Seemingly out of nowhere, long-lost acquaintances can pop up in our dreams, causing a sense of bewilderment and unease. Does this mean that they are thinking about us? Perhaps it’s a sign that our paths will cross very soon. Unlikely! According to psychotherapists, dreams tell us more about our relationship with ourselves than others.
Many psychotherapists find dreams a useful tool for accessing the inner psyche. Dreams are a product of the unconscious mind, so they are not constrained by the rules and regulations of the conscious mind. As such, dreams can provide direct access to our worries, concerns, desires, and goals. Some people find it therapeutic to analyze their dreams and use their interpretations to guide spiritual growth.
So, if a specific person keeps popping up in your dreams, try not to read too much into their presence. Rather, analyze the dream as a whole to determine what it might reveal about your waking life. We’ll discuss how to analyze and interpret dreams, to help you understand why you’ve really been dreaming about certain people.
Dreaming About Someone Out of the Blue
According to Carl Jung, the people in our dreams rarely represent actual people.
Rather, dream characters are symbolic representations of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. For example, dreaming that a childhood enemy suddenly wants to be your friend is unlikely to reveal anything about their actual feelings for you.
Instead, dream analysts suggest that this (fairly common) dream signifies the dreamer’s newfound sense of self-esteem. The childhood bully is a symbol of weakened self-esteem, but because the bully has changed their behavior, this suggests the dreamer is less troubled by threats to their self-esteem in the present day.
Characters in Our Dreams Symbolize Emotional Experiences
In their book, ‘Dream Research: Contributions to Clinical Practice’ the authors discuss the importance of emotional experiences for dreams. They state that emotionally-charged waking events are likely to become the content of our dreams.
As such, the person you’ve been dreaming of may be symbolic of an emotional experience you’ve recently had in your life. For example, dreaming that a childhood bully wants to be your friend might suggest you’ve recently experienced feelings of confidence, empowerment, and, joy in an area of your life. Or, it could signal that you’ve ‘let go’ of the unpleasant emotional experiences of envy, disdain, or indignation in some aspect of your life.
So, when you dream of particular people and events, try to imagine them as symbols of emotionally-charged waking experiences. According to psychologists, poorly managed emotions may cause stress and mood disorders to develop.
This is why the literature on Emotional Intelligence and Emotion Training is so popular. If dreams are symbols of our emotional experiences, analyzing our dreams can shed some light on our emotional responses and provide us with the insight required to improve our emotional intelligence.
What Are Dreams?
There are four stages to sleep. Dreams tend to occur during the REM sleep cycle.
Babies and children spend most of the night in REM sleep, and the duration of REM sleep gradually reduces as we get older. An average adult who sleeps for 7-8 hours will spend about 2 hours in REM sleep per night.
The brain is highly active during REM sleep – compared to other sleep cycles. If you wake up during REM sleep, you’re more likely to remember your dreams. If you wake up during any other sleep cycle, you may be able to remember fragments of your dreams, but most will be forgotten.
If you are interested in analyzing your dreams, there are some techniques you can try to help you recall dreams more effectively. These are discussed at the end of this guide!
It’s not uncommon to dream about the same things or the same people, over and over again. Psychotherapists would argue that recurring dreams are the psychological equivalent of an overbearing mother nagging you to deal with your problems.
The Unconscious Mind
Have you ever traveled somewhere, only to find that you’ve completely forgotten the journey? Arguably, this experience of being on ‘autopilot’ confirms the distinction between the unconscious and conscious mind.
Alternatively, have you ever behaved in a way that seemed very out of character? Perhaps you felt an uncontrollable burst of anger, or suddenly found yourself very solemn at a party when you’re usually the life and soul. These experiences suggest that emotions from our unconscious mind can sometimes ‘leak’ into our conscious, waking lives.
Our conscious mind is monitored by a set of social and cultural standards that don’t apply to the unconscious mind. We could say that the unconscious mind embodies what we think, and the conscious mind embodies what we ought to think.
But why should the unconscious mind be so concerned with dreaming about other people? As mentioned, there are no ‘rules’ governing the unconscious mind so that it can think freely about people, things, and events. Other people (or ‘characters’) are common features in our dreams because they’re able to play out our true thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
For example, let’s say you’re having a recurring dream about the death of a family member, and you’re worried that the dream is an omen of the future. A dream analyst would prompt you to understand the character’s death as symbolic of your own unconscious feelings and emotions.
Death is often a symbol of rebirth or progression. Dreaming of the death of a loved one might signify deep-seated fear or excitement about moving onto the next stage of your life. In this way, analyzing the characters in our dreams can provide access to our unconscious mind.
Do All Dreams Mean Something?
Not everyone is convinced by the notion that dreams are meaningful experiences! Some people argue that dreams are totally random and hold no value for personal development. Even psychotherapists would agree that some of our dreams hold very little symbolic meaning.
Let’s assume you’ve spent all evening with a friend, and you find yourself dreaming about them that night. According to Jung, these are “day residue” dreams. In these dreams, you’re just re-living and re-processing the events of the day.
Day residue dreams may have some symbolic meaning too, but this is not always the case. Most psychotherapists would argue that if a dream is unsettling, disturbing, or intriguing, this indicates there is some symbolic meaning worth exploring.
Below we’ll discuss how to record and analyze dreams using a journal. If you’re interested in understanding your dreams, it is a good idea to record all dreams (even those that appear meaningless!) This can help you determine the triggers and a common theme.
The Function of Dreams
As mentioned, dream analysis can be used for personal development. Specifically, analyzing the characters in our dreams is likely to reveal something about our inner psyche. According to Jung, dreams are valuable because they help us achieve the following:
- They expose pain in the unconscious mind, sidestepping the ‘defense mechanisms’ we use to obscure emotional pain.
- They reveal problems in our waking lives and suggest ways to resolve them.
- Dreams may reveal our deepest fears or regrets.
- Dreams express unguarded emotions (positive and negative).
- They reveal conflicts between conscious and unconscious mind.
- Dreams help us design and ‘think through’ goals for the future.
- They can help us to understand ourselves better (self-actualization).
- Dreams can help us make sense of, or disassociate from, traumatic experiences
Why Am I Dreaming So Much?
As discussed, dreaming suggests there’s a conflict in the mind that needs resolving.
Because of this, people suffering a lot of stress are likely to have more dreams. Moreover, if you frequently wake during REM sleep episodes, you’re more likely to remember your dreams so it can appear as if you are dreaming a lot more than usual.
Pregnant women, women going through menopause, and people with sleep apnea are likely to wake frequently throughout the night, so are more likely to wake up in the midst of their dreams. There are also other factors that can make dreaming more likely to occur:
- An inactive lifestyle
- Being involved in a new creative project
- Eating too close to bedtime
- Sleeping for longer than 8 hours
- Psychoactive substances or withdrawal from substances
- Experimenting with meditation
- Emotional turbulence, such as a breakup with a partner
How to Interpret the Characters in Your Dreams
According to Jung, dream exploration is a very personal process.
He agreed that there are some universal dream symbols, but that these should only be used as a guide because each person’s understanding of these symbols is unique. As such, dream analysis is more thorough if it’s self-guided.
The following steps will introduce you to the process of Jungian dream interpretation, so you can try It for yourself.
Keep a Dream Journal
If you want to try to analyze your dreams in any depth, you’ll need to start a daily dream journal. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but some people find it helpful to use a diary planner with separate pages for each day of the week.
This makes it easy to keep track of the patterns and potential triggers for your dreams. For example, you might notice that you always seem to have more dreams on a Monday, when you’re particularly stressed about work.
Start by recording every dream you can remember. It’s best to do this first thing in the morning when the dream is fresh in your mind. It’s important to record as much information as you can remember, even if it seems like nonsense. When recording your dreams, you might find it useful to ask yourself the following questions:
- What images did I see?
- Did I hear any sounds?
- Who was I with?
- How did I feel about the other characters in my dream?
- What was the location of the dream?
- How long did the dream seem to last?
- Have I had this dream before?
Focus on Emotions
Dreams are usually vivid emotional experiences. Moreover, the content of our dreams can reveal something about the emotionally-charged experiences we’ve felt in our waking lives.
When journaling, summarize the fundamental emotions of the dream in one or two words. We often wake up feeling some residual emotion from our dreams, so try to capture the essence of the emotion as soon as you wake up.
Determine the Symbolism in Your Dreams
Once you’ve determined the characters, location, and storyline of your dream, make a list of what these factors might symbolize.
There are some common dream symbols that seem to make a lot of sense for most people. For example, most people relate easily to the notion that drowning signifies a loss of control. If you are not sure what your dreams might symbolize, you could start by consulting a dream dictionary for a list of common motifs. We’ll also discuss some common symbols of dream characters towards the end of this article.
Remember to be cautious with dream dictionaries because characters in our dreams often symbolize different things for different people. For example, dream dictionaries would suggest that dreaming of our mother can symbolize our nurturing and caring qualities and may suggest we are feeling a sense of responsibility for something in our lives. However, not everyone perceives their mother to be nurturing or caring, so, to them, dreaming about their mother could mean something quite different.
Common dream symbols are a good starting point for exploration, but it’s best to try and determine exactly what the content of your dreams means for you. This, in itself, is part of the therapeutic process so requires some self-determined effort.
Connect the Appropriate Symbol With Your Inner Self
Once you have established a list of potential symbols, try to determine which one is most appropriate or relevant to your own life. According to Jung, dreams will not tell us things we already know about ourselves, so we should work hard to try and understand their meaning. As such, don’t settle for the first meaning you decipher. Rather, list multiple possibilities and go with the option that seems most challenging.
Remember, the people in our dreams often represent exaggerated versions of our own personalities or temperaments. Let’s assume you keep having a recurring dream about your strict and unpopular teacher. Perhaps this teacher has become a caricature of the bossy and domineering aspects of your personality which are negatively impacting your personal relationships.
As you can see, symbols in our dreams can become hard to face up to because they might reveal aspects of our character that we’re finding difficult to acknowledge. However, it’s important to try and be as open-minded and honest as possible, even if your dreams are providing a harsh critique of some aspect of yourself.
In his book ‘Inner Work’, the author cautions against using dreams to ‘stroke the ego.’ Rather, try and use them for self-development.
Act on the Interpretation
If you are using dream analysis to guide self-improvement, then it makes sense to do something to solidify the insight you’ve gained. There are many actions you can take, and the action you take will depend on what you’ve learned from your dreams.
Let’s assume that your dream about a strict teacher has shed light on the imbalanced relationship with your younger sibling and your tendency to boss them around. Perhaps you’ve determined that your identity and ego depend upon feeling superior to your younger sibling, but you’d like to tackle this aspect of yourself to improve your relationship with them. To solidify this interpretation, you might do one of the following things:
- Have a conversation with your sibling about the issues that have been raised.
- Write a letter to the part of your ‘identity’ that needs to feel powerful and superior.
- Consider alternative behaviors to reflect the insight gained from your dreams.
This process could be helpful for stopping recurring dreams because you’re signaling to your unconscious mind that something is being done to tackle the issue.
Below, we’ll explore some of the common dream symbols to help you get started with dream analysis. Remember these should be used as a starting point because they won’t apply to everyone!
Dreaming of Strangers
As mentioned, the people in our dreams often symbolize aspects of ourselves.
To dream of strangers might suggest that you feel a ‘stranger’ to yourself. This might indicate that, in your daily life, you are suppressing or hiding part of your identity. Perhaps this has led to deep-seated frustration, which is being expressed by your unconscious mind.
If you dream of being inside a stranger’s home, this may suggest that you’re misguided and you’re trying to decide exactly where you belong. It may indicate that you feel fraudulent or out-of-place in your career or home life.
Dreaming of Someone You Haven’t Seen for Years
We often dream about things that started as strong emotional experiences in our lives.
Think about the person you’re dreaming of – did they stir up a significant emotional response in you a long time ago? If not, perhaps they embody an emotional experience you’ve had. For example, perhaps this person you’ve been dreaming of was a childhood friend you made at a sports club.
Let’s assume you secretly hated attending this sports club, but you did it for your family out of a sense of duty, so you learned to associate your friend with this sense of duty. Now that you’re dreaming about this person years later, it might suggest that this ‘sense of duty’ has become relevant in your life again and is causing you issues.
Dreaming of a Love Interest
‘Residue dreams’ are the least symbolic of all dreams because they are mostly a regurgitation of the conscious thoughts and experiences we have during the day. As such, if you constantly see and think about your love interest, it’s probably no surprise that you’re dreaming about them.
Try to analyze the details of the dream to see if any other symbolism can be established.
Dreaming of Famous People
Remember, Jung said that the people in our dreams represent elements of ourselves. Think about the characteristics of this celebrity. Are they abrupt? Are they an exhibitionist? Are they honest?
Their qualities might reveal something about how you see yourself. Celebrities are often seen as brave and successful so dreaming about one might suggest something about your own drive and determination, or the pressures you are feeling to perform.
Dreaming of Family
Dreaming about your family usually hints that you’re feeling secure and loved – though this depends on your own interpretations of family life. Dreaming of conflict within the family is more likely to suggest a fragmented sense of self than a fragmented family.
Dreaming of an Ex-Partner
If you are dreaming of a childhood partner, this may suggest that you are reminiscing about the stress-free life of a child, and you’d like to gain some of that innocence back in your life. To dream that an ex-partner is giving you advice about future relationships suggests that you may be concerned about making bad relationship choices.
As Jung suggested, we should be careful about reading into our dreams too literally. Dreaming about an ex-partner does not necessarily suggest that you’d like to rekindle the relationship, because this is probably something the conscious mind would conclude on its own. Rather, try to determine whether your ex-partner symbolizes an aspect of your personality, character, or behavior.
How to Remember Dreams
- Psychotherapists suggest that to remember our dreams, we should always remind ourselves of our goal. Just before you fall asleep, tell yourself that you’re going to try hard to remember your dreams.
- Keep your dream journal on a bedside table and reach for it as soon as you wake up in the morning. If you wake up in the night and you know you’re unlikely to get straight back to sleep, it might be worth recording your dreams when they’re fresh in your mind.
- Sometimes we recall fragments of our dreams later in the day. It’s tempting to think we’ll add these thoughts to our diaries when we get home, but by that time we’ve usually forgotten them again. Try to write down any fragments of your dreams as soon as they are recalled.
- If you aren’t able to recall enough details to write down your dream, try drawing the dream instead. Drawing the characters and location might help to jog your memory.
It’s a good idea to try and record dreams on a daily basis. The more dreams we have access to, the more valuable they become for facilitating personal development. So, next time you find yourself dreaming of someone and you wonder what their presence means, try to delve a little deeper to determine if their presence has any symbolic meaning.