First off, you should find comfort in the fact that, as annoying as it may be, dreaming about a former lover is not all bad. The same way that freaky dream about losing your teeth is a sign that you’re more stressed about a major life change than you’d like to admit, or dream-cheating on your S.O. means your current relationship might be in need of some TLC, dreams about your ex can give you really helpful intel into your real life.
Having an old flame guest star in your nighttime fantasies (or, uh, nightmares) is actually a reminder from your subconscious about general feelings you’ve shoved into the junk drawers of your mind and should consider revisiting.
Generally speaking, an ex shows up in your dreams “because of unfinished business,” says Beverly Palmer, PhD, clinical psychologist, professor emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of Love Demystified.
And no—before you panic—those feelings aren’t necessarily about wanting your ex back, or tied to a sign that you belong with this person (fact: you most likely don't), says Marion Rudin Frank, EdD, a psychologist specialising in dream analysis and relationships in Philadelphia. In fact, those feelings are actually probably not about your ex at all.
So what are they about? Well, this is where things get a little tricky. Frank notes that dreams are super personal for everyone (even the weather in your dreams is symbolic and specific to you!), so she can’t offer too many generalisations about what these dreams mean (unless you were to sit down with her or a similar expert one-on-one...which I highly recommend).
But the biggest takeaway is this: Dreams are NEVER random. Every single one is a consolidation of what you’ve dealt with while awake and, for that reason, has tons of meaning, she says. (Fun fact: You have about six dreams per night, so gear up for a lot of deciphering).
Here are the most common reasons you might be dreaming about your ex:
1. Something is missing in your life.
If you dream about straight-up missing your ex, it means that you're feeling a void in your life, says Frank, such as intimacy from a parent or a solid group of friends like the ones you had before you moved cities.
2. Your current relationship could use some help.
If you dream about fighting with your ex, you’re likely wrestling with something with your current partner that needs to be addressed, such as guilt about a lie you told them.
3. Something small simply reminded you of them.
All it takes, says Frank, is a whiff of perfume or having to deal with someone in your waking life in a way that’s even loosely related to your ex for them to make an appearance in your dream world. Though they might not have done much in the dream itself, something you encountered during the day was enough to unlock a dormant memory of them that manifested itself as you slept.
4. Your self-esteem took a toll.
If your ex is intruding in your dreams, it may be because there are parts of yourself that you have trouble appreciating but your ex thought were beautiful, says Frank. Your ex’s presence is your mind’s way of telling you to show yourself a little more love.
5. You're annoyed with other people.
You probably associate negative feelings with your ex, Frank says.
Say your coworker takes credit for your work on a project, for example. Though you brushed it off in the moment, you might dream about your ex because they’re your subconscious’s best representation of those feelings of betrayal. So, dreaming about your ex could have been your mind’s way of reconciling with those feelings you’d pushed aside earlier that day.
6. You miss your ex—or certain qualities of them.
Remember when the pros said dreams about your ex aren’t always about wanting to get back together? Well, sorry to break it to you, but that means those dreams—particularly ones where you reconcile—can sometimes be messages from deep within you about missing your ex or wishing your current partner were more like them.
Plus, if your past relationship ended on good terms (lucky you), it’s not so unlikely that you’ll be easily reminded of them from time to time.
7. You're craving more intimacy.
If you dream about hooking up or having sex with your ex, you might be needing more intimate connections in your life, according to Frank. And it doesn't necessarily mean more intimacy from your current parter—you might need it emotionally from your family or your friends.
8. You associate your creativity with them.
Did you dream that you and your ex had babies? Don't fret: Children represent creativity and the growth of ideas, says to Gary Toub, PhD, former director of training at the C.G. Jung Institute of Colorado, who specializes in Jungian analyses, dreams, and fantasies.
That means that you might have dreamt about co-parenting with your ex merely because you're excited about a project you just pitched at work, or because of some other cool creative endeavour.
9. You're in the healing phase.
Perhaps you dreamt that your ex apologised to you in your dream. First of all, finally. Second of all, Toub says there’s a good chance the dream means that you’re moving past something that hurt you. Oh, thank g-d.
10. You're still feeling the feels.
If you dream that you're living with your ex, get this: It's a really common dream, says Toub, but it’s also one of the most personal.
Overall, this particular ex dream means that whatever your former beau represents for you (safety, hurt, sadness, fear, warmth) is still alive in you. So, if you’re dreaming about shacking up, it’s probably because one of those emotions was triggered sometime before you went to sleep.
11. You're moving on.
Did you relive your breakup by having a dream about breaking up? This could actually be a really great thing: that you’re breaking up with the part of yourself that your subconscious mind associates with your old flame.
Especially if your former partner hurt you, this could be symbolic of your progress—the process of separating yourself from the part of you that was injured by your ex and getting your agency back.
Gotcha, so what do I do now?
Dreams about your ex (as unwelcome as they might be) can mean a billion different things, so whatever you do, don’t write them off, Frank urges. They're an opportunity to learn about yourself, about your current relationship, and grow.
What should you do? She suggests writing down everything you remember about your dream(s) as soon as you wake up, and, if you're able to, running it by a psychologist who can decode what your psyche is trying to communicate from those hard-to-reach parts of your mind.
It could be that you haven't completely moved on from that relationship—and there's no one better than a therapist to help you sort through those feelings, and if/when you're ready, give you the tools and support you need to charge forward.
Now, whether you sorta hate your ex or will always love them, who woulda thought those annoying dreams would have turned out to be worth it after all?
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.