One way I interpret a dream symbol is by exploring its attributes. I like to come up with two or three characteristics of the person, place, or thing in real life and explore what those characteristics mean on a symbolic level. There are, however, complex dream symbols that are comprised of multiple symbols. Figuring out what that complex symbol means takes special care.

If this were a dream image, it would be a complex symbol because you'd need to interpret the mask, dove, and light breaking through the night sky. "Released"

If this were a dream image, it would be a complex symbol because you’d need to interpret the mask, dove, and light breaking through the night sky. “Released”

Creative Commons License “Released” by Rainbow Gryphon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Background is my own (see link for credits)
Mask from anoldent
Dove from Ian Burt

Interpreting Complex Dream Symbols

The sort of symbols I’m talking about combine two or more separate symbols. Let’s take a simple example. Let’s say you dream you’re driving a white pickup truck recklessly down the highway. When we break this down, we find the following symbols:

  1. Pickup truck
  2. The color white
  3. Reckless driving
  4. Highway

Each has its own characteristics and needs to be explored separately before the complex symbol can be understood.

The first step to interpreting a complex symbol is to break it down, as we did with the white pickup truck above. Think of it as pieces of a puzzle. The complete puzzle is the image in the dream, but what pieces make up the puzzle? For each piece, explore one to three characteristics it has in real life and what that characteristic might be telling you symbolically. Focus at first only on extracting meaning from each separate piece.

For example, let’s play around with the symbol of the pickup truck. It’s a vehicle, so it’s telling you something about how you’re progressing in some situation. A pickup truck is used to haul things around, which can symbolically show emotional baggage or emotional burdens. Another association that may or may not speak to you is the name pickup. This makes me think of the expression “pick-me-up,” which refers to something that can relieve stress. (This also goes along with the function of a pickup truck, which is to relieve you of a load.)


If a complex symbol has more than two pieces, you might want to work through it in writing, especially if you’re just beginning to learn how to interpret your dreams. It can get very confusing trying to juggle multiple characteristics in your head.

Strive to eliminate as many possibilities as you can when you examine each piece of the complex symbol. This is where knowing the real-life situation that the dream is referring to can really help. Some characteristics will stand out as more relevant to it than others.

For instance, in the pickup example, let’s say the situation was some conflict you had at work with your supervisor the previous day. You lost your cool and so did he, which has created tension between you.

Now, we can certainly argue that losing your temper can come from emotional baggage from the past. For instance, people who were constantly criticized by their parents tend to get defensive when other authority figures criticize them. But barring this kind of past circumstance, the characteristic of a “pick me up,” i.e., relief from the tension with your supervisor, is perhaps more relevant here.

Once you have some ideas of meanings for each piece of the complex symbol, you can start putting meanings together. Doing this will further help you cancel out possible meanings because some just won’t be consistent with others. For instance, the pickup in our example is white. White is a color for cleansing, purification, and illumination. This suggests that the pickup is trying to cleanse you of something harmful. This would especially be true if the pickup has nothing in the back.

Example of Interpreting a Complex Dream Symbol

The Dream

I’m trying to control a mischievous boy but nothing I say does any good. I have a pair of flimsy red slippers that he gets hold of. He decides to turn my slippers inside out so that the sole of the slipper is hidden inside the clothing part that wraps around the foot. In doing so, he breaks the heel of one of them so that I can’t wear them anymore. Note that these slippers are very large, much too big for me. I get very angry and say I’m going to tell on him.

The complex symbol we’ll be working on is the red slippers. Let’s start by listing the different parts to it:

  1. Slippers
  2. The color red
  3. Large size
  4. Inside-out
  5. Broken heel

Slippers: Any shoe draws attention to the feet, which we put on when we walk around. They therefore refer to progress or our ability to progress. Shoes also protect our feet. These shoes are flimsy. Even the name suggests that they won’t easily stay on the feet. Slippers also don’t protect our feet well from the elements. From all of this, we can say slippers represent progressing on an unstable foundation (because you can easily fall in them) that won’t give you much protection, which was very relevant to the real-life situation the dream was guiding me on.

The color red: Red can represent positive things like passion and energy, but it can also signal a warning. Given that the slippers aren’t a positive symbol, red as a warning is probably the most relevant here.

Large size: This further emphasizes the instability of the slippers. We can also say when something’s too large, it implies you’re trying to take on too much, i.e., it’s “too big on you.” Although it’s a characteristic I listed when putting together this complex symbol, I set it aside because this particular characteristic didn’t have much to do with the real-life situation of the dream.

Inside-out: When we turn something inside-out metaphorically, we analyze it. We see into its true nature. Turning slippers inside-out also distorts their shape, which can symbolically show something that I’m not seeing clearly or have the wrong ideas about. Both were relevant to the real-life situation of the dream.

Broken heel: Something that’s broken is something that’s not whole and needs repair. In this case, it’s also unusable. We can also say, at least in certain situations, that something broken has been “cracked open,” symbolizing some insight. In the case of these red slippers, other parts of the complex symbol show that whatever the slippers represent is no good to me because it needs to be repaired.

Piecing these characteristics together, we can see that these slippers (which are large, red, and broken) represented how I could progress in my life at the time I had the dream. The foundation of the situation was unstable, broken, and in need of repair. I needed to carefully analyze how to proceed next so that I didn’t fall on my face, so to speak.

When I had this dream, I’d decided that it was time for me to become more social. My abusive past has taught me how to isolate myself better than it has taught me how to connect with people. There’s a lot I need to learn. The dream was warning me that I needed to approach this challenge differently than I had in the past. I had to connect with people in a totally different way if I wanted the connections to be meaningful.

Complex dream symbols are rich symbols. There’s no need to get overwhelmed by them. Start by working gradually through each part of the complex symbol. Then bring characteristics together that make sense in the context of the real-life situation the dream is about. It’s worth the effort it takes to understand these complex symbols because they often give you crucial insights into what’s really going on and what to do about it.