Complex (psychology)

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A complex is a core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions, and wishes in the personal unconscious organized around a common theme, such as power or status.[1] Primarily a psychoanalytic term, it is found extensively in the works of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

An example of a complex would be as follows: if one had a leg amputated when one was a child, this would influence one's life in profound ways, even if he or she overcame the physical handicap. A person may have many thoughts, emotions, memories, feelings of inferiority, triumphs, bitterness, and determinations centering on that one aspect of his or her life. If these thoughts were troubling and pervasive, Jung might say he or she had a complex about the leg.[2]

The reality of complexes is widely agreed upon in the area of depth psychology, a branch of psychology asserting that the vast majority of the personality is determined and influenced by unconscious processes.[2] Complexes are common features of the psychic landscape, according to Jung's accounting of the psyche, and often become relevant in psychotherapy to examine and resolve, most especially in the journey toward individuation or wholeness. Without resolution, complexes continue to exert unconscious, maladaptive influence on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior and keep us from achieving psychological integration.

History and development of the idea[edit]

Carl Jung distinguished between two types of unconscious mind: the personal unconscious and collective unconscious.[2] The personal unconscious was the accumulation of experiences from a person's lifetime that could not be consciously recalled.[2] The collective unconscious, on the other hand, was a sort of universal inheritance of human beings, a "species memory" passed on to each of us, not unlike the motor programs and instincts of other animals.[2] Jung believed the personal unconscious was dominated by complexes.[2]

The term "complex" (German: Komplex; also "emotionally charged complexes" or "feeling-toned complex of ideas"), was coined by Carl Jung when he was still a close associate of Sigmund Freud.[3] Complexes were so central to Jung's ideas that he originally called his body of theories "Complex psychology".[4] Historically the term originated with Theodor Ziehen, a German psychiatrist who experimented with reaction time in word association test responses.[4] Jung described a "complex" as a 'node' in the unconscious; it may be imagined as a knot of unconscious feelings and beliefs, detectable indirectly, through behavior that is puzzling or hard to account for.

Jung found evidence for complexes very early in his career in the word association tests conducted at the Burghölzli, the psychiatric clinic of Zurich University, where Jung worked from 1900 to 1908.[4] Jung developed the theory out of his work on Word Association Test.[4] In the word association tests, a researcher reads a list of 100 words to each subject, who was asked to say, as quickly as possible, the first thing that came to mind in response to each word, and the subject's reaction time was measured in fifths of a second.[4] (Sir Francis Galton invented the method in 1879.) Researchers noted any unusual reactions—hesitations, slips of the tongue, signs of emotion.[4] Jung was interested in patterns he detected in subjects' responses, hinting at unconscious feelings and beliefs.[4]

In Jung's theory, complexes may be conscious, partly conscious, or unconscious.[2] Complexes can be positive or negative, resulting in good or bad consequences.[5] There are many kinds of complex, but at the core of any complex is a universal pattern of experience, or archetype.[6] Two of the major complexes Jung wrote about were the anima (a node of unconscious beliefs and feelings in a man's psyche relating to the opposite gender) and animus (the corresponding complex in a woman's psyche). Other major complexes include the mother, father, hero, and more recently, the brother and sister. Jung believed it was perfectly normal to have complexes because everyone has emotional experiences that affect the psyche. Although they are normal, negative complexes can cause us pain and suffering.[5]

One of the key differences between Jungian and Freudian theory is that Jung's thought posits several different kinds of complex. Freud only focused on the Oedipus complex which reflected developmental challenges that face every young boy. He did not take other complexes into account except for the Electra complex, which he briefly spoke of (Carlini, 2005).

After years of working together, Jung broke from Freud, due to disagreements in their ideas, and they each developed their own theories. Jung wanted to distinguish between his and Freud's findings, so he named his theory "analytical psychology".

Jung's theory of complexes with key citations[edit]

Psychological complex according to Jung (en).jpg

Until complexes are made conscious and worked through, as commonly done in neo-Jungian psychotherapy, they operate "autonomously and interfere with the intentions of the will, disturbing the memory and conscious performance".[citation needed]

The ego itself can be thought of as a complex, not yet fully integrated with other parts of the psyche (namely, the superego and the id, or unconscious). As described by Jung, "by ego I understand a complex of ideas which constitutes the center of my field of consciousness and appears to possess a high degree of continuity and identity. Hence I also speak of an ego-complex".[7]

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 "I".[8] Daniels (2010) described complexes as "'stuck-together' agglomerations of thoughts, feelings, behavior patterns, and somatic forms of expression". Concerning its nature as feeling-toned, Jung wrote "[a complex] 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."[9]

Some complexes can usurp power from the ego and can cause psychological disturbances and symptoms resulting from the development of a neurosis.[8] Jung described the autonomous, self-directing nature of complexes when he said

"what is not so well known, but far more important theoretically, is that complexes can have us. The existence of complexes throws serious doubt on the naive assumption of the unity of consciousness, which is equated with 'psyche,' and on the supremacy of the will. Every constellation of a complex postulates a disturbed state of consciousness. The unity of consciousness is disrupted and the intentions of the will are impeded or made impossible. Even memory is often noticeably affected, as we have seen. The complex must therefore be a psychic factor which, in terms of energy, possesses a value that sometimes exceeds that of our conscious intentions, otherwise such disruptions of the conscious order would not be possible at all. And in fact, 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"[10]

On the other hand, Jung spoke of the "differentiating functions" as essentially the healthy development of useful complexes, yet not without bringing about often undesirable side effects.

"It is true that we do not refer to this [training and development of functions] as obsession by a complex, but as one-sidedness. Still, the actual state is approximately the same, with this difference, that the one-sidedness is intended by the individual and is fostered by all the means in his power, whereas the complex is felt to be injurious and disturbing. People often fail to see that consciously willed one-sidedness is one of the most important causes of an undesirable complex, and that, conversely, certain complexes cause a one-sided differentiation of doubtful value.[11]

In Psychological Types, Jung describes the effects of tensions between the dominant and inferior differentiating functions, often forming complexes and neuroses, in highly and even extremely one-sided types.

"In the foregoing descriptions I have no desire to give my readers the impression that these types occur at all frequently in such pure form in actual life. They are, as it were, only Galtonesque family portraits, which single out the common and therefore typical features, stressing them disproportionately, while the individual features are just as disproportionately effaced.[12]

Complexes and subpersonalities[edit]

Jung conceptualized complexes as having a high degree of autonomy, describing them as ‘splinter psyches’ that form the basis for ‘mini-personalities’, whom he called the ‘little people’.[13] This provided the foundation for later expansion of the idea, most notably by British Psychotherapist John Rowan, who referred to them as subpersonalities, each one operating as a 'semipermanent and semi-autonomous region of the personality capable of acting as a person'.[14]

The work of Rowan and others led to the widespread use of techniques by which psychotherapists encourage clients to express the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of their various subpersonalities, as a way of facilitating the integration of diverse characteristics, part of what Jung called individuation.[15]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schultz & Schultz 2009
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Dewey 2007
  3. ^ Hopcke, Robert (1992). A guided tour of the collected works of C.G. Jung. Shambhala Publications. p. 18. ISBN 9780834828254.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Daniels 2003
  5. ^ a b Mattoon 1999
  6. ^ Wishard 2004
  7. ^ Jung 1971, par 706
  8. ^ a b Daniels 2010
  9. ^ Jung 1969, par. 201
  10. ^ Jung 1969, par. 200
  11. ^ Jung 1969, par. 255
  12. ^ Jung 1971, par 666
  13. ^ Jung, Carl Gustav. On the nature of the psyche. Princeton University Press, 2020. pp159-234
  14. ^ Rowan, John (1990). Subpersonalities: the people inside us. London: Routledge.
  15. ^ Lester, David. Theories of Personality: A Systems Approach. London: Routledge, 2019.
  16. ^ Iris Levy (2011). "The Laius complex: From myth to psychoanalysis". International Forum of Psychoanalysis. 20 (4): 222–228. doi:10.1080/0803706X.2011.597428. S2CID 143062338.