’m trying to figure out an intricate puzzle and have to take it out of its clear plastic box to be able to manipulate it properly. I can’t find my phone anywhere.

Context: Same as Dream #1

Key symbols: The house represents my consciousness or mind state. College symbolizes an issue of higher-level meaning or understanding. The intricate puzzle is my dilemma about all these projects, and the box symbolizes some kind of thinking that is boxing me in. The phone holds messages, but I can’t hear them because I can’t find it.

Summary and analysis: Putting this together with the earlier dreams, I realize I’ve been telling myself I can and must do all these projects at once while prioritizing the creation of the online course. But I see this belief is boxing me in, stopping me from “getting the message” about cutting back. Parts of the co-op grocery dream that weren’t clear before are now fitting into the picture:

    • The online course (created for another company) is part of a complex plan which would require a major investment of time on my part and the cooperation of many people to succeed….and all that for an uncertain return.
    • I can’t find time to do the work for it and I am really stressed about that
    • The work for that course has to happen on someone else’s timeline, and that timing is wrong for me
    • I am already performance-ready with the Focusing class I’m about to teach
    • I’m “thinking too small” about that (the tiny violinist!)
    • Instead of seeing the Focusing class as a distraction, I need to focus on it and to “think bigger” about that opportunity

Action: I will contact the course development specialist at the healing website and postpone creation of the course for them until a year from now…or perhaps indefinitely.

“Getting the message” = relief from stress

These dreams were instructional, showing me the limitations of a certain viewpoint. After the third one, I finally “got the message.” I accepted I simply couldn’t do all these projects at once. I wrote to the online course creation director that day, and withdrew from the project. My stress level dropped instantly. I’ve experienced this shift many times after sitting with my dreams.

Some dreams, though, are purely spiritual. I had one of those a few days ago. During a walk earlier that day, I found myself weeping. I missed $my dad. I was struggling to take in the reality that his physical body was gone. That night I had a dream:

I’m in the kitchen of the house I grew up in. I’m in a state of wonder and amazement because my dad is standing, walking around, straight and tall. We go outside. The sun is shining and the sky is a deep, bright blue. We stand together and gaze at a beautiful emerald green field of grass that stretches as far as the eye can see.

The bright colors, the vividness, and the sense of peace identified this as a spiritual dream. I awoke feeling comforted, knowing that while my dad’s frail body is gone, the essence of him is whole, strong, and at peace.

Only later did I remember the card taped to our refrigerator. It’s a painting of a green field and a blue sky, with a quotation from the poet Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

What could be more reassuring and comforting than to imagine my dad in that field? I bow in gratitude to my “dream director.”

Photo: © 2023 Emily Agnew

Note: this article originally appeared on November 14, 2016. It has been edited and updated\

Note: The photo of my dad’s hand featured in the March 7 newsletter was actually taken by my sister Elizabeth. Thank you Lib!