Psycho-Educational Symbolic Overview

As William Stafford observed, “the darkness around us is deep”. From a psycho-educational perspective, it can be helpful to explore aspects of our experiences that constitute that darkness and are beyond our direct knowing. Toward that end, I have developed an approach to support turning towards those powerful and confusing experiences which present as beyond our conscious grasp, and despite our best intentions, wreck considerable havoc on our lives and sense of well being.

What follows is the introduction of a pattern language, a graphic symbol system intended to highlight the importance of  developing a working relationship with the unconscious. It seems this must be a most personal and intimate relationship, to the extent we can open to experiencing ourselves as part of the mystery. Understanding, mediating and reconciling conflict in our relationships with self, others, and the world requires we acknowledge directly that which is beyond our conscious grasp. In the best of times. In alignment with Jung’s hammer and anvil image, I am advocating for embracing the unconscious, with respect and boundaries.

The concept of Action Disorder provides a useful way into the idea we are all working with unconscious dynamic processes. Pressure to less than conscious thought, feeling, and behavior suggests something important is trying to get our attention. In recognizing the existence of such material, how might we understand and embrace unconscious communications as a call to consciousness? Take a couple of deep relaxation cleansing breaths… hold still for a long time… and listen…

Establishing meaningful and enduring primary support relationships is critical to creating a place for our authentic selves in this world. It starts with recognizing the indivisible unit of human experience is not one’s self, rather, it is self in relationship to other, the other standing in for someone or something.

The Developmental Considerations plate provides a way to begin to think about one’s self in relationship to the significant other in the world, from womb to tomb. The details of the early holding environment inform the development of an internal representation of self-in-relationship-to-other, providing access to the qualities and resources of the internalized mother/father other. Note, while I might say mother or father, or mother/father other, I find it helpful to consider whatever is in the mother is in the father, and vice versa. For our purposes, in psyche, they are separate and distinct, as well as mixed and blended. We separate/differentiate them regularly, but psyche’s shorthand combines them in important ways, often. The conditions of maternal/paternal under-involvement versus over-involvement, as they define the requirements for the character defenses of the child, will be explored. From the developmental history, we now can consider something of how the early experiences are recorded and serve to inform our future expectations for relationship.

The Experiential State captures in a composite “scene remembered” form the sum total of our wounds-to-loving encounters. Interactions resulting in feeling injuries, particularly those painful scenes which by virtue of being unbearable in the moment triggered the activation of dissociative defenses, become the basis of what we call transference. Countless interactions, averaged and generalized over time, contribute to primitive invariant organizing principles. This phrase describes directly the old brain’s methods of taking note of painful experiences; based on it’s as if black box fight/flight/freeze recordings of earlier situations resulting in emotional injuries; these principles altogether function as an instinctual early warning system dedicated to taking defensive action through hyper-vigilant scanning of the environment for silhouettes of potential threats.

We have much more than just memories of mother and father. Something of their energies has come in, and when triggered by current stress and conflict, they want to “help.” A fun movie scene for this opens with a couple sitting up in bed, trying to talk about a micro-fracture in their communication. As each struggles to be heard, other voices start to weigh in, and when the camera pulls back we see, to our surprise, both sets of parents are in bed with the couple, six bodies, six heads, all deeply expressive. The Experiential State combines all of this and more into one scene remembered: something has happened, and the faces reflect the deep impact. Try on a scene remembered . . .

The Ego-Self Axis: Separation-Reunion and Trauma plate provides an orientation to Jung’s conceptualization of the ego, Self, and ego-Self axis, from the perspective of trauma management. In this system the ego is recognized as the center of conscious life and the Self (note: capital “S”) designated to be the ordering and unifying center of conscious and unconscious life. This important formulation is worthy of a pause. What is unconscious to the ego is conscious to the Self. In addition, imagine the ego as the center of conscious life is in its mature form in the service of the Self. This view offers help and hope to all the sufferers of what would seem to be clearly too much or to little ego functioning. Ego problems are egos in need of getting connected to the Self.

The ego-Self axis represents the ego’s developmental process and functional relationship to the Self. In the service of achieving adaptation to outer world demands, the first half of life developmental conditions favor ego-Self axis separation; this dynamic supports the ego’s sense of mastery, enabled in part through effective repression of unbearable experiences. What is important here is the idea that if our defenses are effective in keeping debilitating traumas out of sight and mind, we can better focus on moving into our adult lives.

In early to late midlife the dynamic shifts, now favoring ego-Self axis reunion. Reunion with the Self, the ordering and unifying center of total consciousness, supports the remembering of what was in the earlier life symbolically dismembering. Understanding ego-Self axis reunion as a developmental imperative is the key to recognizing this process as a manifestation of an initiatory innate drive towards healing and wholeness, rather than evidence of self/other pathology.

The Developmental Considerations, Experiential State, and Ego-Self Axis Separation-Reunion and Trauma plates introduce the core elements.

Complexes as Bridge to the Symbolic World: In its mysterious, true symbol system aspect, these images hold something beyond that which I can consciously fully grasp. An image functioning as a symbol both informs us about, while at the same time protects us from, an emerging, essential to conscious life awareness. Jung (1921) defined the symbol as “the best possible designation or formula for something relatively unknown yet recognized to be present, or required.” (Jung, C.G., CW6)

The symbol comes alive for me in the Experiential State as Complex image. The elements present combine the internal representation of self/other/affect, in its scene remembered composite form, with its associated complex. In its experiential state aspect, it captures the essence of one’s family of origin experience. Countless interactions averaged and generalized over time serve to inform the transference at the level of primitive invariant organizing principles.

From a complex perspective, the experiential state image mirrors directly the key elements comprising the nucleus of a complex: an archetypal energy, or dynamism, and the scene of activation depicting the object “in the act.” The presence of archetypal energy suggests the resources of the collective unconscious have been called into service and will need special consideration.

Jung’s formulation of the complex bridges personal experience with the archetypal world. Complexes are generated in response to overwhelming personal life experiences. Murray Stein, on the structure of the complex, notes:

“. . . 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. (Stein, Murray, “The Structure of Complexes, “Jung’s Map of the Soul, pp. 52-53.

Traumatic experiences, by virtue of their energies having overwhelmed the ego’s ability to stay conscious, evoke specific archetypal responses, thereby connecting us to the hardwired resources of the Self. The associated nuclear element, the evoked node, provides access to the collective memory of the human experience with the same insult/injury at hand; through this activation pattern recognition resources become available to inform our personal response.

For an example of one such bridge, imagine a young child unexpectedly finding him/herself confronted with an extremely distraught mother or father. Edward Edinger observed: “When the child Maneros witnessed Isis’ terrible loss and grief upon seeing the dead Osiris, this awesome sight was so intolerable to Maneros that he fell out of the boat and drowned.” (Edinger, Edward, Anatomy of the Psyche, p. 60.)

This mythological image helps us understand the power of an upsetting personal experience at the level of the archetypal layer; it may be that while part of us that was able to stay in the boat, another part may have symbolically fallen overboard and drowned. We may not be conscious of or remember this detail. Edinger, reflecting on male psychology, goes on to say: “Most men, if they are honest, will acknowledge having had the experience of Maneros when confronted with a woman’s intense grief, desire, or anger”.

This “scene” can become the nucleus of a complex; when this happens, the complex nucleus records and contains the original activating scene of the trauma.

In this respect complexes serve to archive wounds of overwhelm, preserving them until such time the conditions allow us to revisit and heal that which has been split off from consciousness. They also function as dynamic, energetic, sub-personality-like entities. When activating, or what we call constellated, complexes challenge ego consciousness for the driver’s seat, pushing for unconscious enactments.

I understand the idea of archetypes and the collective unconscious are difficult. My interest in the bridge between the personal and archetypal is to understand and respect the degree of difficulty we are up against whenever an archetypal activation is involved. Donald Kalsched instructs that when it comes to working with the archetypal protector complex, which comes on board with early trauma and is dedicated to protecting through disconnection, more sophisticated ego level defenses cannot directly, consciously, will the primitive complex away. The ego can choose to orient to the symbolic world and cultivate connections with the dreamtime, which then can begin to intervene on behalf of consciousness.

The Experiential State Complex and the Ego-Self Axis and the Experiential State as Complex Nucleus: Trauma, Image, and Affect plates depict the stated elements. I have included two variations on the theme; the first differentiates the internalized representations of self/other/affect in contrast to the complex, and the second tries on combining them into one.

The Experiential State Complex Symbol supports beginning to consciously orient to one’s core wound with its associated defense system. From an individual psychological perspective, this complex is responsible for the self-other sabotaging behaviors driving the repetition compulsion or reenactment of the wounding. This is the realm described by D. H. Lawrence in his poem “Healing.” He suggests we must come to the “realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself from the endless repetition of the mistake…”

The Couple Experiential State Complex pictures what occurs when relationships bring two experiential states together. From a process perspective, the presence of emotion suggests the unconscious is activating in the moment. The Couple Experiential State Complex initiates a blurring of the boundary between the here and now conflict and our unfinished emotional business. Between the two parties, a powerful script has been written, the casting decided, scene set, and is ready to be enacted. If unchecked by consciousness, the activation will direct an unconscious reenactment of the wounding, reflecting the full range of affect present at the original scene.

The Differentiating Feeling from Emotion page supports the discernment process and helps restore Emotion’s reputation. (It is not only a problem!) 

The Emotion and Invulnerability to Fire page introduces the radical idea that constellations of affect can be purifying, not just a drag.

Complexes endeavors to expand on the definitions and behaviors of said complexes.

Without considerable effort to understand and keep connected to consciousness, once constellated, the couple experiential state complex, as a repetition compulsion, is likely to defeat the individual and couple’s best ego-based intentions. For those who can stand to look within, and seek to understand how it could be that destructive unconscious actions towards self and other could continue to defeat love and commitment, a different outcome is possible. If we can stay curious, guided by the wisdom of psyche and the participation mystique, we can come to realize we have in fact co-created our troubles for a very important reason. Unbeknownst to us at the time of the wedding, the Couple Complex is dedicated to one day healing that which up until now could not be healed.

The Observation: Healing Only Occurs in the Blur page provides an orientation to the challenges and importance of the blur as a unique, altered state of consciousness. Until the blur is recognized for what it is, an emergent unconscious-to-ego emotional content in need of attention and connection, both parties are at risk for a projection/introjection cycle; by this I mean, when one projects, the other is likely to introject, or take in, the unconscious affect/image “offering.” The Representation of Persona Submitting to Emotion plate captures something of this perspective. The pressing priority goal at this point of awareness is to shift attention from the content of the issue at hand to include directly acknowledging the reality of the emotional tone.

In the Couple Experiential State Complex as Activated Threshold page I am trying on the radical idea that even the most difficult and troubling emotional outbursts, when understood in depth, connect us to a wound that needs our full attention, ultimately in the service of recovering a little more wholeness. If we can work with the ego to accept and honor the timing of the activation, we can begin to make preparations to embrace the opening and work through a painful fact. This can be a surprisingly satisfying experience. We can come to know the meaning of the old saying one can only know as much joy as one knows sorrow.

The Ancestral Complex Perspective and Ancestral Complexes Meeting plates extend the pattern language to include our work within the ancestral evolutionary process. The ancestral complex perspective plate simply brings into the picture what one would see in turning to look over the left shoulder, backwards, if the holding environments of each generation before could be seen directly. The line up of “mother/father” others, with associated internal representations symbolizing the teachings encoded in the Experiential State Complex, supports understanding the importance of what has gone on before us, and the significance of what remains to be worked through.

The Ancestral Complexes Meeting plate positions the Couple Experiential State Complex at the center of two ancestral lines. The image of the evoked archetypal node, with arrows suggesting the influence of a particular complex at the center of all the action, an enchantment, suggests we explore the deep dynamics at play in our selection of the beloved. When we learn to stay conscious enough to work “in the blur” it is as if the ancestors come closer. Perhaps this experience would be better captured by the ancestors standing in circle around us, encouraging us, holding us, containing our process, and grounding the energy that previously was “to intense to be controlled by will alone.” We are coming home in a very deep sense of the word.

2 Comments on “Psycho-Educational Symbolic Overview”


  1. […] page on the experiential state as a complex nucleus. Below I am going to bring forward some of my psycho-educational symbolic overview page discussion of this […]


  2. […] or required? For more on this see my section on Complexes as Bridge to the Symbolic World in the Psycho-Educational Symbolic Overview, or my exploration of the teleology of the complex in Musings on Metamorphosis […]


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