Dreams are filled with people. Some you know, others are strangers. Sometimes, you know exactly who they are despite the fact that they may look nothing like the person they seem to be representing. And while dreams feature a myriad of settings, objects, themes, creatures – the list is endless – the bulk of our dreams contain people more than any other type of image.
There is an adage in dream work that everyone in your dreams is a part of you. While this is not the only way to approach the people who appear in your dreams, it is the only way that I work because for me it is the perspective that offers the most value. This is not to say that dreams that involve people close to you in your life are not reflecting the relationships you have with them. They are. However, the dream work that I am drawn to is entirely about self-investigation. Therefore, considering every person who appears in a dream as representing a part of your own personality is the best route to go. I call these individual representations Character Aspects, where each character represents an aspect of your personality.
Have you ever noticed how often we use language to describe how we feel that goes something like, “part of me feels one way and part of me feels another?” This is a great example of how we organize our inner experience in a compartmentalized way. Dreams operate on the same principle, but exclusively through the language of symbols. It is in this way that the people in your dreams are symbolic representations of different aspects of yourself.
I’ll give you a few examples from my own life. A professor of mine from graduate school was very analytical and, at times, harshly critical – that’s the polite version to describe him. If he showed up in a dream, I know that he would be a Character Aspect of the critical part of me. On the other side of the spectrum, I have a close friend who is one of the warmest, most affectionate individuals I have ever known. If she were to appear in a dream, she would be a Character Aspect of my own capacity for warmth and affection.
Let’s use an example from a real dream of an actual client. A woman has a dream that her high school English teacher is standing at the back of the conference room in which the dreamer is soon to give a presentation at work. When asked for three adjectives to describe the English teacher, the dreamer replies “negative,” “harsh” and “demanding.” It was easy for her to understand and even express to me how nervous she was about this upcoming presentation. But it was by examining this person as a Character Aspect of herself that she was able to relieve some of her anxiety by understanding that she is her own worst critic.
The better you know someone from your life, the harder it may be to envision them as operating as a part of your own personality. In these cases, it’s best to attempt to stay very detached in your thinking. You might consider how someone else might describe such a person in order to reach a more objective sense of them as a Character Aspect of yourself.
Of course, the dream world is just as populated with people you have never met before, if not more so. When this is the case, use whatever information you have from the dream and any details you can remember about them. The less stuff offered by the dream, the more work you will have to do to discover what Character Aspect might be represented by these strangers.
Sometimes this is not at all easy to do, especially if a Character Aspect represents elements of your personality that you don’t readily relate to. I ran into this with a client who so resisted this idea that it took every ounce of my patience to guide her through the process. She was a woman in her late twenties who had a dream about an older, female boss she worked for many years prior to when she had the dream. When picking the three adjectives, she came up with “aggressive,” “powerful” and “unethical.” It was clear to me that the merciless boss-lady from the dream was a Character Aspect of the part of the dreamer that is also capable of being ruthless and unconcerned with the moral constructs of right and wrong.
Let me tell you; my client didn’t like this process one bit. In her waking life, this young woman certainly does her best to do the right thing in every situation and would hardly be considered ruthless. Ironically, while railing against the idea I was asking her to consider, she became quite ruthless in her defensiveness. She finally relented and understood what I was trying to convey when I explained to her that all things live inside of us; the good as well as the seemingly bad.
To be truly effective with your dream work, you must be willing to explore all sides of yourself. Remember that the unconscious mind knows the totality of who we are: Even the parts that are ugly, unpleasant and hidden away from our conscious awareness. This is called The Shadow and brings us to the next concept that is one of the most powerful and important parts of effective dream work.