The Crucible of Complexes
According to Carl Gustav Jung, “The more “complexes” a man has, the more he is possessed.”
We all have complexes, there is no getting away from that.
A complex, you may be wondering, is a set of repeated patterns of normally highly charged emotional states associated with the past. Memories, impulses, or desires, organised around a common theme, that may be repressed, which give rise to a complex being constellated, and the behaviour of the person to being one of “acting out.” A complex can become fixed and has qualities of the obsessional. When you find yourself in a highly charged emotional state, chances are you are in the grips of a complex.
This is where projection comes in so handy. Projection is a wonderful tool to identify personal complexes. If you are at a family gathering for example and someone says or does something that provokes something in you, to the point where you start feeling emotional, or angry, or sometimes even delightfully happy – the complex has you! Through the projection, the complex is seen, felt, heard, and psychically activated. I heard this somewhere the other day “Hysterical equals historical.” Complexes are historical. The next time you feel hysterical, no doubt you are experiencing something historical that is psychologically triggering. The complex distorts and warps the matter or situation at hand and this will typically produce an overreaction.
Now, of course complexes can be unwelcome intruders indeed, who demand their own way and want to run the show. They are autonomous sub personalities who also want sufficient psychic air time. This can cause a lot of upset and upheaval for the psyche and conscious ego position. A complex left unconscious, and not sufficiently worked on and integrated as best as one can into consciousness, can become a neurosis. A complex can usurp power from the ego, causing constant psychological disturbances and symptoms of neurosis.
The above said, Jung makes this interesting and counter intuitive statement,
“These things are then lost to consciousness, and must be found again in the course of life, at the cost of infinite effort, if God is kind enough to send us a neurosis (that special gift of grace) to accompany us on life’s journey.”
C. G. Jung, ETH Lecture
In other words, the things that hurt you, also shape you and offer the possibility of growth beyond your current paradigm.
Another helpful way of understanding a complex is realising that at its core is an archetype.
This is so rich, and begs us to ask when we are being hounded by a certain complex, what it is that is so desperately trying to communicate with us? A message is coming through with such force, the slip of a tongue, or great emotion. What more do we need to give us insight into ourselves? This is the voice of gods forgotten, screaming out to us, ultimately wanting to nurse us back to health. We should be gentle in our dealings with such afflictions of our personhood, as these complexes are also protecting a vulnerable child within, or something in us that was cast aside, imprisoned in us, waiting to be re-united with the rest of our selves. Once the integration happens it’s best for all concerned. Keeping complexes at bay, and supressed in the darkness of our psyches takes up a lot of psychic energy, and can deplete us.
It is worthwhile getting to know and becoming well acquainted with, perhaps even friends with these inner others, and with “them” figuring out exactly what it is they want.
“The complex in its “seminal function” even deserves a place of honour as the life-renewing and life-promoting source whose function it is to raise the contents of the unconscious to consciousness and mobilize the formative powers of consciousness.”
– Jolande Jacobi.
This quote by Jolande Jacobi really emphasises the importance of the healing quality (if tackled correctly) our complexes have on us. If we can acknowledge, name, and negotiate with our complexes, we are taking them out of the shadow and bringing them into the light of the day, ultimately for the sake of our own individuation and wholeness.
Marion Woodman mentions in one of her books how many people are being dragged towards wholeness in their daily lives, but because they do not understand initiation rites, they have no clue what is happening to them.
Pathologizing seems to be the flavour of the day and seems so contradictory in its approach. If anything, the pathologizing of complexes makes one’s mental health deteriorate more!
“The possession of complexes does not in itself signify neurosis . . . and the fact that they are painful is no proof of pathological disturbance. Suffering is not an illness; it is the normal counter-pole to happiness. A complex becomes pathological only when we think we have not got it.”
‘Psychotherapy and a Philosophy of Life,’ C. G. Jung, CW 16, par. 179.
“Suffering is not an illness.”
That’s one for the bathroom mirror! “A complex becomes only pathological when we think we have not got it,” certainly food for thought.
James Hillman has some beautiful notions around this very idea Jung raises.
“…within the affliction is the complex, within the complex an archetype, which in turn refers to a god. Afflictions point to gods; gods reach us through afflictions.”
Jung also said that,
“The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus, but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctors consulting room.”
This is implying that gods (as in the Greek tragedies) are making themselves known to us.
James Hillman goes on to say,
“Our pathologizing is their work, a divine process working in the human soul. By reverting the pathology to the god, we recognize the divinity of pathology and give the god his due…A complex must be laid at the proper altar, because it makes a difference both to our suffering and perhaps to the god who is there manifesting.”
James Hillman, A Blue Fire
I invite you to take a look into your own history and identify your favourite childhood story.
It may have been a story that was read to you as a young child, possibly before you could even read, or a book that you read when you were able to read. A story that really touched you deeply, or that you found yourself going back and re reading time and time again. When you have identified a story, really take a good look at what the story is about, the different characters in the story, their role etc. Bring up any feelings and associations you had with the story. How it may have lived in your life as a child growing up, and how very possibly it continues to inform your life now.
This may give you an insight into some of your core complexes, or at least one of them.
Feel free to share your story with us.
If you would like to know more about and understand complexes and their role in your psyche, join us for this month’s
Applied Jung Foundation Module on Complexes.