“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl
As the living units of the unconscious, psychological complexes hold the key to multiple aspects of everyday relational life: the personal, familial, workplace, and cultural aspects. By examining the theoretical work of C. G. Jung, E. Shalit, D. Kalsched, and others, supported by examples of personal and cultural complexes, this article aims to offer attenuating ways to tend to the emotions that arise from the defensive shell of a complex while encouraging a closer look to the underlying psychic split at the core of a complex.
Complexes are essential in analytical psychology; Jung considered them vital to understanding the human psyche. He defined psychological complexes as “feeling-toned contents of the personal unconscious” that reflect the personal and private psychic life (2014, p. 4). Von Franz defines them as aspects of the unconscious psyche that impact and shape human personality (1992, p. 4). Complexes show up in our conscious everyday life through our choices, attitudes, expectations, and fantasies. However, they also show up in unconscious ways: our compulsions, our night dreams, our projections. For Jung, complexes reflect “a certain psychic situation which is strongly accentuated emotionally and is, moreover, incompatible with the habitual attitude of consciousness” (1970, para. 201). In other words, complexes often vividly portray the world as the opposite of what we want.
While all psychological complexes have an archetype at their core, they do not manifest the same way for every person. Depending on how we relate with our complexes, their influence can be functional or dysfunctional. Complexes hold pockets of psychic energy that are, at times, greater than consciousness. In these moments, the things we do and say start to slip out of our control. We may get into a verbal argument with the very person we swore we would not let annoy us. We may accidentally use the opposite word of what we meant to convey. We may even end up obsessing about the very thing we promised ourselves we would let go. Left unattended, complexes can keep vital parts of us trapped forever. What is caught in a complex does not grow. In the places we get stuck and where we get extreme in our thinking, beliefs, and behaviors a complex is present.
Complexes are a “part of the normal psychic makeup” (Von Franz, 1992, p. 5). When examining them, it is important to remember that they represent an expression of the psyche’s natural state. They are not always pathological, as one might be tempted to believe. Psychological complexes contribute to and are part of the continuous evolution of the psyche. They hold the key to deeply hidden parts of ourselves and have the power to bring about meaningful personal transformation (Jacobi, 1959, p.10). When we understand their impact and function, we are less tempted to approach them as something that needs to be fixed or removed. We are more likely, too, to view them as a source of insight on our path to wholeness.
The Structure Of Psychological Complexes
Complexes manifest in the form of a psychic split caused by trauma. The splintered-off fragment can become autonomous and “carry on a separate existence in the background of the psyche” (Jacobi, 1959, p. 12). The inner core of a complex is where the original hurt happened, often in the early years of childhood. There is also an outer layer called the shell that has a defensive, protective nature, which tries to keep at bay anything that could reach the inner hurt. Great psychological energy can conglomerate and remain stuck around a complex. Complexes can gain power and deepen if they remain unconscious, draining us of vitality. Jung believed that a complex’s “ultimate basis is the archetype, the “instinctual pattern” (Jung, 1970, para 856). Erel Shalit supports this idea, explaining that complexes are one way the psyche transforms the archetypal into the personal (2002, p.25). By trying to understand the core of the complex, we begin to see its archetypal roots.
The purpose of the shell is to protect the complex’s core—the places we are hurt psychologically—from being exposed to further suffering (Kalshed, 2013, p. 24). The issue with this defense system is that while it can be vital for someone living in a traumatic environment, long-term, it often stunts personal growth (Kalshed, 2013, p. 24). If we close ourselves off from connection, we are indeed protected from further hurt, but we are also sheltered from real-life experience; we remain secluded in a secure prison of our own defenses. What at first protects ends up persecuting and incarcerating us.
Another issue with an unconscious defense mechanism is that the more it accumulates power, the more it is compelled to fight. It cannot stand down, nothing can be trusted, and everything becomes a threat (Kalshed, 1996, p.5). We often remain unaware of the deep hurt we carry and how we defend ourselves around this hurt. Because of this, it is tough to become aware of our complexes in isolation. They reveal themselves most when we enter into a relationship with others or with the world outside of ourselves. For example, when we notice that a particular person always seems to push our buttons, or we get in a certain mood after spending time with a specific friend this can make us curious about what is causing these reactions in us.
In everyday interactions, we will often brush against the shell of another person’s complex but rarely do we glimpse or even know about the real hurt at the core. Someone’s defensiveness can even trigger our own. Feelings such as rage, shame, self-righteousness can fool us into believing that whatever we are experiencing originates in the other person. A war ensues, while deep inside, both people are hurting. Under the shell, the true suffering remains neglected and unattended.
Kalshed explains: “psychological growth depends on a relational process through which the innocent core of the self gradually accrues experience” (Kalshed, 2013, p. 24). But if we are overrun by one dominating feeling state, it can have a gradual numbing effect over all other emotions. Instead of having a rainbow of human feelings, we get stuck on one. We start to look and feel like zombies, someone you may call a shell of a person instead of a dynamic, fully alive individual.
Phenomenology – How Psychological Complexes Manifest in our Minds and Bodies
A crucial thing to remember about complexes is that their activation is “an automatic process which happens involuntarily and which no one can stop of his own accord” (Jung, 1970, p.95 para.189). In a complex, the unconscious psyche exerts its independent force that willpower cannot overcome. Jung also describes complexes as having “an emotional nature, a kind of autonomy, and accordingly an obsessive or, better, possessive quality” (2014b, p.8). We know we are in a complex when we’re obsessing, we’re compulsive and we are having intense emotional reactions. We may feel like we can’t help ourselves or that we’re letting a situation get to us, despite our best efforts to remain neutral. When we do not bring these reactions into the light of consciousness and continue to feed them with stories and justifications, they can become chaotic, even lethal in time. (Shalit,2002, p.8) We become unrecognizable, even to ourselves.
Most of us can remember such a moment when we felt overwhelmed by our emotions in such a powerful way that we could not hold them back, no matter how hard we tried. Psychological complexes can possess us through emotional charge “produces an alteration of consciousness” (Jung, 1970, para 856), usually evident through someone’s outward reaction and body language. There is an undeniable physicality that is present at the activation of a complex. Our fingers may tingle, our breath may become shallow, our jaw may clench, and tension may arise in the body. Even our memory of what took place or what was said can be altered (Samuels, 2002, p. 47). In such moments we may act uncharacteristically, we may end up neglecting things and people who matter to us.
At other times, the opposite may also be true. Not having intense enough emotions can be a sign of a complex. We may experience ourselves as frozen, numb, unable to feel anything, even though we know some sort of a reaction may be more appropriate. In modern psychology, this is called dissociation. We seem to dissociate from the situation in front of us, we freeze up mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically through the manifestation of stiff joints or the inability to move.
Jung teaches that when a complex is activated, “the conscious then comes under the influence of unconscious instinctual impulses and contents.” (Jung, 1970, para 856) Such an activation often has the power to pull us completely out of consciousness and act in a manner that feels foreign to who we normally are. We might say: I’m not sure what got into me or I don’t know what possessed me to do that. If we do not pause and begin the process of reintegration, the power of a complex can grow, stripping more and more psychic energy from our consciousness while seeping into other areas of life. Jung explains:
The affect (…) raises a particular content to a supernormal degree of luminosity, it does so by withdrawing so much energy from other possible contents of consciousness that they become darkened and eventually unconscious. (1970, para. 481)
Because complexes give our thoughts a repetitive and predictable nature, each time we mentally play the same emotionally charged message, we strengthen the shell’s defense system. Our thought processes become like a loop that reinforces an old belief. This belief often claims that something is not safe and we must defend ourselves against a perceived threat. In this way, complexes have a way of acting like self-affirming and self-fulfilling prophecies; they can alter one’s perception of reality, giving us tinged lenses that distort what is in front of us. Furthermore, our personal complexes can complicate our interrelational life by becoming interlocked with other people’s complexes. We can get trapped in mutual complex activations that can bring significant disruption and dysfunction to our lives. In addition, complexes tend to have a way to contaminate others. This can be easily observed in office environments when one gossiping source can give birth to endless work dramas and team conflicts.
While there are some Psychological complexes that manifest positively, many have a signature tone or intensity that makes us uncomfortable. We might be tempted to take ourselves out of the discomfort by rationalizing our reactions and assigning blame to something or someone in our environment (2014b, p. 20). If we have an abandonment wound, for example, every time our friend takes longer than usual to reply to our text message, our fear of abandonment might trigger, and with it, the defenses against it. We may be tempted to accuse our friends of neglect and to cut all ties with them.
The mechanism of assigning to another what is painful or uncomfortable to recognize within ourselves is called projection (2014a, para. 131). When we project, we often zero in on one aspect of someone else’s behavior or words, taking them out of context while exaggerating their importance. Projections give birth to fantasy bonds and illusory relationships while at the same time isolating us from the reality of the other person. (2014b, p.8)
We can also experience inflation of the ego when the archetypal energy at the core of a complex erupts into consciousness: “inflation magnifies the blind spot in the eye, and the more we are assimilated by the projection-making factor, the greater becomes the tendency to identify with it” (2014b, p.24). Once we identify with an inflated ego, we become more self-righteous while the other person turns into a scapegoat. We see this reflected in cultural complexes like elitism or white supremacy. We can unconsciously give others tremendous power over us when we project onto them our inferiority. The polarity created by the projection can give rise to a new, equally intense complex in culture or group projected upon, resulting in increased opposition or conflict (Fontelieu, 2014, p4.) Opposing groups can remain locked in a destructive rivalry for many years causing suffering for members of both communities.
Healing with Awareness, Acceptance, and Archetypes
Because complexes often disrupt our peace and put us under the stress of intense emotions, our natural human impulse is to flee from this discomfort. As Jung put it: “No one who has undergone the process of assimilating the unconscious will deny that it gripped his very vitals” (1972, para 361). Many people resort to dissociative or numbing coping techniques when assaulted by challenging feelings. Unfortunately, complexes that remain unconscious, tend to increase their grip on our consciousness and psychic energy. One sure way to continue to be bothered by our complexes is to remain unaware of them. On the other hand, tending to our psychological complexes requires our compassion, our courage, and our determination to go towards the very discomfort they stir within us. Depth psychology calls us to willingly enter the heated waters of our emotions and fight for the integrity of our psyches.
We cannot relate to anything that we remain unaware of; thus being mindful of our complexes is one of the most important steps towards transforming them (Jacobi, 1959, p. 11). Many times, this attention is retroactive. If one is to raise their voice during a casual dinner conversation and then the next day wonder about that outburst, they may be able to pinpoint a sensitivity they may have to a particular topic or statement. Looking back at what was said and how we felt at that moment we can begin to note the thoughts and judgments that arose. We may monitor how long they stayed with us, how often they happen, and in what situations. This self-monitoring process can teach us greatly about our inner world and the land mines that might be hidden there. A few helpful questions to increase self-awareness around complexes are: What is at the core of this? What is truly needed here? Is this truly about the other person, or is this my issue? What parts of me have I abandoned, disregarded, or denied? Where am I separated from myself?
Awareness is only the first step. The next vital step in tending to a psychological complex is to suspend the natural tendency to judge it, resist it, and fix it. Instead, complexes can be approached with an attitude of curiosity. Such a feat can be difficult in a culture in which always being in control is considered a superior trait. Accepting our psychological complexes means accepting that we have moments in which our self-control is diminished or completely gone. A certain level of humility is necessary to move forward in exploring the tender areas of our inner world. It would mean admitting that there are parts of ourselves we’re not fond of.
Examining one’s projections can be very helpful in revealing areas of self-rejection. We can use Jung’s idea that “what we combat in the other person is usually our inferior side” (2014a, para. 131) to learn more about ourselves. For example, if I notice myself judging my friend for being cheap, I can remember the old dictum: If I can spot it, I’ve got it. What I am sensitized to in another, I am probably sensitive to it myself. A helpful question to approach loud judgments of another is: Where is this in me? Where in my life do I show up in the same way?
A complex is anchored deep in the unseen, unknown part of the psyche and outside awareness; thus, addressing its symptomatology must go deeper than what can be seen on the surface. To integrate the unconscious parts that visit us through our complexes, we must be willing to find a way to marry the mind with the heart, the intellect with our feelings. (Jung, 1978, p.31) Complexes manifest beyond thought. They often also have an emotional and physical aspect. A psychosomatic change usually occurs when a complex is activated (Von Franz, 1992, p 3). We undeniably feel them in our bodies. For this reason, the intellectual approach to a complex is not sufficient to reduce its charge and intensity. Experiencing the emotion behind the complex is a crucial ingredient to beginning liberation from its pull (Jacobi, 1974, p.14). As we learn to release, transmute and integrate its emotional surplus the power the complex holds over us begins to diminish. (Jacobi, 1974, p.10)
Becoming aware of a complex exponentially increases our chances of relating more functionally with the intense charge resulting from its activation. (Jacobi, 1974, p.11) This transformation brings about a redistribution of psychic energy and a more balanced inner flow. (Jacobi, 1974, p.11) Such a transformation is possible for our projections as well. As we slowly detach from the imagined and exaggerated ways we have been seeing our partners or friends, our psychic energy is restored. It can now be redirected towards our own development. (Jung, 1970, p. 275) When we claim our projections and integrate their message, our relationships are infused with new life and new energy. While our old tendencies may not be completely gone, we learn to step back and come to peace within ourselves before communicating, allowing for miscommunications to be reduced. We may choose to withdraw ourselves from the company of loved ones before we let the harsh words come out. We may reach out and ask for support from a loving friend before we spiral down towards self-loathing.
Another way to transform our psychological complexes is through a symbolic and archetypal approach. This implies recognizing the universality of the pattern at the core of the complex. When looked at through a mythical or symbolic attitude, our issues seem to gain a different dimension (Kalshed, 1996, p.6). A helpful question to ask ourselves here would be: what happens in life that reminds me of this? What myths, fairytale stories, or legends have a similar situation? When we pay attention and listen deeply to the voices from within, we begin to see the story we’re in, the archetypal story that belongs to humanity in general and not just to us personally. When we realize that our struggle fits into a bigger, human picture, it is easier for us to hold the discomfort and struggle a complex brings in our lives.
The more we talk about an issue, the more times we circle it, stew on it, bring it to consciousness, the more it appears to loosen its grip on us and the more our relationship with it transforms. In time we begin to observe ourselves more objectively, noticing all of our symptoms: mental, physical, emotional. What is happening to us no longer appears to be just a terrible flaw in our character but a piece of a larger situation that seems to have a purposefulness that we could not grasp before. We now begin to understand that what is happening with us is part of our development and that even our projections might hold a purpose.
A person’s most pervasive complexes cannot be fully resolved, but their power can be lessened. The more familiar one is with their complexes, the better chance they have of remaining unpossessed by them. When we understand how complexes function and how they impact us, we begin to relate to them differently. Projections transform from something we used to be ashamed of into tools of awareness of “our own unconscious drama that is mirrored externally” (2014b, p.4). We find the courage to admit that what we reject and resist in another is actually ours to own and tend to. This means making room for our humanity, for making mistakes and then correcting them. We learn that there are ways to live with all parts of us, even those we used to reject. In time, the inner split begins to heal, and the psychic energy that was once caught in defensiveness is freed and made available for growth.
So much of our psychological life is influenced by complexes: our more subtle as well as our explosive emotions, our compulsive behaviors, and even our quirky and at times endearing personality traits. When we become more familiar with our complexes, we can recognize their pull and influence in everyday situations. We then have the option to take action before any destructive tendencies take hold of us. We have a better chance of tending to ourselves appropriately when we know we are in complex than when we are not aware we have been gripped by one.
We will always have complexes. Complexes arise from being human (Von Franz, 1992, p.5); thus, we cannot honestly know ourselves without knowing our complexes. Through their ability to activate and stir up powerful emotions, psychological complexes alert us to where we are divided from ourselves and, in the case of cultural complexes, where we are divided from each other. Every overreaction points to a complex and every complex has at its core a part of the psyche that has split off and is waiting to be tended to and reintegrated. Awareness of the compulsive tendencies, acceptance of the limited control over an activated complex, and conscious and active emotional processing can begin to heal the psychic division.
Another important reason for studying psychological complexes is to create greater consciousness both personally and collectively around the places we hurt the most. When we work on transforming our relationship with a complex we are in fact touching on the instinctual and archetypal core of that complex. Jung reflected:
“Instinct can never be eradicated in an individual by arbitrary measures; it requires the slow organic transformation of many generations to effect a radical change, for instinct is the energetic expression of the organism’s make-up.” (1990, p. 338)
Our work with complexes is the psychological legacy we leave future generations. The more we develop complex theory, the more we equip ourselves and our children better to mediate the conflicts between groups, nations, and cultures. Creating wholeness can happen both at a personal and collective level.
About the Author:
Diana Deaver is an emotional health life coach practicing since 2015. Her work is based on Jungian and archetypal psychology and it strongly takes into consideration the unconscious. Her emotional healing work encourages a process of gradual integration of all aspects of the person. She offers one on one life coaching sessions via phone, zoom or Facebook messenger. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your session centered on you and your emotional healing.
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