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What Those Inappropriate Dreams Really Mean

'Sex' dreams are more about the emotional catalyst than the actual players in the scenario.
Image: Couple kissing
Colin Anderson / Getty Images

Ever wake up in a sweat after having an, uhm, inappropriate dream about someone in your life you really shouldn't be thinking about in that way? While we can't exactly say that it happens to all of us, a study done by the University of Montreal did find that of the 3,500 participants surveyed, about 20 percent of women and 14 percent of men have had sexual dreams about a person who was "off limits" to them in the waking world.

If it's happened to you before, you know how awkward it can be to have to face the star of your dream in real life — and that uncomfortable moment is only magnified if that person happens to be your boss or your brother in law. But do we have any control over the things we dream about? What’s the catalyst behind these dreams about people in our lives who we know are not viable options? And what does it mean for us when we dream them?

A sex dream about your boss has more to do with how you view yourself.

Here's a look at our dream process, why certain people appear in these subconscious scenarios while we sleep and a few tips for getting to the bottom of the real life reasons behind them.

How We Dream

Though there's still much to learn about the way we dream, Dr. A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College says there are a few theories that can help explain what goes on in our heads at night.

"Researchers know that 90 percent of dreaming occurs during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep," she says. "We have about 90-minute sleep cycles with REM sleep taking up more of that cycle the longer we sleep, which is why we usually remember the dreams we're having right when we wake up (during longer REM cycles)." In terms of what's driving the trajectory of our dreams, Marsden says the areas of the brain that are most active are the ones that house our emotions. "Specifically, the limbic system, responsible for dealing with both good and bad emotions," she says. "The least active part of the brain during our dreams is our frontal lobes, which are responsible for higher order functioning and thought. This might explain why our dreams are often not very logical."

When we can look beyond the content and explore the meaning underlying our dreams we can use them as a fascinating portal towards self-exploration.

As for how our daily reality impacts our dream's subject matter, Dr. Harold Jonas, a psychotherapist practicing in Florida, says that though we try to operate within the scope of what we know as "normal" in our waking hours, once we hit the dream world anything goes. "During the day we have restrictions on thoughts and impulses," Jonas explains. "The majority of us try to 'do the right thing' and stay within the behavior patterns recognized as the societal norm. But at night— everything changes. The brain may focus on a particular thought it had during the day — no matter how fleeting — and it potentially becomes a focal point for a dream." And according to Jones, these instances can really run the gamut. "Did you pass a movie poster of your favorite actor? Did a co-worker's hand brush yours reaching for a report, did something act as a trigger? Couple that with real life events, such as feeling stressed out by your spouse, not being valued at work or any real world daytime trigger, and you’re apt to start having physical, psychological and even chemical reasons for having sexual dreams which you may feel are with inappropriate people."

Aside from the dream world offering us a literal escape from the day-to-day restrictions we place on ourselves, Marsden says that sex dreams in particular actually occur more often when we're feeling confident.

"Interestingly, we are more likely to have positive sexual dreams when we are feeling good about ourselves or when we are in a general good mood," she explains. "Dreaming, in general, reflects the person's waking states, concerns, worries, desires, etc. Our dreams reflect how we are feeling. Our brain also has a way of using our dreams to act out scenarios that are unlikely or unrealistic in our day-to-day lives. An individual who desires someone who is 'off limits' may experience sexual dreams about that person because it’s the brain’s way of experimenting with the idea without actually following through with it."

What Those Racy Dreams Really Mean

In terms of the most frequently reported star of these dreams, the boss scenario tops the list.

"Many experts say dreams about having sex with your boss are the most common — and sometimes the most disturbing," Jonas says. "After a racy dream you wake up in the morning and have to go to that staff meeting like nothing happened."

Often people symbolize other people in a dream, and it is really more about the emotions that you are experiencing.

However, this doesn't necessarily mean you're pining after your superior — more likely, it's the power that he or she symbolizes that you crave. "Before you go thinking that you may subconsciously be secretly sexually attracted to your boss, realize that a sex dream about your boss has more to do with how you view yourself. It’s a dream about your own emerging power, professional abilities and leadership skills. You may be feeling ready to take charge and move your job to the next level compared to where you are now professionally."

What does it mean when the tables are turned, and you're the one in the position of authority, seducing your intern or friend's younger sibling? Marsden says the answer lies in the context of the dream. “Focus on what was happening in the dream,” she says. “Were you teaching them and guiding them throughout the sexual acts in the dream? Most likely, this is our desire to be dominant in bed with someone we would feel comfortable with, someone we know."

Another common dream scenario that can be troubling is the one where we're getting it on with our friend's significant other. But clinical psychologist Dr. Alexis Conason points out that what might be lurking underneath the meaning of this one is actually not an attraction you've worked to bury, but rather, a symbol of something else that might be happening in the relationship between you and your friend.

"Often people symbolize other people in a dream, and it is really more about the emotions that you are experiencing in the dream," Conason explains. "So a dream about having sex with your best friend's husband may have more to do with a general sense of guilt that you are experiencing about another situation, boundary violations or competition."

What about if the object of your affection is that best friend, not his or her significant other? Marsden says that because we spend so much time with our close friends, it's not surprising that they might show up in our dreams this way — no matter how bizarre it can be to experience this. "Most likely, because we spend a lot time with our friends, it is not uncommon to have sexual dreams about them," she says. "It is our brain’s way of trying it out. If we’ve ever consciously considered what it would be like, we are more likely to actually have the dream. However, sometimes the dreams do come out of nowhere — but that doesn’t mean that your unconscious mind didn’t consider the possibility!"

Using Your Unconscious Mind to Your Advantage

So what can we do, if anything, to try and put a stop to the dreams that are making things awkward in our waking hours?

Dreams are our mind's way of working to resolve conflicts and issues that we aren't able to resolve in our waking hours.

Marsden says that taking a hard look at the person who's showing up in your dream and what they symbolize will help bring insight. "Examine why you think you might be having these dreams in the first place,” she says. “What is drawing you to that person? If you are dreaming about someone else and currently in a romantic relationship, take a hard look at your current romantic relationship. What is missing? What is it about this other person that your current partner might be lacking?"

Conason agrees that digging deeper into the "why" behind the dream scenario you're dealing with can help. "Dreams are our mind's way of working to resolve conflicts and issues that we aren't able to resolve in our waking hours," she explains. "The best way to stop having unwanted recurring dreams is to accept the dreams, try to view them as important communications from yourself and work towards understanding what they are trying to tell you. Working to resolve conflicts during our waking hours lessens our need to work through them in our sleep. When we can look beyond the manifest content of our dreams (the superficial who, what and where of our dreams) and explore the meaning underlying our dreams we can use our dreams as a fascinating portal towards self-exploration."