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*Psycho/analytic corner * What is a complex?

A complex is a group of ideas and images, emotionally charged, around an archetypal core.


Jung spent his early years in Basel, a city imbued with the spirit of humanism, and whose political background was influenced by its proximity to France and Germany. This contributed to his early admiration for Nietzsche, "Whose sensitivity towards the human condition in its tragic ambiguity and whose critique of morality and truth left an indelible mark on Jung." (Frey-Rohn, 1971)

The peculiarity of Jung’s interests took its first form in his dissertation on occult phenomena.

Jung postulated that the episodes characteristic of states of reduced consciousness might be dynamic manifestations of the psyche, not adequately classifiable under the name of 'hallucination'. The subsequent discovery of how the psyche was endowed with an autonomous causal factor, where creative energies would originate, was the basis of Jung’s idea of ​​individuation.

Research on this topic led to Jung's contact with Janet and Charcot. Jung was particularly influenced by Janet’s concept of “subconscious fixed ideas”. The term describes a particular type of psychic material, which would take the form of thoughts or mental images of exaggerated proportions in hysterical patients.

In Janet’s view, subconscious fixed ideas have a high emotional charge, and become dissociated from the habitual personality.

Janet was the first to show clearly and systematically how dissociation is the most direct psychological defence against overwhelming traumatic experiences.

He understood dissociation as inherently pathological, and demonstrated that dissociative phenomena play an important role in widely divergent post-traumatic stress responses, which he included under the 19th-century diagnosis of hysteria.

Jung, in contrast, considered the dissociability of the psyche to be a universal, normal phenomenon.

Although Jung was aware of the potentially disastrous psychological consequences of extreme dissociation, he saw it as essential to the normal functioning of the psyche.

With his research on verbal associations, Jung observed the patterns he detected in subjects' responses, hinting at unconscious feelings and beliefs. This led him to identify the Complexes. Originally, Jung’s conceptualization of “complexes” was the equivalent of Janet’s “subconscious fixed ideas”.

A complex, as defined by Jung, is a structure of the psyche that gathers together similar feeling-toned elements. Each complex is united by the same emotion and each complex is united and organised by a mutual core of meaning. That is, the complex organises experience, perception, and affect around a constant central theme.

Jung often used the term "complex" to describe a partially repressed, yet highly influential cluster of charged psychic material split off from, or at odds with, the conscious Ego: his hypothesis of autonomous complexes, escaping the Ego’s control effectively, explained the dissociative events of the psyche.

This discovery allowed Jung to confirm the Freudian hypothesis of a dynamic system among the unconscious and consciousness. An exchange of letters began, in which the first differences between the two began to emerge.

Just think, for example, of the concept of complexes as it was formulated in 1908: in Freudian terminology, the feeling toned complex, as a psychogenetic factor of neurosis, is equivalent to an unconscious trauma.

In the Jungian view, instead, the complex is a structural element of the unconscious, at the base of which there are always super-personal, or archetypal, contents.

In this regard, the theory of complexes as it was in the period of verbal association tests already contemplates a deeper layer of the unconscious, which will, later on, be defined as the collective unconscious.

Key points

Complexes express themselves in dominant moods and repetitive behaviors. They resist our most heroic attempts at consciousness, and tend to gather experience to confirm their pre-existing worldview. An activated complex may have its own body language and tone of voice. It operates below the level of consciousness, almost like the psychological analogue of the automatic vegetative systems that control blood pressure and digestion. (...)
Another feature of complexes, thoroughly explored by John Perry in his paper "Emotions and Object Relations" (1970) is that they tend to be bipolar, or consist of two parts. Most often, when a complex is activated, one part of the bipolar complex is attached to the ego and the other part is projected onto another suitable one. For example, in a typical negative paternal complex the angry, swaggering rebel is projected onto the person’s ego whereas the other half of the unconscious complex locates the authoritarian father in any teacher, coach, or boss who offers a hook to bite ( this is a phenomenon known as projection) . This bipolarity of the complex leads to an endless cycle of repetitive skirmishes with an illusory other - who may or may not be perfectly suitable.
Complexes can be recognized through the simplistic certainty of a worldview and the place they offer in it, in the face of contradictory opposites that are not easily reconciled. (...) It is much easier to settle for the certainty of a complex than to struggle against the emotional ambiguity of internal and external reality that constantly challenges the Ego.

The theory of complexes

For Jung the complexes with affective tonality (the theory of complexes) refer to all those situations where there is an excess of psychic energy, a sort of affectivity a little exaggerated with respect to the context.

So, a 'complex' includes a series of representations, memories and thoughts partially conscious but with a strong affective charge.

This excessive charge, limits the freedom of the Ego. We could say that the complex could be compared to a black hole, and we all know that black holes is that they absorb all energy whilst subsuming everything around.

The theory of complexes and trauma

Everyone knows that traumas leave an indelible memory, and we are generally referring to big traumas (earthquake, war, accident, bereavement, ...). Broadening the theme, we must keep in mind that there are also micro-traumas that also leave indelible marks but that rarely reach the threshold of consciousness.


Speaking then of the less recognisable traumas, which we could call micro-traumas but that are perpetrated over a long period of time (think for example of the instrumental attachment relationships of an abusive parent, or of all those relationships where one is used to satisfy the needs of others.

Or other abuses, like that of many children who are bullied (by adults, because they are handicapped, because they are shy, because they are considered losers, ...).

Stressful situations

Well, also these situations can create stress situations that bypass the elaboration of the cerebral cortex, but are 'escaped' directly by the amygdala; said in psychological terms, these situations or those that as adults are experienced as similar, very presumably will be handled in the automatic way (bolted horse) we discussed above, that is always through the short way.

So, beware of trauma talk since we have shown that there are not only 'big traumas' but also small, seemingly insignificant ones related to the context of the individual.

In such cases, in the clinical dynamic, we notice a behaviour and an emotionality not justified by the context which are obviously the object of analysis.

In all these cases we find ourselves in a situation in which the subject is dominated by a complex that, besides being autonomous, tends also to be compulsive (always through the short way, that is not subjected to the attention of the cortical structures).

The theory of complexes - psychological implications

Jung claimed that neurotic people, independently from their experience, refused or were not able to bear the here and now of a real and legitimate pain. Thus, this 'pain', or its representation, shatters the previous integrity of the ego.

Such splitting is part of the normal life of every human being since the totality is made to split, but this becomes pathological, and therefore sick, only when this split is exaggeratedly wide and the conflict becomes intense and unmanageable.

The theory of complexes and neuroscience

You might be familiar with Paul MacLean's studies on the three-brain theory. According to the researcher we have three brains: the reptilian, the limbic and emotional and the neocortex.

In more detail, MacLean, compares the two aspects (the emotional and the rational) like that between horse and rider.

As long as everything goes well, the rider feels he can manage his horse without any problems, but in case of loud noises or threats from other animals (for example a horse kicking, or a hare suddenly coming out of the woods, ... and whoever rides a horse knows this very well), the horse will bolt and the rider will have to struggle to stay in the saddle.

The limbic system or the emotional system

So whenever the limbic system (horse) feels in danger, communication between the various systems weakens in favour of the 'horse'. Neurologically our horse is called the amygdala.

When this structure detects danger, hormones are released which, once in the bloodstream, cause reactions of the attack or flight type, but also (far more serious) reactions of the type of total inability to express any type of reaction (freezing).

The short way - emotional brain

This pathway is called the 'short pathway' because between the sensation of danger and the reaction, the cortex (capable of more complex processing) is not involved. So between the stimuli there is only the amygdala and no higher processing (drawing on memories, logic, reason, experiences, ...) is activated and the reaction is automatic (unconscious), rarely conscious.

Fear and fright

We are scared when we are faced with a known danger (cortical structures). Instead, we are frightened by something unexpected (amygdala).


We fall in love (amygdala) v we decide to get together (cortex).

Predominance of the emotional brain (amygdala)

According to scholars, there are sensory inputs (memories, emotions, smells, ...) that stimulate the amygdala and make us relive (immediately) emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, but also pleasant feelings, evocative, deja-vu, ...) that do not reach the cortex.

So here it is that in these cases, the limbic brain (the above mentioned horse) takes the lead and responds automatically, as we have seen above.

It is noteworthy that the limbic system is able to influence the cortical system while the opposite does not happen.

Therefore, we could say that thoughts (cortex) easily activate emotions (thinking about one's beloved), while with greater difficulty we can interrupt them (try to ask an anxious person to stop being anxious person).

Jung's complexes are characterised by an 'excess of psychic energy', exaggerated affectivity (the bolted horse), and can be compared to an autonomous reaction as we have seen above.

In these cases we could say that the subject's reaction could be the fruit of an internalised danger (perhaps at an age when this danger was overestimated, if not the fruit of a cognitive error).

Jung's studies of 1905 would confirm those made by neuroscientists about the 'short way', but from a clinical, psychological point of view.


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