Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Clinical Perspectives

Grappling with the Devil: Understanding the Complex

Complex Defined
The struggle to grasp the meaning of a complex is a challenge, as it has a way of overtaking an individual without conscious awareness. As Jung said, “Everyone knows nowadays that people ‘have complexes.’ What is not so well known … is that complexes can have us” (Jung, 1960 p.96). Not all complexes are negative; falling in love, for example, can be a positive complex. Being possessed by a complex which produces harmful, sabotaging behavior, an embarrassing slip of the tongue, noisy stumbling in a quiet setting, the sudden appearance of unexpected, disproportionate, overwhelming emotion in response to a person, statement, situation, etc., is the focus of this paper.

Jung believed that it is complexes and not dreams, as Freud postulated, that are the “royal road to the unconscious” (Jacobi, 1959, p. 6). Embedded in these deep-seated patterns often lies great pain which, as hard as one might try, insists on manifesting itself unbidden. Jacobi explains that complexes “are of an intrapsychic nature and originate in a realm which is beyond the objective control of the conscious mind” (p.7). Conforti makes the analysis to the concept of the chaotic attractor in chaos theory: “In psychology, the attractor is the complex. … The complex, as defined by Yoram Kaufmann, a Jungian analyst, is a quanta of energy organized around a certain theme, for instance a mother complex, a father complex, or a sexual complex, etc. The complex, like the attractor, functions much like a magnetic epicenter creating the convergence of archetypal potentialities into a singularity, a highly patterned behavioral tendency, drawing to it one specific face of an archetype” (Conforti, 1999). Simply put, complexes are behavioral symptoms that dwell in the realm of the unconscious, are feeling-toned, emotionally-charged behaviors that usually originate due to painful, and even more often traumatic experiences, which take on a personality of their own. They are a conglomeration of ideas and images linked together in common affect (Stevens, 1982).

Attachment and Complexes
Jung recognized that complexes begin to form early on in life and referenced that what a parent thinks she has kept hidden from the child often affects the child most deeply (Knox, in Cambray & Carter, 2004). An inhibited or disinhibited attachment to a parental figure can contribute to the formation of, for example, a mother or father complex. Attachment theory explains how we cultivate an enduring internalized pattern of relationships across the lifespan. Attachment is a reciprocal, profound, emotional and physical relationship between a child and the parent that sets the stage for all future intimate, trusting relationships, including the individual’s relationship with him or her Self –- the regulating core of the psyche, “… that center of being which the ego circumambulates” (Singer, 1972, p.210). In a secure attachment, the child normally and regularly turns to the parent for help, comfort and nurturance. Simple physical proximity to the parent reassures a stressed child and he enjoys and responds to the mutual, intimate, loving connection. The child develops curiosity about his environment and the desire and ability to explore increases. It is through exploration that the child gains a sense of competence and mastery, securely knowing that the parent will be present when exploration becomes overpowering (Bowlby, 1988). Knowing that the parent is maintaining awareness of the child helps the child’s sense of identity and self concept develop, as well as teaches the child emotional self-regulation.

How this pattern develops affects the realm of the interpersonal. In inhibited or disinhibited attachment, the assurance of a secure base, as Bowlby described, the attentive parent, is not present; thus the child not only becomes inured to the lack of comfort, but begins to introject that he is not worthy of consistent care and comfort. Here lies the fertile soil for the seeding of the complex.

Fertility of complex seeding is demonstrated well in an old joke: a mother gives her adult successful son two ties as a gift. Later, meeting for lunch, the son wears one of the ties, and the mother says, “What’s the matter? You didn’t like the other tie?” When the son reacts angrily or with whiny protestations, the feeling of powerlessness, it is likely that the negative mother complex has, as Jung would put it, been constellated. The son is not aware that the complex now possesses him. It erodes not only the son’s independence, self confidence, identity and worthiness, but the health of the parent/child relationship; for this type of comment is one that has been heard throughout life and has manifested itself in many other debilitating actions. The bee has stung and the reaction begins. Jung would describe the son’s response thus: “…an active complex puts us momentarily under a state of duress, of compulsive thinking and acting, for which under certain conditions the only appropriate term would be the judicial concept of diminished responsibility” (Jung, 1960 p.96). That responsibility would include not only acknowledging that the son does not have to respond in a childlike manner, but identifying that it is the mother’s needs, not the son’s, that elicited the comment.

But complexes, once unleashed, have a way of eclipsing one’s usual attitude; the inner voices of self-doubt and repudiation gain great volume, so much so that the conscious mind recedes as the complex establishes control: “I cannot ever do anything that will please her. I am not good enough and therefore she does not love me. I never do anything right in any part of my life; therefore I am a failure.” This is the language of the complex, indicative of when its personality has hold of its victim.

Gregory Bateson’s double bind hypothesis is another way of describing the effects of being trapped in the throes of a complex. In a double bind, two messages are given simultaneously, one conflicting with and negating the other. An example is a young man is recovering in hospital from a psychotic episode. His mother comes to visit him. When he puts his arms around her, she stiffens coldly. When he then withdraws, the mother says, “Now, dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed or sensitive and afraid of your feelings.” After the mother leaves, the young man becomes upset and assaults an aide, resulting in being placed in restraints. He was bound not only physically but psychologically. Unable to express the feeling of rejection or desire for an empathic connection with the mother, he could not convey the confusion nor gain maternal love. He had learned that he could not believe in or trust emotions that were transmitted to him or his perception of them. His only escape was into psychosis. The complex now had full control (Schultz, 1993).

Complexes do not have to be triggered by its originator. Once established, statements and actions of other people and situations can trigger a complex. In the case of the son mentioned above, a comment from a friend, co-worker, or situation can release the complex devil. A complex, according to Singer, is made up of two components. One is “a nuclear element,” (Singer, 1972, p.43), acting very much like a magnet or a chaotic attractor (Conforti, 1999). The second part of the complex is a cluster of associations that are drawn to the nucleus. The nuclear element is determined by personal experience; the cluster of associations is related to the person’s innate disposition, both basic to the foundation of the structure of the psyche (Singer, 1972). The result is the same feelings that overcame either of the sons discussed above while with their mothers: fear of failure, worthlessness and rejection. Uncomfortable physical symptoms accompany the complex: increased heart rate, breathing, a tension in the muscles, etc. These are also symptoms of anxiety. The nuclear element that Singer speaks of is analogous to the chaotic attractor Conforti describes. Until the person becomes aware of the symptomatic reflexes to the constellated complex, little control will be available.

The chaotic attractor or nuclear element of a complex is constantly scanning the environment, seeking the person or situation that will perpetuate the pattern. This is why there are so many stories of, for example, women who get into abusive relationship after abusive relationship. Having mistakenly learned in childhood that this is love, psyche immediately identifies the mate who will keep this pattern of disrespect going, even when the initial connection seems rosy. “The complex creates a type of antenna around individuals tuning them in and aligning them with the specific frequency … This tuning mechanism of the psyche … works by creating alignments and entrainments with only those segments of life which match the constant of the constellated [complex]” (Conforti, 1999).

Exorcising the Devil
Complexes often appear symbolically in dreams, as described in this writer’s earlier article on dream interpretation. It is through these images, as well as projection, regressive behavior, and other manifestations of the client that awareness of and control over complexes can be attained. Complexes never go away, but instead of them “having us,” as Jung said, one can become aware of when a complex is activated and make a choice about how to handle the embedded emotions. They are hard habits to break. The more aware of the knee jerk reaction elicited by the complex, the less the reaction occurs, but learning to be aware of that jerking knee takes great care and practice. When a client speaks of issues in relationships that replicate developmental struggles, I identify them as the mother or father complex, for example, and that the client is reacting in the habitual way. By going over this again and again through stories, emotional reactions, dreams etc., I impress upon the client that it is the complex at work and that unlike when he or she was a child, there is now a choice as to how to respond. This idea is often received with great surprise by the client, so established is the complex and its pull. The accompanied visceral responses must also be attended; I encourage the client to notice his breathing, pressure in the body, clenching jaws or fists, heart rate and to attempt to release the tension as a way of choosing not to succumb to the complex’s grip. Often intense anger or rage overcomes a client when the complex takes hold. Rage is a forceful emotion and often is mistaken for true power; in fact, it is the manipulation of the complex controlling the conscious mind and is destructive. “An adult’s longings for omnipotence and omniscience will have been profoundly, but unknowingly, shaped by the conditions in which she or he grew into a conscious person (Young-Eisendrath, 2004, p. 166). True power is gained through understanding what has been triggered and making the choice to address the reaction in a novel and more mature manner. The tricky work here is to differentiate that which has been stimulated (a conditioned response) and that which truly is, identifying that the projection entrenched in a complex is only that: projection of our self doubt, fear, old behavioral patterns and reactions and with practice and awareness, this reaction extinguishes.

“The transformation of suffering, through a psychoanalytic treatment, should lead to gains in psychological well-being that last a lifetime. … The goals of alleviating suffering and increasing compassion [for self and others] depend on the ability to recognize one’s own habitual impulses to dissociate, project and/or identify with some alien emotional meaning, and then to sidestep or hold open that impulse so that something new (that is not part of the old emotional script) can emerge” (p. 164 - 165). Young-Eisendrath equates this to Jung’s term of potential space. She explains that when a psychoanalytic work is successful, the client gains the ability to transcend and change his suffering by gaining the skill of using the transcendent function.

In the Final Analysis
When an analysis is successfully completed, much has been learned including that the client emerges with control over his reactions to that which triggers complexes. The complexes are still alive, but they have lost their place in the client’s psyche, reassigned to the back of the line. The client has learned to recognize the tickling of a complex and has also learned to choose not to react to it. “Once this distinction is even somewhat clarified, the patient has a new freedom: the freedom of personal accountability” (p. 167). The choice is obvious and available: the client now possesses the freedom to acknowledge old habitually destructive ways of reacting when complexes are evoked, recognizes that tickling, its source, and utilizes healthy alternative behaviors, disabling the complex’s self-defeating lure. This is the responsibility that comes with freedom in this particular awareness, liberating the client so cleanly, a feeling of transcendence as well as solidity is experienced. Self awareness, empathy and compassion for one’s Self, others and for world experiences are now firmly implanted, leaving minimal space for the complexes to thrive.

Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base. Routledge, New York.

Conforti, M. (1999). December, 1999 newsletter archive: Oregon Friends of C.G.Jung. In Field, form and fate: patterns in mind, nature and psyche. Spring Publications, Connecticut.

Jacobi, J. (1959). Complex, archetype, symbol in the psychology of C.G.Jung. Princeton University Press, New York.

Jung, C. G. (1960). The structure and dynamics of the psyche. In (R.F.C. Hull, Trans.) Collected works (Vol. 8, pp. 92-104). Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Knox, J. (2004). Developmental aspects of analytical psychology. In Cambray, J. & Carter, L. (Eds). Analytical psychology: contemporary perspectives in Jungian analysis; Brunner, Routledge, New York.

Singer, J. (1972). Boundaries of the Soul: the practice of Jung’s psychology. Doubleday, New York.

Schultz, S. (1993). Family systems thinking. Aronson, New Jersey.

Stevens, A. (1982) Archetypes; a natural history of the self. Routledge & Kegan, United Kingdom.

Young-Eisendrath, P. (2004). Subject to change: Jung, gender and subjectivity in psychoanalysis. Brunner-Routledge, New York.

- Submitted by Barbara Darshan

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