In ordinary daily conversation when someone observes that a friend, family member or colleague “has a complex” about something, we generally mean that they seem to have a “sore spot” about the subject, or that they seem to have a recognizable pattern of reactions when certain situations or subjects arise.
These are good layman’s observations which capture two of the most central qualities of what psychologists call “complexes”
1. They are developed around psychological wounds.
2. They have a repetitive, stereotypical quality.
Carl Jung describes complexes
The first psychologist to describe and discuss this psychological phenomenon was Carl Jung. Jung wrote about what he called “feeling-toned complexes of ideas”. The phrase was later abbreviated to “complexes”.
His original description however, adds an important further detail to our understanding of the complex.
3. Complexes have a particular emotional tone or value.
Complexes can be personal or impersonal.
There are certain situations which are so common and universal in human experience that in all times and all places, human beings seem to have evolved complexes of ideas and behaviors around them.
Archetypal complexes are not personal. They arise around essential human experiences such as leadership, romantic love, death, birth, the image of the hero, the trickster, the wise man or woman, the child and many others.
Our organized emotional and behavioral responses to these concepts suggests that they are inherent or instinctive patterns of reaction in human beings.
Personal complexes have both a universal and an individual aspect
Sigmund Freud’s famous Oedipus and Electra complexes describe the universal tensions within the parent-child relationship as the child becomes aware the limits and restrictions in regards to their intimate relationship with their opposite sex parent. The intensity and problem producing quality of this universal experience will vary depending on the real life characteristics of the parents and the family situation.
Fears of losing love and support of parents, feeling inferior, feelings of competition with siblings or peers, fears of being rejected or outcast from the group are universally frightening situations that need to be defended against psychologically by all human beings.
Because complexes are organized around a particular emotional tone, they can be positive or negative.
A positive mother complex expects all older women or “motherly” figures to be loving and helpful, but a negative mother complex treats all the women who trigger it as bad, demanding or dangerous. A complex about authority can automatically treat authority figures positively as saviors or, negatively as exploiters.
How does a personal psychological complex develop?
A personal complex is a defense system that we develop after an emotional injury. It is a set of ideas, attitudes, expectations, behaviors… and the feelings that accompany them… that we unconsciously hope will avert a similar disaster in the future.
The typical behavioral strategies developed within complexes are common strategies of human relating:
Pleasing, appeasing, avoiding, aggressiveness, competition, withdrawal and many others.The difference between using interpersonal strategies inside and outside of a complex is that once they begin to function within a complex they become automatic and stereotypical. The same response appears in every triggering situation, whether it is appropriate and helpful or not.
Several complexes can be activated at any one time.
You may function perfectly normally with most people around a meeting table at work but if you have a “sister complex” (about being competitive with your historical sister), that complex runs like a computer application under the surface and turns itself on automatically when you have to speak to a particular female colleague.
You may behave competitively with her without realizing it….even while you are being perfectly reasonable with everyone else. You could at the same time have a father complex operating which affects your responses to your supervisor and an abandonment complex that kicks in when your ideas are rejected. You could have an inferiority or a superiority complex also running which color your interactions with others in a self-critical or self-aggrandizing way.
It is easy to see how having activated complexes can cause no end of interpersonal strain and misery.
“Everyone knows nowadays that people ‘have complexes’. What is not so well known, though far more important theoretically, is that complexes can have us.” – C. G. Jung (1948, para 200)
Complexes are originally well intended and aimed at protecting us from pain and danger.
But as they become automatic and autonomous they can cause no end of trouble because when a complex is activated we do not really control it.
Jung said, “An activated complex puts us momentarily under a state of duress, of compulsive thinking and acting”. (Jung CW 8 pg 96)
A well-developed complex can collect around itself enough memories, experience and feelings that it can begin to function like a partial or “splinter” personality. If the triggering situation is strong enough it can even sometimes temporarily hi-jack the ego. This state is called “identification with the complex” and in this situation the worldview of the complex temporarily takes priority. When we emerge from one of these states we may say:
“I have no idea what got into me”,”That was so unlike me”or “I don’t know what possessed me!”
These reactions capture the sense that we have responded from a part of ourselves that was not actually under our conscious control. There are even times when we cannot fully remember what we said while we were influenced by a complex, or we may have a sense of having been “watching” ourselves say and do outrageous and uncharacteristic things.
When we see another person captured by a complex we may see a noticeable change of expression, of posture or of tone of voice and say, “He was not himself.”
A complex is a distorting lens.
In order to maintain it’s integrity as a splinter personality and to carry out the protective mission which is it’s reason for existing, the filter of a complex will screen out or dismiss as unimportant any new, confusing or contradictory information and will prefer to concentrate on those situations which support it’s world view.
This is why a person who is in the grip of a complex is so maddeningly impossible to reason with and so rejecting of contradictory information offered by others.
A woman who is in the grip of a complex about men’s infidelity will never feel reassured by her husband’s claims of love and assurances that he will not leave her, no matter how many ways he proves himself.
Identify the characteristic components of your particular complexes.
As you start to examine experiences that you notice or that are pointed out to you as strange, you will probably notice that they always seem to occur in particular circumstances, such as….
When your partner is leaving for a trip When you have been criticized for something When you experience or suspect rejection
…or with a particular sort of person.
Trying to please or interest a “fatherly” type of man Being jealous or competitive with a certain kind of woman. Feeling “weak” whenever faced with an authority figure
As you become able to predict when you may be triggered, you become empowered to choose to take another kind of action or to disregard the impulses from your complex.
Two other signs that someone is captured by a complex:
The emotions expressed seem overly intense for the situation that triggered them Language is peppered with absolutes and extremes: “always”, “never”, “Nobody ever”,”everyone always”
Recognizing the experience “after the fact” is helpful because it permits you to engage in “damage control.”
The more skilled you become at identifying your complex-driven behavior, the quicker you will be able to say “I did it again” and take action to repair the situation by apologizing, explaining or trying again in a different frame of mind.
Because complexes both fight to survive and arouse fear and resistance when we try to examine them, it is often helpful to work together with an outside person.
It is necessary to uncover and face these automatic responses because a complex can act like a poorly trained attack dog, snarling and snapping at (or inappropriately cuddling up to) friend and foe alike, causing terrible disruptions in your relationships with friends and colleagues which are based on out-dated fears, feelings and reactions.
A psychologist, counselor or trusted friend can help you identify patterns of response that are hard to recognize from inside and will support you in experimenting with alternative ways of dealing with your fears.
NB: If your therapist works in a cognitive-behavioral model (CBT) he or she may be more familiar with the term “schema” which is another way of talking about the same phenomenon.
As you begin to oppose your complexes with conscious understanding and choose effective real-world strategies to deal with the “dangers” that complexes were developed to handle, they will lose their power because they lose their necessity… and you may have the pleasant experience of having your long-standing complex-driven problems collapse like a house of cards.
Susan Meindl, MA, is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Montreal Canada. She has a special interest in Jungian ideas and practices a Jungian approach to psychodynamic psychotherapy