Although we dream anywhere from two to five times per night, we rarely recall our dreams. According to Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist and author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, people have their "most vivid, hallucinogenic, narrative, memory-laden dreams" during the REM stage of sleep. We don’t always remember them, though, because we may not be waking up at the right time, Walker revealed to Business Insider. Still, most of us remember at least a few dreams — and some of them may be downright confusing. This is especially true when we’re dreaming of someone other than ourselves.
Since the days of Aristotle, experts have been looking into the meaning of dreams. But, it’s not exactly a hard science. "Like the wonderful diversity of dreams, there is a diversity in thinking about dreams," Meir H. Kryger, a physician and professor at the Yale School of Medicine, penned in an article for Psychology Today. "There may not be a right answer." Nevertheless, today’s leading experts have offered their best guesses on the meaning behind specific dreams. Here’s what they think your subconscious is trying to tell you when you have a dream about another.
Dreaming about someone you know
Carder Stout, a licensed psychotherapist and dream analyst, believes dreams play a significant role in our lives. "There is a shared understanding among therapists in my field that dreams are compensatory, meaning that they are not arbitrary and meaningless but have a distinct intention and purpose, which is to bring material from the unconscious into consciousness," the expert revealed in an article for Goop. Of course, much of a dream’s meaning depends on what the dream was about.
When you dream about people you know, Stout explained that you’re not actually dreaming about them. Rather, the people in your dreams actually "represent aspects of yourself." Stout explained further, writing, "If you dream about a close friend, then think about their strongest character traits. If you think of them as being humble then you are dreaming about the humble side of yourself." Yes, even in our dreams, we’re all a little self-obsessed.
Dreaming about someone you used to know
Dreaming about your best friends may be more about you than them, but what does it mean when you dream about someone you used to know? As it turns out, this kind of dream might not be all that deep. "What happens is, when you fall into sleep, those thoughts and images and data that are spinning in your brain prior to sleep — those things are going to continue to spin throughout the night," clinical psychologist John Mayer (no, not that John Mayer), explained to Elite Daily.
So, say you had a dream about an acquaintance from high school — someone you haven’t thought about for years and years. While the dream may seem totally out of the blue, it’s possible that you saw someone earlier in the day who reminded your brain of your former friend. This may have happened without you even realizing it, but your mind stored the information regardless. "We have no control of how all that information you receive during the day might show up as you sleep," Mayer revealed. "That’s why it can sometimes make people uncomfortable."
Dreaming about someone you used to date
Even if you’ve gone no-contact with your ex, that person may still occupy a part of your brain — especially while you’re sleeping. "We all have a cast of characters who play in our dream theatre. And all of us have (at least) one ex with a recurring role," Kelly Sullivan Walden, a dream expert and author of Love, Sex, Relationship Dream Dictionary revealed to Bustle. "This is partially due to (mental) habit, partially due to what your ex represents to you, and partially due to an attempt to heal unresolved issues (perhaps the reason for breakup)."
Although dreaming about your ex can be disconcerting — especially if you’re in a relationship with someone else — these dreams don’t necessarily mean you want to get back together. Jennifer Freed, a family behavioral specialist, said it could mean that "you are making your best effort to own the parts of you that you gave over to them, whether good or bad, and that you have an opportunity to become more whole."
Dreaming about someone you don’t know at all
Even creepier than dreaming about an ex or someone you once knew is dreaming about someone you don’t know at all: a stranger. It may surprise you to learn that about 50 percent of the people we dream about are strangers. That is, people who are unfamiliar to us. An older study (via Psychology Today) found that these strangers tend to be male. Patrick McNamara, a neuroscientist, summarized the study in an article for Psychology Today, writing, "In short, male strangers occur very often in dreams and they invariably signal physical aggression." He continued: "…Male strangers appear to be a ‘code’ for aggressive impulses that are being processed in memory."
McNamara revealed that this is further proof that dreams do not necessarily mimic our everyday lives. "Instead they appear to be about other matters, matters (and characters) that we cannot capture adequately with images derived from everyday life," he added.
Dreaming about losing someone
If you’ve ever lost track of someone in a dream, you may awaken with an awful sinking feeling in your stomach. This type of dream is "unsettling," Carder Stout, licensed psychotherapist and dream analyst, confirmed to Goop. "We tend to be afraid that we will never find them again," the expert added. But, what does it mean? Well, according to Stout, the meaning changes slightly depending on who exactly is the person getting lost.
"If you dream that you are losing your child, it refers to ignoring those childlike qualities in yourself," the dream analyst revealed. In your waking life, he suggested loosening up: "…play more and stop being such a grown-up." If the person being lost is not your child, but your spouse, Stout said "there may be a need for you to address the masculine or feminine energy that pulses through you." Either way, though, losing someone in your dream signifies losing a part of yourself.
Dreaming about someone dying
Dreaming of death may leave you feeling frightened upon waking. But, try not to worry. It’s not a bad omen. "It does not… suggest that [a person] will actually die imminently," Chicago-based psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber told HuffPost. "People who have dreams about death tend to be those who are entering or exiting an uncertain phase or period in their life," he continued. "It could be a potentially life-changing event that creates anxiety and fear of the unknown."
Lauren Lawrence, host of Celebrity Nightmares Decoded and dream analysis writer, told Bustle that dreaming about death represents the desire to "terminate something" — not someone — in your life. This could be a toxic friendship or an unfulfilling job. You will want to pay attention to who is dying in your dream, though. Are you dreaming of someone with whom you have some deep-seated issues? If so, you’ll likely want to address those feelings in real life.
Dreaming about someone chasing you
Chasing dreams — or nightmares — tend to involve "great amounts of anxiety," Michael R. Olsen, a dream and unconscious intelligence expert, researcher and speaker, revealed on his site. As scary as these dreams may be in the moment, they’re not always as bad as they seem on the surface. "If another person, more people or even animals are chasing you, these can all be illustrations of sides or elements of yourself, something you either will not acknowledge, or simply [haven’t] yet realized you contain," he explained.
As an example, Olsen illustrated that a woman might dream of being tailed by another woman, but, upon turning around, sees an unassuming street musician. "She might be a symbol of a more loose or free, potentially creative/musical side of you, that you currently are hiding in waking life," he revealed. Yep, the person you are running from may actually be a version of yourself that you should run to.
However, this isn’t always the case. If you find you’re being chased by "a very dominating" person, Olsen said this may be a trait you possess, are embarrassed about, and thus run away from in your dreams.
Dreaming about someone criticizing you
Your dreams contain many versions of you. To explain this concept, David Bedrick, a speaker and counselor trained in Jungian psychology, recalled the words of the 20th century Spanish poet Antonio Machado in an article for Psychology Today. "I am not I," he wrote. " I am this one walking beside me whom I do not see."
In a dream about being chased, for example, you are both the one being chased and the one doing the chasing. This doesn’t just apply to those sorts of dreams though. The expert explained further, writing, "…Let’s say ‘I’ am being criticized by someone in a dream; I am not only the one criticized or hurt, I am also the one who is being critical." This may call for some changes in your real life. "Maybe I need to be less judgmental of others or myself," Bedrick mused, "or perhaps the dream is advising me to be more consciously critical of ideas and people I accept."
Dreaming about someone cheating on you
It can be unsettling to dream about your partner having an affair, but it’s actually a fairly common dream, Michael R. Olsen, a dream and unconscious intelligence expert, researcher and speaker, wrote on his site. "When we dream that our partner is unfaithful, it’s frequently a (perhaps unconscious) feeling in ourselves that our relationship with our partner may be experienced as less safe and secure during the time that we have this dream," he explained.
"Our partner may in the waking life be ‘unfaithful‘ in ways other than with another man/woman," he continued. It could be that work, kids, or any number of things are dominating your partner’s time and causing you to dream about infidelity. A dream about your partner cheating could also be a sign that your relationship has gotten stale or that you’ve started to bicker more often. Olsen said dreams about cheating "rarely reflect real infidelity," but you should still view the dream as a red flag and take the opportunity to assess your relationship in real life.
Dreaming about someone pregnant
Just as dreams about death can symbolize the termination of something and not someone, dreams about pregnancy can represent the start of something. Although more women than men have dreams about pregnancy, both sexes have experienced pregnancy-related dreams. "At its core, this dream is about creativity," Ally Mead, a dream analyst, told HuffPost. Yet and still, there is a difference between having a dream about being pregnant yourself versus someone else.
"If you dream of being pregnant, you are likely craving time to be creative, or ‘dreaming up’ a new and exciting creative project that will come into existence down the line," Mead explained. "This could be as small as a home-based renovation project or a large-scale artistic work." If you dream about someone else being pregnant, however, it’s probably not steeped in personal growth. Rather, the expert said it’s a sign that "something has been left inside, unexpressed or undone."
Dreaming about someone in your family
If your mom has been invading your dreams, you’re not alone. In her book Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life, certified dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg revealed that mothers appear in dreams, on average, about once a week. But, she may not represent your real mother. "Basically, Mom in a dream is the manifestation of all that you would typically associate with the word mother: comfort, nurturing know-how, [maternal] discipline, even fertility." Fathers, too, play a symbolic role. Your dad in you dream reflects "your inner knower, decider, disciplinarian, and financier."
When you dream of your own young child or children, though, you don’t need to dig too deep to discover the hidden meaning. Loewenberg revealed that your kiddo "will likely be playing his or herself if they are still under your care, in which case they are a part of your dream because there is a current waking concern or issue with the child and your dream is trying to help you with it." Loewenberg recommends reflecting on the events from the day before the dream to determine why you might be dreaming about your little one.
Dreaming about someone strangling you
Though terrifying, dreams about strangulation and suffocation are oddly common, dream and unconscious intelligence expert, researcher, and speaker Michael R. Olsen, revealed on his site. If you dream that you yourself are being strangled by someone — or even yourself — it serves as "a very clear indication that you in a some way — in what you say, think or do — limit yourself in a way that is ‘killing you’ (that is to say mentally, because you lack vitality)," according to the expert.
Just as you may figuratively say something is "suffocating" you in real life — be it a needy friend or a demanding job — you may dream about literal suffocation. "There are numerous things — within yourself and in your surroundings — that can ‘strangle’ you and prevent you from unfolding and developing," Olsen explained.
If you have recurrent dreams of being suffocated, though, you should consult your doctor. According to The Neurology Center for Sleep Disorders in Maryland, some people with sleep-related breathing disorders, like sleep apnea-hypopnea syndrome (OSAHS), have reported experiencing recurrent dreams about suffocation and even drowning.
Dreaming about someone who is famous
Sometimes, you’ll wake up from a dream feeling relieved that it wasn’t real. On the flip side, when your alarm goes off while you’re popping champagne and sharing a limo with Robert Downey Jr., you’ll probably want to keep on snoozing.
In an interview with Reader’s Digest, certified dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg explained why you might dream about meeting someone famous. She revealed, "The message that celebrity brings to you can be found in the title of the song or maybe the lyrics or the character you know them from. There’s something your subconscious identifies from it that applies to you and your life right now." Perhaps you and Iron Man are more alike than you thought.
If your dream about the celebrity goes beyond just meeting the A-lister and ventures into the getting it on territory with the celebrity, the meaning of the dream is actually much the same. The expert expounded when speaking to Prevention, saying, "Celebrities in our dreams often represent some part of ourselves we want recognition and applause for. To figure out what that is, use the same formula [highlighted above]."
Dreaming about someone who isn’t alive in real life
"A lot of people dream about people who are no longer alive," Michael R. Olsen, a dream and unconscious intelligence researcher, expert, and speaker, revealed in an article on his site. Some people dream about a person they recently lost and Olsen revealed that is "a way of coping with grief." For others, especially those who are having trouble accepting the loss, these dreams won’t come until the person is ready to say goodbye.
Not every dream about a lost loved one is comforting, though. Depending on the dream and the person, dreams of the deceased can be frightening. Either way, though, these dreams can also be "a symbol of your relationship with that person (and as a result, how that relationship [has] an influence on your life), or the deceased might be a symbol of an aspect you possess that reminds you of that person." According to Olsen, the lost person may also serve as "commentary on how you live your life" — as if looking on either approvingly or disapprovingly of your life choices.
Dreaming about someone cutting your hair
When your head hits the pillow, you probably don’t expect to have dreams about someone cutting your hair. But, as it turns out, it’s not all that uncommon. After consulting numerous dream dictionaries, GQ reported what these hair-related dreams seem to mean, and, apparently, they have nothing to do with wanting to change up your look.
They can instead symbolize losing control or strength — "kind of like biblical hair-god Samson," the publication explained — and can be brought on by stressful situations in your professional or personal life. DreamDictionary.org described dreaming of someone cutting your hair to mean feeling "brought down by someone." However, this type of dream doesn’t always signify losing your power. In fact, the site went on to reveal that the dream can point to a new beginning of sorts, as it also symbolizes "chopping off the past, getting rid of those dead ends to start [anew]."
Dreaming about getting it on with someone
If your sex dreams have you confused, you should know that these dreams — like most dreams — are symbolic. Janet Brito, a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist, explained to Healthline, "When sex shows up in your dreams, break it down into a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and focus on experiencing the feelings in your dream and being curious about where the energy of the dream leads you, specifically of how the dream ends." She went on, "This will reveal to you the emotional need that your sex dream is trying to have you fulfill in waking life."
Of course, the meaning may vary depending on who you’re getting it on with in your dream. Dreaming about an intimate encounter with a stranger could literally just be about sex. "It may just be that your libido is high," Healthline revealed, "and you’re not getting your needs met." On the other hand, if you dream about having sex with, say, a teacher, you may not actually be hot for teacher. Instead, it could signal that you’re looking for attention from someone with a position of authority, Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist, said.
Dreaming about harming someone
There are few dreams more unnerving and mystifying than the ones in which you’re cast as a killer. Once you put aside all the guts and gore, though, dreams about killing someone can become less terrifying and more telling.
According to DreamMoods.com, dreaming about killing someone can mean you’re "putting an end to an old habit and a former way of thinking." As such, you may encounter this dream if you’re trying to quit smoking. Anger is also an underlying theme of these types of dreams. The site explained that the dream can point to "repressed aggression" toward someone in your life or even at yourself.
Interestingly, a group of researchers discovered that those who dreamed about committing murder were actually found to be more aggressive in their waking lives. "Emotions in dreams can be much stronger than the emotions in waking life," Michael Schredl, lead author of the study and head of research at the Central Institute of Mental Health’s sleep laboratory in Germany, clarified in an interview with Live Science. Still, he advised, "If you do dream about killing, look at your aggressive emotions in waking life."
Dreaming about someone you work with
If you’ve ever had a dream about one of your coworkers, you may have thought they made their way into your slumber simply because you see and talk to them frequently in your waking life. As it happens, though, dreaming about someone you work with isn’t as much about them as it is about you.
Dreams about coworkers follow what Kelly Sullivan Walden, author of I Had the Strangest Dream: The Dreamer’s Dictionary for the 21st Century, calls the dream "rule of thumb" – that "everybody and everything is an aspect of you" in a dream. She explained further, telling Fast Company that dreaming about your boss could mean "you’re connecting with the part of you that feels empowered."
There’s also a lesson to be learned from thinking about which coworkers hopped into your sleeping-mind palace. "What two or three adjectives would you use to describe them?" Sullivan Walden mused. "Then consider that you are connecting with that part of yourself. Your subconscious is saying that you want to become more of that."
Dreaming about the same person repeatedly
Chances are you’ve had a recurring dream at some point in your life. Clinical psychologist John Mayer revealed to Elite Daily that around two-thirds of people are thought to experience the phenomenon of having the same kind of dream more than once. "The dreams are usually not exactly the same each time," the expert explained, "but the recurring theme is usually something in your head that is somehow unresolved."
While more than six in ten people may experience dreams with recurring themes, it is more unusual to dream about the same person night after night, Traci Stein, health psychologist, told Elite Daily. Don’t freak out if you’ve had the same someone making a nightly appearance, though, as it may carry a similar meaning to other recurring dreams.
Stein advised jotting down the details of this kind of dream in order to discover its theme. "That could either tell you something about what you feel about the person that you may not consciously want to address, but that a part of you thinks it’s important to take a closer look at," Stein explained.
Dreaming about someone who is angry with you
If you’ve ever had a dream about someone getting angry with you, you know how uncomfortable it can be. While you may not want to parse through every mean thing your friend yelled at you in anger, there’s actually a lot that can be gleaned from doing so.
"It’s super important to pay attention to what’s being said to you in a dream because it’s really something you’re saying to yourself," dream analyist Lauri Loewenberg told Bustle, adding, "So whatever is said to you should give you some good and honest insight into whatever it is you’re angry about." Certified dream interpreter Claire Harrison agrees. She noted that you could be "angry with an aspect of yourself at a subconscious level" if someone’s upset with you in your dream.
The identity of the person who’s mad at you may also matter. According to the Loewenberg, if a particular friend pops up in your slumber and is angry with you, it may mean you’re feeling guilty about not being there for them as often as you feel you should.
Dreaming about physically fighting with someone
Even if you can’t picture ever becoming violent in your waking life, your brain is perfectly capable of conjuring up those images while you’re asleep. If you find yourself in a physical altercation in your dream, it’s not necessarily a red flag pointing to unchecked aggression.
Dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg explained to Bustle that these kinds of dreams can just mean that you’re "beating yourself up" over a mistake or some other problem you’re faced with in your waking life. You might be mad at yourself for something you did and are simply taking out your anger in the dream.
It’s not unusual for dreams to stem from a place on anger. "In my experience and research, it’s the third most common emotion in dreams — the first being frustration and the second being fear," Loewenberg revealed. Still, if you’re having recurring dreams about getting into physical fights or taking out your anger, she recommends taking action. "Figure out what it is and find a healthy way to process it so you can release it," the expert explained. Otherwise, she said, "your dreams will continue to nag you" about it.
Dreaming about someone drowning
As horrifying as they may be, dreams about drowning are common. According to an Amerisleep survey of over 2,000 people across the United States, nine percent of people admitted to having recurring dreams about drowning. While dreaming that you are the one drowning can mean you’re feeling overwhelmed, seeing someone else drown in your dream indicates that "you are becoming too deeply involved in something that is beyond your control," according to DreamMoods.com. "Alternatively, it represents a sense of loss in your own identity," the site noted. "You are unable to differentiate who you are anymore."
In this type of dream, you may also envision yourself coming to the person’s rescue, which could mean you’ve "successfully acknowledged certain emotions and characteristics that is symbolized by the drowning victim." Successfully helping someone who’s drowning in your dream can point to your ability to accept help. However, if you are unsuccessful in your rescue attempt, that may mean "you are numb from fear." The site advised looking into areas of your life where fear may be interfering.
Dreaming about cheating on someone
If you’ve ever dreamed about being unfaithful to your partner, you should know that it doesn’t necessarily point to some subconscious desire to have an affair in your waking life. According to DreamMoods.com, the dream can denote dissatisfaction with your partner, but, more often than not, dreams in which you’re cheating on someone symbolize "feelings of self-guilt and self-betrayal." And this may not even be within the context of your romantic relationship, but instead just a time "where you were being dishonest," the site explained.
The meaning of cheating dreams can also vary depending on the person with whom you’re having an affair. Dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg believes dreaming about cheating on your partner with someone you know could mean you’re prioritizing something — not necessarily someone — over your relationship. Or, if your dream is about cheating with multiple people at once, Loewenberg told Bustle, "It may also mean that there is some sort of confusion in how and where you distribute your energies. You may be going into too many directions and as a result, are spread too thin."
Dreaming about riding in a car with someone
According to dream specialist Cathleen O’Connor, vehicles and modes of transportation are "common dream symbols." The expert detailed in her book The Everything Law of Attraction Dream Dictionary: An A-Z Guide to Using Your Dreams to Attract Success, Prosperity, and Love, "Dreaming about driving your car, or traveling in a bus, train, or plane, usually symbolizes where you are going in your life." However, the meaning of the dream varies depending on who’s behind the wheel.
While driving a car can denote a feeling of control, riding in the car alongside someone who is driving can mean the opposite. "If you are a passenger, you don’t feel in control of where you are heading or are not yet comfortable with the direction your life is taking," O’Connor wrote.
You’ll want to try to recall where you were sitting in relation to the driver as this is also telling. The expert continued, "If you’re sitting in the back seat, perhaps you are depending on another person to get where you want…"
Dreaming about someone breaking into your house
Fifteen percent of the 2,000 Americans polled in a 2020 survey by Amerisleep reported having a recurring dream about intruders breaking into their homes. Depending on where you live, you may have this concern in your waking life, but often these dreams are not literal.
An intruder in a dream "is often an inner psychological figure who may represent some shameful or unwanted part of ourself who is breaking into our consciousness," psychiatrist Richard J. Corelli wrote for Stanford University. "It is about to break into our awareness and then we will have to confront this unwanted aspect of ourself." The expert continued, writing that the person breaking in is a culmination of the worst parts of ourselves that we can become more aware of them and learn to accept these "vitally necessary parts."
Having dreams about someone breaking into your home may be frightening, but Corelli believes they’re worth thinking about in waking life. "The intruder in the dream represents some part of ourself that we have kept outside our awareness for too long and now needs to be let in," he explained.
Dreaming about marrying someone
What does it mean when wedding bells are ringing in your dreams? Well, much depends on whom you’re marrying. If you have a dream about marrying someone you wouldn’t dare marry in your waking life, don’t freak out. Dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg told Bustle that you’ll want to "ask yourself what stands out about them to you." She continued, saying, "Maybe they are always volunteering and doing charitable work. That would likely be what they represent to you, in which case your subconscious is proposing the idea of … being more charitable in your own life."
Even if you’re already married in your waking life, you could have a dream that you’re getting married again — and to someone other than your real-life partner. While this can hint toward dissatisfaction in your relationship, Loewenberg explained that it’s more often about the dream figure’s qualities. If the person is someone you know in waking life, think about their outstanding qualities. The dream expert said that "at least one of them is a quality you need to commit to ’til death do you part.’"