Do you view your dreams from a subjective or objective lens?

You might be tempted to think that the characters who appear in your dreams represent real-life people from the external world. For example, if you dreamt of an old friend, you might assume the dream is indeed about that childhood friend. Of course, who else could it represent?

Actually, there is a simple Jungian approach to dream work that allows you to better understand your dream world and may even transform the way you view your dreams forever. Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology believed that people or dream characters that show up in your dreams might not always be about someone external to you.

The Jungian View

According to Jung, a childhood friend that shows up in your dream is quite likely to represent a part of your own personality or psyche that you associate with this childhood friend. For you perhaps this friend might signal your joy, determination or sense of adventure (it depends what associations you hold about this friend).

Same applies with other dream characters. Have you ever considered that a dream about a famous person you admire might actually represent an aspect of your own personality? Perhaps an ignored talent you hold, such as your people skills, way with words or your stylishness.

Dream characters therefore deserve closer inspection because more often than not they are symbols or metaphors representing a part of you. This is what Carl Jung believed, and for many, the Jungian approach is arguably one of the more reliable approaches to dream interpretation.

The approach is also known as a subjective interpretation, and viewing our dreams with a subjective lens allows us to take personal responsibility. It’s based on the principle that all elements of the dream are aspects of the dreamer’s psyche, a view also held by Gestalt therapists.

However, sometimes, dreams can actually present an objective function too. For example, a dream about an entirely different person could indeed be communicating to us something we weren’t aware of before, perhaps the dynamics and relationship between you and this person in your waking life. 

So although both subjective and objective dream characters can each occur in our dreams, how can we tell the difference and decide whether these dream characters are pointing to our own personality and psyche or whether they directly signal information about real people in our outer lives?

Understanding Dream Characters: How to Identify Objective vs Subjective

Firstly, let’s get a handle on the difference between subjective and objective dream characters.

Subjective Dream Character Lens

  1. A subjective dream character is likely to be someone from your past who you haven’t seen for a while or someone not particularly close to you in your day-to-day life. (Although this isn’t true in every single case.)         
  2. However, you can ask yourself: Does this character appear somewhat vague, fuzzy or subtle in your dream? Is this dream character strange and incongruent in some way -different to what he/she might be like in waking life? Is there a relatively strong emotion attached to this person? If you answered yes to most of these then it’s likely to be a subjective dream character - part of your personality.
  3. Next, determine the associations you feel about this known or unknown person. Make a list, e.g. confidence, career happiness, kindness, anger, inner strength, wisdom, indecision.
  4. Then consider, what new or helpful information could your dreaming mind be telling you about this part of yourself? Bear in mind other aspects of the dream, dialogue or other actions taking place.

Objective Checklist Dream Character Lens

  • Once you’ve used a subjective lens, try looking through an objective looking glass.
  • Is the dream character someone actively in your life: Your partner, family member, colleague or close friend? Or is the character from a movie or programme you watched recently?
  • Is the dream character super realistic – like a photograph or very similar to your waking-life experience of them?
  • Next, cross-reference your dream with your waking life – are there any parallels? Is this character replaying an event or foretelling a future possibility?
  • Determine what new or helpful information your dreaming mind is telling you about this person.

Although he was clear that sometimes dreams are indeed about other people, Jung believed that most dream images represent aspects of our own inner world and so it’s best to begin working with your dreams assuming that these dream characters are indeed representing a part of your personality. Starting with a subjective lens could reveal something new and surprising rather than assuming it’s external to you.

Leah Larwood is a writer and runs workshops in dream work and poetry therapy: