We’ve all been there before: Fooling around in your dreams, and then when the person shows their face, you’re completely appalled. It’s someone totally awkward, like your ex, or your boss, or a trio of clowns. (Hey… No judgment here.) You’d probably wake up a little freaked out. You don’t really want to have sex with those people… Right? Suddenly, you start to question everything you thought you knew about yourself. Are you secretly attracted to clowns?

Well, probably not. An estimated 8% of dreams end up having a sexual component to them, and they’re rarely as cut-and-dry as they seem. Most of the time, sex dreams aren’t actually about sex at all, but they can be linked to other areas of your life. Many of us are aware that dream psychology is a pretty strange subject anyway – like how death in a dream usually signifies a new beginning, not an ending like you may think – but, for some reason, we can forget that this applies to sex in a dream, too.

Dream psychologist Ian Wallace, who wrote the book The Top 100 Dreams: The Dreams That We All Have and What They Really Mean, reminds us that someone popping up in a sexy dream doesn’t necessarily mean you want to have sex with that person. In fact, most of the time, the dream actually has more to do with you than with them.

Because dreams don’t usually translate literally, it can be helpful to understand that sex in a dream represents vulnerability. It’s not about literally being naked with that particular person, but it is about laying yourself in the open. Usually the people in your sex dreams are a type of representation of yourself, too. There will usually be a quality that you admire, or one that you see reflected in yourself. If you find yourself having sexual dreams about people you don’t find admirable, you’ll need to evaluate why you’re seeing yourself in them – and work to improve the situation.

Here’s a brief rundown of the most common awkward sex dream partners – and what it means when you’re dreaming about them.


Your boss

If you’re having sex dreams about your boss, you’re really not alone. Most people will have a sex dream about a boss or coworker at some point in their lives, and it doesn’t always mean you’re attracted to them. Since your boss is in a symbolic position of power over you, a dream where you’re having sex with him or her could mean that you’re understanding your own leadership capabilities and ready to take a position of power for yourself. Wallace says, “Your subconscious is probably becoming aware of your ability to make decisions and act as a leader.” You should probably not try to have actual, not imaginary sex with your boss as one of those decisions – but it would be a good idea to set up a meeting to discuss a promotion.


Your platonic friend(s)

Having sexual dreams about someone you feel you could never have a sexual connection with might make you question some of your innermost thoughts, but realistically, they probably don’t actually have anything to do with sexual attraction. More likely, there is some sort of talent that he or she has that you find yourself wanting to emulate. Is he good at karaoke? Does she have flawless eyebrow game? Whatever it is, your subconscious mind is trying to absorb this skill through imaginary sex, and convince you to start practicing in your awake life.


Your crush

You’d think that a sex dream about the person you’re obviously sexually attracted to is – obviously – about sex. But we don’t have sex dreams based on sexual attractiveness. More likely, you’re attracted to this person’s emotional or spiritual self, which can help push the sexual attraction along. But I’m sure you’ll find that you don’t really have sex dreams about someone you have a purely physical connection to – because your dreams aren’t a literal manifestation of things.


A celebrity (male or female)

This one seems like a purely physical thing, too, especially if the celebrity happens to fall on a list of celebrities you greatly admire. But yet again, it’s not about attraction – it’s about recognizing yourself. Maybe you find yourself having sex dreams about a singer who stands up for gay rights, or an actress who happens to be great at math. Whatever it is, your subconscious is identifying something you have in common with them and essentially giving you an ego boost. You’re just as good as the celebrity you’re dreaming about, your brain says to you. And while that might not make the sex dream any less awkward, it’s still not about the celebrity – it’s about you.


A family member

Before I continue, let me say that I know you’re thinking that incest is wrong, and it definitely is. But, just like the other people on this list, it’s not about actually having sex with the person. Rather, if you’re having sex dreams about a family member, it most likely means that there’s a skill or character trait that they have that you really admire and want to implement in your own life. It doesn’t mean that you want to have sex with your brother or your dad or your great-uncle.


Your ex

This is a particularly hard one, because it usually crops up after you’re decidedly over your ex. It might even make you wonder if you were wrong about being over it. Really, though, it’s your subconscious telling you that you’re repeating your past mistakes – and it should be treated like a wake-up call. This could mean that you’re failing in some aspect of your current relationship, or that you’re letting your insecurities from your last relationship take over your dating game. Whatever it is, it’s important to find the root cause and fix it before things get out of your control.


A stranger (like those clowns)

Usually, when someone has a sex dream about a stranger, their face will be obscured in some way. For the clowns, this’ll be through the makeup. Other times, it may involve a mask, or the person might just have no face at all! This has nothing to do with some freaky fetish you didn’t know you had. In fact, it more often has to do with a talent you’ve been hiding. Work on being a truer version of yourself, and the mysterious stranger dreams will probably go away.


Bonus sex dream: Your partner cheating on you

Many of us have had dreams where our partner was cheating on us, and sometimes we might even be upset with them because of the things that they did in our dreams. But it’s important to realize that the dream has literally nothing to do with them. Instead, your brain is trying to tell you that you’re doubting yourself. You need a confidence boost, and your mind is telling you that you need to be this person (the one your honey is getting a little too sweet with) in order to hang onto her. Generally, the person that your partner is cheating on will be a reflection of yourself: Either who you used to be, if you’ve stopped putting forth the effort, or who you want to be.


Why do dreams have to be so complicated?

Honestly, they’re not… As long as you look at them from a more abstract angle. Very rarely are our dreams literally what we’re thinking about. It’s important to remember that dreams are actually made up of brain impulses and electrical activity, so even though we feel like we can see the things happening, really there’s nothing to see. This is easier said than fully understood, though, and it’s often difficult to pick apart the electrical responses (the “nakedness” you feel) from the manifestation (the act of having sex with someone in your dream).

Of course, even with intense study, dreams can be difficult to fully understand, especially since – occasionally – they really are exactly what they seem like. (These dreams are generally memories, although it can be tough when the memories are faded and convoluted, as the psychological aspect tends to run into the memories and make things even less logical.)

If you’re looking for a little more insight into the world of dreams, there are a variety of dream encyclopedias out there, some even available for free. If you’ve never looked into it before, be warned – it can be life-changing!