If someone I know appears in a dream, what is going on?
This is a large question, of course, and any answer will depend on what dream theory in general we subscribe to. In the tradition we’re looking at, which basically starts with Freud and Jung and has been continued and developed since (most notably perhaps in Hillman’s early work around The Dream and the Underworld), one thing is clear: if someone I know appears in a dream, it is a mistake to suppose this episode is actually “about” that person. That would mean to take the dream literally, and it would lead us nowhere.
So the first move is to become aware that such an appearance of someone I know is a metaphorical expression (to “see through” it, in Hillman’s phrase), and to start a process of figuring out possible figurative meanings. In other words, we assume an attitude that deliberately discards the idea that this is about the person I know, because by definition that is the one interpretation (the literal one) we’re not interested in.
With imagination any question of objective referent is irrelevant. The imaginal is quite real in its own way, but never because it corresponds to something outer.
Patricia Berry, Echo’s Subtle Body, 45.
It is perhaps worth stressing that this is a stance we have to actively take; it is an interpretive decision. As such, it is based on our preceding adoption of some dream theory, or class of dream theories. Only after we have subscribed to the notion that dreams are imaginal contents and therefore metaphorical in nature, we can then take interpretive decisions consistent (or compatible) with that idea. Methodologically, then, we have made an assumption first, and the interpretive course then derives from it as a consequence.
This is not to say, however, that this move is an arbitrary one. Given the background of Freud’s and Jung’s observations, it is in fact rather plausible. The line of thought starts with the observation that people generally, in their everyday dealings with other persons, have simplistic and often crassly mistaken ideas about them:
Just as we tend to suppose that the world actually is as we see it, we also naively suppose that people are as we envisage them. […] Although the possibility of broad deceit is many times bigger here than with sense perceptions, we nonetheless project our own psychology unhesitatingly and naively into our fellow human beings.
Ebenso wie man geneigt ist anzunehmen, daß die Welt so ist, wie wir sie sehen, so nimmt man auch naiverweise an, daß die Menschen so seien wie wir sie uns vorstellen. […] Obgleich die Möglichkeit grober Täuschung um ein Vielfaches größer ist als bei der Sinneswahrnehmung, so projizieren wir doch ungescheut und naiv unsere eigene Psychologie in den Mitmenschen.
GW VIII, §507.
In the more technical vocabulary of analytical psychology, this means that what we see in others are frequently much sooner projections of our own views than realistic perceptions of them as a person. Just as the “quick and dirty” nature of many of our sense perceptions have to be corrected once we measure them objectively (using technical instruments that cannot be deceived), our personal relationships are often far off the mark; yet of course just as with sense perceptions there is an advantage to this, too: they help moving us quickly and effectively through daily life, and in that sense are “good enough” for many purposes. Thus projections are an unavoidable fact of normal psychic life — as long as they don’t get so dominant as to lead into neuroses (ibd.).
But now this habit of naively accepting our projections of other people as “how things really are” is carried over from our everyday waking perceptions of them to the dream images that resemble them.
The frequency of such projections is just as certain as the fact that their character is never seen through. Thus it is not at all surprising that the naive mind takes it for granted that, when he dreams about Mr X, this dream image called “Mr X” was identical with the actual Mr X.
Die Häufigkeit solcher Projektionen ist ebenso sicher wie die Tatsache, daß deren Charakter nie eingesehen wird. Bei dieser Sachlage ist es nun keineswegs erstaunlich, daß der naive Verstand von vornherein als selbstverständlich annimmt, daß wenn er von Herrn X träume, dieses Traumbild, genannt “Herr X”, identisch sei mit dem wirklichen Herrn X.
GW VIII, §507.
In other words, the mistake of taking dream images literally is merely a special case of the general (and we might add from the above, quite normal) habit of “naively making no difference between the object itself and the idea we have of that object” (ibd.). If I have a conversation with Lara, perhaps I don’t see her as the person she actually is, but rather talk to whomever I might project into that person, such as my Shadow, the Anima, the Great Mother, … (Or perhaps not: this is not to say we can’t find out; but we’d have to check.) And similarly, if I have a dream conversation with someone who looks like Lara, it would be an unwarranted conclusion that, therefore, the conversation was with Lara.
In fact, so far as dream conversations are concerned, we would have to go further. For in waking life, I might project something into the person in front of me — or I might not. Thus there is both a possibility that I have an inaccurate (projected) perception and that I have an accurate perception (of the real person). But in dreams, there is only one possibility: the conversation is always imagined, and thus the “person” in front of me is never the actual Lara, but always an image.
We can reinforce that finding by another observation. Suppose I don’t dream about Lara, but instead imagine a conversation with her. (Such as when I run a topic through my head which I need to discuss with her, but where I don’t want to “wing it” — and thus I rehearse.) Again, I’m never talking to the actual Lara in this case; her replies are imagined just as my own side of the conversation is. (The real Lara might respond quite differently to something I’d say from the imagined Lara.) Dreams are like that: I can never have a dream conversation and then find out the next day (talking to Lara again) that it actually had happened, just as I cannot have an imagined conversation and then find out the next day that it actually happened. But I can have an actual conversation and then (later, typically in therapy) figure out that I wasn’t really talking to Lara but to something else, i.e. one of my projections.