If you’ve ever woken up from a deep sleep realizing you’ve had a steamy dream about someone “off-limits” in your life, you know it can dredge up all kinds of uncomfortable feelings. After all, you don’t feel an attraction to your sibling’s spouse or your boss IRL, so why the heck would you dream about them?
Before you panic, know that it’s definitely common to experience romantic or sexual dreams about someone you don’t consciously have an attraction to. A 2007 study of 3,500 participants done by the University of Montreal found that roughly 20% of women and 14% of men copped to having sexual dreams about someone they’re not “supposed” to fantasize about, be it a relative, a colleague, or even a totally platonic pal.
When it comes to the nitty gritty of dreams and what they mean, there are still many unknowns, as psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist Dr. Lee Phillips tells Scary Mommy. But first, a quick refresher on dreams. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the most commonly held belief among experts is that dreams help us consolidate and compartmentalize memories from real-life experiences, playing out like a mini-movie in our minds during the active periods of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Different parts of the brain work together to create the dreaming process, serving as an imagination buffet for your brain to feast on scenarios real and fake, while the brain’s different neurotransmitters (aka chemical messengers, such as dopamine) are what make dreams feel vivid and strong — for better or worse, or should we say weirder.
According to Phillips, “Dreams can represent the unconscious desire of fulfillment, or they can represent internal conflict of our past and present experiences. They can also represent aspects of your future you may fear or feel uneasy about (i.e., an important work deadline or exam).” Unfortunately, that means a lot of unpleasant real-life people and experiences will likely pop up in the subconscious state of your slumber.
“If a person has experienced trauma from natural disasters [or] physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, it is quite common to have recurring dreams or nightmares of the trauma. People who may appear in these dreams can be from your past, people who you may find physically/sexually attractive (i.e., a secret crush), and unfortunately, those related to any past or current traumas.” Of course, you can also dream about famous people, acquaintances, the cashier at the grocery store, people you’ve never met, and people who don’t even exist — all this to say there might not be any deeper meaning to who’s got a starring role in your sexy dreams.
Phillips notes that sexual or romantic dreams are “very common,” adding that it’s “difficult to explain as to why you are having dreams about people you would never consciously think about romantically.” While you might be harboring a secret crush, he notes that the dream is likely more representative of what the relationship means to you, rather than feelings for the specific person. In the case of a boss, “It could mean that you are seeking approval from someone in charge. For example, you may want your boss to give you a promotion, or for them to validate you for the fantastic job you did completing a task.” In the case of a relative, it could mean that the person has qualities you admire, or you subconsciously wish you were closer to them — albeit in a platonic way.
Dreams also offer up a rare, unfettered opportunity for your imagination to run wild, allowing your brain to create scenarios that might not gel with societal norms or expectations you experience during waking hours. So if you’re experiencing stress at home or at work, your brain might take inspiration from something totally non-sexual, such as a chat with a boss or a text from a relative, and turn it into something steamy.
It might feel awkward to then have to face the person IRL after dreaming about them sexually, but those icky feelings might even serve as further confirmation that you genuinely don’t feel a real-life attraction to that person. “Dreams tend to take their own course of action,” says Phillips. But ultimately, he says “a dream is just a dream.”
If you are bothered by the contents of your dreams, or if they’re messing with your mental health or ability to sleep soundly, Phillips recommends checking in with a trusted therapist, who can offer a safe space to discuss your dreams free of shame or judgment. “Trying to practice proper sleep hygiene, such as practicing guided sleep meditations before bed at a consistent time in the evening, can be helpful.” Your doctor can help you make any lifestyle adjustments that might help promote sounder sleep, as so many things can impact your z’s and prevent you from scoring the rest you really need. Plus, no one but you ever has to know what (or who) you’re dreaming about, so there’s no need to fret or feel embarrassed in the slightest.