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Jung’s Theory of Complexes

The idea of complexes is so well established today, it’s a common figure of speech. Alfred Adler long ago introduced the idea of an inferiority complex, and most of us know what is meant by it. It works together with its opposite, and an over-compensating facade of superiority conceals it.

An unconscious complex describes one of those curious blind-spots in our personalities that only others may see. Those who know us may have to tip-toe around them, because we’re unconsciously sensitive to them. They evoke defensive reactions when triggered and often result in the anger that masks our fear of them — the surest sign of a weak spot, that we’re not in control.

Along with many of Jung’s concepts, his theory of complexes seems only half-acknowledged as a fundamental building block in understanding how our minds work. Psychology fancies having gone beyond those basics, even as it never really understood their implications. His ideas seem to have been dismissed by an attitude peculiarly suggestive of misunderstanding and denial.

Jung’s discovery that we connect with our deepest natures through religious and philosophical ideas is more and more obscured by a science focused on the material world. Psychology moves only further away from the psyche through a technological faddism blinded by the glare of disparate tid-bits of statistical and technical knowledge. The science charged to make sense of an immaterial mind is unable to see through the concreteness of data, measurement, precision instruments, and all the rest of the bandwagon of rational thought.

Part of the problem is the lack of an empirical concept of the unconscious. That there could even be psychologies today which don’t acknowledge it is itself a study in complexes. We can’t see it directly as one would view molecules under microscopes or brains through electronic scans; but there are objective ways to infer its heavy influence on how we think and feel.

Jung’s study of complexes began with his association tests.  A subject’s one-word response to a stimulus word was timed and recorded. Delays in responses to certain words, lack of memory of them, and other disturbances of what would normally be a simple exercise in word-association prompted him to look closer. Inappropriate responses (those against instruction), facial expressions, body movements, stammering, habitual repetition of the same words — all these reactions were beyond control of the will.

The emotional roots of the disturbances could gradually be identified by honing in on the stimulus words and their patterns. The ones causing the disturbances revolved around certain general ideas that hung together in a meaningful way. Over the course of a hundred words or so, a picture emerged to a skilled observer. The more knowledge of the subject and the more targeted the trigger words, the more information was revealed.

All pointed toward concealed, semi-conscious, repressed, and/or completely unconscious contents which revolved around decisive issues in the subject’s life. Jung wrote in The Symbolic Life:

A complex is an agglomeration of associations — a sort of picture of… a psychological nature — sometimes of traumatic character, sometimes simply of a painful and highly toned character. Everything that is highly toned is rather difficult to handle… It is simply an important affair, and whatever has an intense feeling-tone is difficult to handle because such contents are associated with physiological reactions, with the processes of the heart, the tonus of the blood vessels, the condition of the intestines, the breathing, and the innervation of the skin… it is just as if that particular complex had a body of its own, as if it were localized in my body to a certain extent…

The implications of these processes go far beyond mere Freudian slips. Who would need a clearer picture of the mutual effects of mind and body? That the psyche would send forth signals through the body, symbols, of its own life through its own ideas in an unconscious effort to translate to consciousness what it was feeling, what had been repressed? Jung:

… a complex with its given tension or energy has the tendency to form a little personality of itself. It has a sort of body, a certain amount of its own physiology. It can upset the stomach. It upsets the breathing, it disturbs the heart — in short, it behaves like a partial personality. For instance, when you want to say or do something and… a complex interferes with this intention… your best intention gets upset by the complex, exactly as if you had been interfered with by a human being or by circumstances outside.

Regardless of how consciousness interprets itself, its “own” ideas, or its will, there are psychic facts which appear as outer circumstances and events  — but which are not. It would seem that psychology today is interested more in how it can relieve the symptoms of being human — of hiding from the mystery of life rather than trying to understand it:

All this is explained by the fact that the so-called unity of consciousness is an illusion. It is really a wish-dream.  We like to think that we are one; but we are not, most decidedly not. We are not really masters in our house. We like to believe in our will-power and in our energy and in what we can do; but when it comes to a real show-down we find that we can do it only to a certain extent…

The real show-down is now. What will we do?


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