Complexes

I think the best way to orient to complexes is to read descriptions from a variety of particularly insightful analysts. I have several favorite quotes and have included the sources, should you feel inspired to dig in yourself. I am going to break them up by commenting on some of the most useful meanings and applications as applied to our process. Remember, anytime you find yourself feeling pressure to think, say, or do, use your breath to come back to awareness and center, practice the art of alert reflection, and call for memories, or, simply listen and see what comes in. All of this will help get you get connected to the deeper meanings driving the intent of the complex. At their core, complexes are after all, rejected components of development. Please do what you can to not add insult to injury.

Through the repetition compulsion, they persist in creating a situation so we may have one more chance, having re-entered the energetic field, to discover and connect with the essence of what will facilitate healing (the split). This is the archetypal reality basis behind the movie Ground Hog Day. This is the endless repetition of the mistake in the D. H. Lawrence poem “Healing.”

I am thinking about, as an experiment, having a dialogue, so to speak, with the authors of the quotes as if I could comment and ask questions from of them. Here goes:

Chuck: What is a complex?

Dr. Jung: “It is the image of a certain psychic situation which is strongly accentuated emotionally and is, moreover, incompatible with the habitual attitude of consciousness. This image has a powerful inner coherence. It has its own wholeness, and, in addition, a relatively high degree of autonomy, so that it is subject to the control of the conscious mind to only a limited extent, and therefore behaves like an animated foreign body in the sphere of consciousness. The complex can usually be suppressed with an effort of will but not argued out of existence, and at the first suitable opportunity it reappears in all its original strength. (Jung, CG, Collected Works Volume 8, p.96.)

Chuck: That it has its own coherency and behaves like an animated foreign body sounds a lot like Dr. Mortimer’s description of the introjected mother and father others from the psychoanalytic side. The energies of the father, mother, siblings, and others who have been emotionally proximal come in, are self-organizing, and cohere to become active, dynamic, willing agents. However we might chose to relate to them, name them in our native language, we want to become aware of complexes. They occupy a continuum from perhaps familiar to completely off the radar screen. Is there such a thing as an autonomous complex? And if so, why are they lost to us?

Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette: “Autonomous complexes are usually (though not always) organized around traumatic childhood experiences. During early traumas, our emerging egos split-off and repress aspects of the psyche that parents, siblings, or society found unacceptable. These split-off aspects could be thoughts, feelings, images, or associations. Often they are valuable and worth recall. They may carry hidden talents, intuitions, abilities, or accurate feelings that would make our personalities wiser and more complete if we could integrate them. Until reintegration can occur, our psyches are like the pieces of a broken mirror, which hold in fragments what was once a complete reflection. Through all our complexes, including the Ego, and the vast territory of the unconscious, consciousness pervades our psyche.”(Moore, Robert, and Gillette, Douglas, The King Within, pp.32 33.)

Chuck: The pattern as described reflects: trauma triggers splitting, and splitting equates to some amount of loss of energy and resources. The image of dissociative processing patterns as reflecting a consciousness-in-pieces, a broken mirror, is very powerful. The startling idea is the possibility that in fact consciousness pervades our psyche. How does the complex live on, beyond its shocking origins?

Dr. Stein: “Further on the structure of the complex, Jung describes it as being made up of associated images and frozen memories of traumatic moments that are buried in the unconscious and not readily available for retrieval by the ego. These are repressed memories. What knits the various associated elements of the complex together and holds them in place is emotion. This is the glue. Furthermore, “the feeling-toned content, the complex, consists of a nuclear element and a large number of secondarily constellated associations.”(19) The nuclear element is the core image and experience on which the complex is based – the frozen memory. But this core turns out to be made up of two parts: an image or psychic trace of the originating trauma and an innate (archetypal) piece closely associated to it. The dual core of the complex grows by gathering associations around itself, and this can go on over the course of an entire lifetime. If, for example, a man reminds a woman of her harsh, abusive father by his tone of voice, by his way of reacting to life, by his intensity of emotional response, and so on, he will understandably constellate her father complex. If she interacts with him over a period of time, material will be added to that complex. If he abuses her, the negative father complex will be further enriched and energized, and she will become all the more reactive in situations where the father complex is constellated. Increasingly she may avoid such men entirely, or on the other hand she may find herself irrationally drawn to them. In either case, her life becomes more and more restricted by this complex. The stronger the complex, the more they restrict the range of the ego’s freedom of choice.” (Stein, Murray, “The Structure of Complexes, “Jung’s Map of the Soul, pp. 52-53.

Chuck: This is a gorgeous description of the complexity, if I may say, of the complex. In terms of the pattern elements: buried in the unconscious; not readily available for retrieval by the ego; consist of repressed memories; emotion is the glue; the nuclear element is the core image; the frozen memory is made up of two parts – an image or psychic trace of the originating trauma and an innate (archetypal) piece closely associated to it; the complex grows by gathering associations around itself, over the course of an entire lifetime. It sounds like even clearly abusive actions, representing re-enactments of the wounding, serve to further enrich and energize the complex. This would correspond to “feeding” the complex in contrast to “starving” the complex.

Your description of how the complex builds the bridge between the harsh, abusive father and the husband, as it intensifies or feeds the charge of the complex is very helpful. What do we know about how complexes act, when activated, over time?

Dr. Stein: “Generally, the psychological effects of complex constellations perseverate over an extended period of time after the stimulus has left off impacting the psyche. Certain experimental investigations seem to indicate that [the complex’s] intensity or activity curve has a wavelike character with a ‘wavelength’ of hours, days, or weeks.'(16) The stimulus that provokes the complex may be slight or great, of long or short duration, but its effects on the psyche can continue for extended periods of time and can come into consciousness in waves of emotion or anxiety. One of the signs of effective psychotherapy is that the complex-induced disturbances perseverate for shorter lengths of time than they did before. A more rapid recovery from complex-induced disturbances indicates increased ego strength and integration of psychic material as well as decreased power in the complexes. A shortened perseveration time means that the complex’s power has diminished. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that a complex can never be completely eliminated. The wavelike effects of complex “aftershock” are exhausting and draining.  (Stein, Murray, “The Structure of Complexes, “Jung’s Map of theSoul, p.50)

Chuck: So it sounds like once activated a complex may persist in thwarting our best intentions, until such time as it lets us go, or, perhaps, we find a way to “manage it.” The support for assessing the effectiveness of psychotherapy in terms of the frequency, duration, and relative intensity of complex-induced disturbances makes sense to me. If we have achieved an awareness of our complex perturbations, we have really accomplished a great deal.

And more on the relationship between emotion and complexes?

John Weir Perry: “Jung spoke of the play of the emotions as being identical with the activation of the complexes (Jung 1943, 1926, 1907). Further, he also visualized the dynamic nucleus of any complex to be composed (in part: the nucleus is composed of an archetype and representation of the object that first evoked it.) of an archetype, which he regarded as its “affective foundation” (Jung). The archetypes… manifest…in the form of both image and emotion, simultaneously (Jung). The image renders the meaning of the emotion; the emotion gives the image its dynamism (Jung 1963). In such a model, we visualize as many emotions as there are images.”

Chuck: As many emotions as there are images, and therefore, complexes?

John Weir Perry: “I therefore see the entire psyche as structured not only in complexes, but in their bipolar systems or arrangements: the occurrence of an emotion requires the interplay of two complexes, and habitual emotions belong to habitual pairs. For every mother complex there has to be a child, for every princess anima a princely lover, for every awesome father a son, and for every overwhelming monster a fearful human. The problem of conceptualizing the emotional event is a matter of understanding what happens at the interface between the two poles, where the ego adopts and experiences one affect, and relegates the opposite member of the bipolar pair to its object. I therefore do not visualize a model of the unconscious in which the complexes are randomly arranged, but rather one in which the complexes are arranged in bipolar systems or pairs; they may be envisaged as opposing entities (much like the upper and lower teeth in their apposition). Perry, John Weir, “Emotion and Object Relations,” selected quotes, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 1970 – pep-web.org.

Chuck” And more on how they come into being?

John Wier Perry: “In the matter of genesis, we are in the habit…of looking to the mother as the source of influence of the specific qualities of the anima, and to the father for those of the animus. … But the child’s emotional psyche is not affected by these ego-personalities of the parents anywhere near as much as by the unconscious components in the parents. It is at the level of ‘participation mystique’ and emotional embroilment and interaction that the complexes are formed. . . .The genesis of complexes takes place at the level of the non-ego of the child and the non-ego of the parents, where the really powerful and uncanny parent figures are the reverse ones, the pseudo father and pseudo mother; that is, mother’s animus and father’s anima. In relation to these figures the child is apt to slip into affect-ego positions and respond with his own complexes in emotional interactions. So it is of the various other complexes that take shape along the way: they are the product of emotional relationships, bearing the imprint of non-ego and subliminal aspects of the personalities of these significant figures. They arise out of affect-objects, not true objects.” (Perry, John Weir, “Emotion and Object Relations)

Chuck: I have appreciated the idea of the need to be mindful of the non-ego realm. Often patients are not aware of the deeper difficulties complicating what other wise truly was experienced as a “normal” childhood. The conditions constituting the participation mystique, with its associated degree of emotional embroilment, inform psyche’s need to generate a countering-complex, if you will. How might each of us picture this scene? If the acquisition of the “rejected component of development,”  is the intent behind the compulsive driver of the re-enactment of the wounding, we want to understand the details of the early conditions. What needed to happen then that wasn’t possible at the time?

Observation: Splitting and complexes go together. Donald Sandner and John Beebe formulated this capturing of the situation and the action. Help?

Dr’s. Sander and Beebe: “In association with his complex theory, Jung offered two fundamental concepts to formulate the psychopathology that we see in analysis: splitting and possession. Complexes tend to split into complementary poles, such as spirit versus instinct, and one-sided alignments occur between the ego and one of the poles, producing personality imbalance and a latent dynamic tension between the opposed elements. Working through any split requires not only dis-identification by the ego from the more familiar pole of the complex, but also affective recognition of the contrary pole. Such recognition requires immersion in the side that has been unconscious. There is an unconscious tendency toward wholeness and relief of tension that fosters the emergence, under accepting conditions such as analysis, of the repressed pole. The consequence is that at least temporary possession by unfamiliar contents is a regular part of the life and of the analytic process, an inevitable prelude to the integration of unconscious portions of the Self.”

Chuck: And on the requirement for complete immersion into the opposite. . .?

Dr. Jung: “A complex can be really overcome only if it is lived out to the full. In other words, if we are to develop further, we have to draw to us and drink down to the very dregs what, because of our complexes we have held at a distance.” (Jung, 1938/1954. pp. 96-99).

Chuck: Splitting and possession, complimentary poles such as spirit versus instinct, and one sided alignments. Sounding familiar?  Healing any split requires not only the ego’s dis-identification from the known pole, but, importantly, the ego’s surrender/immersion into the opposite side, into the waters of the emotion/affects of the original split off trauma. Drinking it down to the very dregs, so to speak. And, to consider that with our focus on connecting with such experiences, there is an increase in access; in calling for consciousness of this material, it comes in. This is the archetypal reality behind the observation: “If you build it he will come.” Our split off material is looking for a container intuited to be strong enough to allowing it to come in. We want to notice those individuals with whom we find more of us seems to show up; more feeling and energy, more memory, more capacity for self reflection.

I really like the “at least temporary possession by unfamiliar contents is a regular part of the life and of the analytic process, an inevitable prelude to the integration of unconscious portions of the Self.” This seems to be stating directly that growth and development will be manifesting in temporary possession states; and, that these emergent affect-images reflect the surfacing of the split in its healing moment. It is true that without enough containment, such temporary possession states may only reach the level of unconscious enactments. I think everyone is under so much pressure to perform and be functional and awake all the time, that it is difficult to embrace the emergence of the material. It has always resisted our best ego efforts to manage it back into the unconscious. Thinking about the role of the ego in sorting through all of this, and Perry’s commercial to have an active ego, any more on the role of the ego?

John Beebe and Donald Sandner:  It follows that in addition to the watchful and containing presence of the analyst, a strong and resilient center of consciousness – an ego – is required in the patient to accomplish and survive the cycle of possession, dis-identification, and final integration that is the process of analysis. Although some Jungians have denigrated the ego and its defenses as mere identification with the hero archetype, the integrity of the ego’s standpoint and its capacity for realistic judgment can make the difference between the success and failure of the analytic enterprise. A task of the analyst is therefore to estimate the capacities of the patient’s ego before the difficult work of exploring complexes is undertaken, and carefully to support that ego’s efforts at discrimination once the analytic work is under way.” (Sandner, Donald F., and Beebe, John, “Psychopathology and Analysis,” Chapter Summary from Jungian Analysis, edited by Murray Stein.)

Chuck: I wanted to include this section to acknowledge the position as stated. My own feeling is this view underestimates the power and role of the Self in first limiting, and then, hopefully, enabling the ego to be very good at its functions. If there ever was a best practices “enabling” I believe it would be in the Self’s aggressiveness in stewarding the ego, insuring its progress in assuming its proper size and role, leading to its success in getting into right relationship to the Self. It does seem to me everyone will benefit from a basic orientation to complexes; we will all experience being buffeted around by them!

How do activated complexes effect our experience of contact with another?

Jonh Weir Perry: “Objects, as they actually are, emerge only with the growth of consciousness and the differentiation of the ego, freeing it from the tangle of alignments with the various complexes that move across the affective stage.” (JWPerry p.43)

Chuck: You may have noticed this concise quote captures the essence of my graphic representation of the the Couple Experiential State Complex. Becoming whole is our life’s work. The good news is that psyche is supporting us all the way. Whatever we may be able to learn in our lifetimes about our complexes, the main thing is to learn to not be unconsciously reactive to their perturbations. This doesn’t mean ignoring, unplugging, or minimizing their presence in any way. Just be aware of what is right in front of you. (along side and behind). Pay attention, track the activations, remember them, and gradual come to understand what you will need to do to heal all the splits possible.

Turning to the inner world enough to establish a base of operations is a good thing. Working with complexes, as opposed to against them, has its rewards?

Jonh Weir Perry:”. . . it is by the interplay of these complexes, as components of development, that the growth of consciousness and the rounding out of the full personality takes place. The resolution of complexes appears to depend mainly upon the proper development of the self-image, which as it grows firmly established, allows fewer and shorter illusory skirmishes into inappropriate affect-ego states in relation to affect-objects.”

Chuck: This is an early statement attesting to Steins observations on psychotherapy outcomes which recognizes a successful therapeutic engagement can be evidenced by a decreases in the number of episodes, the frequency, duration, and intensity of complex activations. Skill acquisition is reflected in one’s increased ability to be in the presence of an activation without becoming fully activated. This is the fortunate situation where in one can begin to work within the blur.

Now, what are we trying to do – just in case the blur should materialize? What is the point of the complex?

John Weir Perry: “Complexes, in their favorable aspect equal components of development. The repetition compulsion, as has been pointed out so often, provides the ego the occasion again and again to encounter these rejected components of development in order finally to assimilate them in some happy moments.”

To be continued. Feel encouraged to weigh in on any of this.

One Comment on “Complexes”


  1. […] or, am I succumbing to the heightened emotional state associated with the blur, signifying a/my/our complex is constellating? He observes: ‘During the emotion the energetic value of the ego is lessened, and that of the […]


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