Carl Jung — Short Excerpt of Complexes and What They Mean For The Individual

William Cho
Aug 8 · 7 min read

“… Complexes offer resistance to the conscious intentions, and come and go as they please. According to our best knowledge about them, complexes are psychic contents which are outside the control of the conscious mind. They have been split off from consciousness and lead a separate existence in the unconscious, being at all times ready to hinder or to reinforce the conscious intentions.”

— Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Carl Jung

I’m still trying my best to wrap my head around what a complex is, so I’ll use Wikipedia’s definition of what a layman’s definition of a complex might be:

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.

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.

Carl Jung thought that the expression “autonomous complex” was a great way of describing the phenomena since the unconscious triggers the emotion and, in my understanding, possesses the individual and is almost like a force of nature that comes and goes as it pleases. We have no control over them until we dig into our psyche and analyze what could be causing us to suffer from such complexes.

“The expression “autonomous complex” has often met with opposition, although, as it seems to me, unjustifiably. The active contents of the unconscious do behave in a way I cannot describe better than by the word “autonomous.” The term is used to indicate the fact that the complexes offer resistance to the conscious intentions, and come and go as they please. According to our best knowledge about them, complexes are psychic contents which are outside the control of the conscious mind. They have been split off from consciousness and lead a separate existence in the unconscious, being at all times ready to hinder or to reinforce the conscious intentions.”

“…Everyone knows nowadays that people “have complexes.” What is not so well known, though far more important theoretically, is that complexes can have us.

We all have things that we hyperfocus on that we think other people notice about us. Maybe we’ve always been insecure about a certain body feature and feel as if everyone else is judging us or secretly making fun of us about it behind our backs.

To defend ourselves from emotional harm, we react in ways that only strengthen the control that these complexes have over us. We become defensive and feel stronger emotions than what would normally be called for.

Where do these complexes come from anyways? Why do we carry around emotional baggage and hidden ‘insecurities’ that trouble us emotionally and psychically?

“A further study of the complexes leads inevitably to the problem of their origin, and as to this a number of different theories are current. Apart from theories, experience shows us that complexes always contains something like a conflict — they are either the cause or the effect of a conflict.

At any rate, the characteristics of conflict — that is, shock, upheaval, mental agony, inner strife — are peculiar to the complexes. They have been called in French bêtes noires, while we refer to them as “skeletons in the cupboard.” They are “vulnerable points” which we do not like to remember and still less to be reminded of by others, but which frequently come back to mind unbidden and in the most unwelcome fashion.

They always contain memories, wishes, fears, duties, needs, or views, with which we have never really come ot terms, and for this reason they constantly interfere with our conscious life in a disturbing and usually a harmful way.

My mother used to always tell me that she wished I had grown taller. She would make me feel like I was lacking something vital, something that would stop her from seeing me as the “son she always wanted”. To hear that from my mother growing up all the time and have her comparing me to my friends, I felt like I had done something wrong to impede my own growth and started to feel insecure about my height.

Whenever I would meet my friends I would try to stand in a way to look taller than them and try to wear shoes that would give me an extra inch or two. Any time I would be compared to my friends or if the topic of height came up, I immediately got quiet and would become defensive. I would curse Being (or God, whatever you want to call the force that dictates the fate or nature of our lives) itself for cursing me and not allowing me to become taller.

Looking back this was extremely silly, but I remember the hopelessness I would feel as my friends grew taller while I stayed the same height.

I don’t feel any bitterness toward my mother, and I’m glad that I was able to become more confident in myself and not care about immutable characteristics like height, but if I had to think about a complex I might have had in the past it was definitely the issue of my height. Only by telling her how I felt whenever I heard a comment from her did she stop comparing me to my friends or telling me how she wished I would have been X amount taller.

Think about something that has bothered you more than it should have in the past. You knew it was silly to be so annoyed about it, since it was probably out of your control, but you still felt a negative emotion whenever something reminded you of it or if you had to address it directly.

Maybe it was a birthmark that was quite evident. Maybe it was a scar. Maybe you didn’t like how your ears looked. Maybe you didn’t like how your eyes looked. Maybe you wanted fuller lips. Maybe you wanted a higher nose bridge. Maybe you wanted to be smarter. Maybe you wanted to be taller. Maybe you wanted to be more handsome/pretty.

Most of what I’ve listed out are physical insecurities, which you cannot do anything about (unless you’re willing to go under the knife, which is a completely different story and one that I do not encourage or think is a good idea for most people… but that’s for another story).

And having these insecurities really impede us from living the lives we could be living. We are often the ones who set the biggest obstacles in front of ourselves. We create problems that we know we are not willing to face so that we don’t have to go through the uncomfortable, strenuous, and excruciating pain of changing who we are, or at least our perceptions of ourselves.

But hiding these problems don’t make them go away — it only makes them worse and more powerful when they are allowed to grow in the shadows. The more times we fail to face our fears and fight against the complex that tries to overtake us, the more we lose sovereignty of our own psyche.

“Complexes obviously represent a kind of inferiority in the broadest sense — a statement I must at once qualify by saying that to have complexes does not necessarily indicate inferiority. It only means that something incompatible, unassimilated, and conflicting exists — perhaps as an obstacle, but also as a stimulus to greater effort, and so, perhaps, as an opening to new possibilities of achievement. Complexes are therefore, in this sense, focal or nodal points of psychic life which we would not wish to do without.

Indeed they must not be lacking, for otherwise psychic activity would come to a fatal standstill. But they indicate the unresolved problems of the individual, the points at which he has suffered a defeat, at least for the time being, and where there is something he cannot evade or overcome — his weak spots in every sense of the word.”

“Now these characteristics of the complex throw a significant light on its genesis. It obvious arises from the clash between a requirement of adaptation and the individual’s constitutional inability to meet the challenge. Seen in this light, the complex is a symptom which helps us to diagnose an individual’s disposition.”

Complexes are painful for a reason — we are called to address them or else we continue to suffer. And the more we ignore them, the more we will suffer unnecessarily.

These complexes give us direction — they point to the things we are scared to acknowledge about ourselves. They point to the things we must overcome in order to mature psychologically.

Complexes themselves are not necessarily negative; only their effects are. We cannot necessarily get rid of them, but they are to be confronted and made peace with.

You must accept the things that you cannot change, and work to change the things that are in your control.

William Cho

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