Introductory Comment

Complexes: An Introductory Comment

The idea of Complex was introduced early in the history of psychology and was used extensively until fairly recently. I find it to be useful still, but I divide it up into two concepts. What used to be called complex, I call Simple Complex. And I add the idea of a Mega-Complex I will begin with simple complexes.

Simple Complexes

Simple Complexes

What started out as a term useful to the early psychologists (I believe it was introduced by Alfred Adler) has become part of the speech of everyday life. We say, "He has a superiority complex" or "I don't know why, but she has a bad inferiority complex" (the ideas of both a superiority and and inferiority complex come from Adler). The psychologist Carl Jung was very interested in complexes and believed he had a way of studying them scientifically. If the center of complexes are strong emotions arising from a certain experiences, we can study them, because emotions have (or are) measurable reactions in the body. Emotions lead to changes in breathing, muscle tone, skin conductivity, degree of sweating, and so on. These changes can be measured with scientific instruments. Jung measured some of these, and he used another method current in the early 1900's, the Word Association Test. He would tell people that he was going to read them a list of words and that he would pause after each word. The subject was to say the first thing that came to mind. Jung would then read the list, one word at a time, and he would time the responses and write them down. Some responses were immediate, while others were quite delayed. Jung showed that the longer responses came when stimulus words caused emotions. He also found that the subjects often did not know they had the emotion; at least, they denied it to him. Jung thought this was an argument for Freud's then controversial view that emotions can be unconscious. (The reader who is interested in this dry yet, to me, important work, can look at the book Experimental Studies by Carl Jung, Volume 20 in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Princeton, Bollingen Series XX.)

The idea of an unconscious emotion makes more sense when we remember how unpleasant it is to feel certain emotions; how we may be tempted to change topics to avoid talking about them; how we might be ashamed that we feel certain emotions and want to hide them from others and to deny to ourselves that we have them. There are even certain emotions and images that go with them that scare us into thinking we are certain types of people or that we are capable of doing certain types of things, and, though we may be aware of them, in a sense, in another sense we push them from our minds and do our best to forget about them. — All this takes a lot of work, and psychotherapists believe that it may be better just to own up and face ourselves.

Besides the emotion which was, in a sense, the core of the Complex, there were images and, as we saw, words associated with the emotion. Imagine a person has a traumatic experience such as witnessing a very bloody automobile accident. Imagine a rescue team that has to go through the wreck and try to pull out the people who are still living and those who have died. Along with the overwhelming emotions that might be aroused, there are visual images and also sounds and smells. These may linger on for years and appear in dreams or when something occurs that reminds the person of the incident. These painful memories may dissipate over the years, but they may become "lodged" deep in the mind, as it were. And it is possible that they can become inaccessible and take on a life of their own with the person avoiding certain situations and over-reacting to others. If this is truly unconscious, the person may be confused by these "symptoms," and this may lead to seeking psychotherapy. This "mass" of emotion, memory images, sounds, smells, and so on is a Complex of psychological phenomena. In short, it is a Complex or what I am calling a Simple Complex. More and more things can become assimilated to the complex by association. For example, if a person from the rescue squad, when they were younger, had seen a dead relative, the memory image of the relative's face might arise whenever the auto accident is remembered, and vice versa. In this way, a Complex can grow, and, in so far as it is unconscious, it can take on a separate personality that responds to situations in various ways that, as I said, can be quite confusing to the consciousness of the person involved. For example, a husband may react to something a wife says, not in a realistic way, but based on associations to emotional experiences from the past with his own mother. He may feel as if something came over him, even that he was possessed by something. This "something" is a Complex.

It is an assumption of the older types of psychotherapy that poking into Complexes and making them more conscious will make the person feel more whole and more able to understand and control his or her own behavior. The process may be quite painful and may involve patience and even moral courage, and a slow and patient approach over a long period of time in a loving environment may be necessary. This is not a process appreciated by all insurance companies.



Like many psychological concepts, the idea of complex is difficult to define precisely. The reason is that the concept arises in the mind of a psychologist from observing some psychological phenomenon and from the desire to give the observed phenomenon a name. First is the phenomenon; second is the observation of the phenomenon; third is the name given to the phenomenon; and then, only fourth, is the attempt to define the name. Later there is a fifth stage which is the attempt to understand, explain, and analyze the phenomenon.

The idea of a complex was introduced into psychology roughly a century ago by Alfred Adler and was used extensively by Jung. I think the concept is so important in psychology that I presented it as one of the Key Concepts of psychology in an earlier version of this current article. However, since writing the earlier version, I have noticed another phenomenon that I would like to call the Mega-Complex and I have now expanded the original article to include this concept. Compared to a mega-complex, the complexes discussed in the first version are Simple Complexes.

When I say Simple Complex I do not mean to imply that simple complexes are unimportant or that they are easy to dissolve. I saw a woman once who was extremely timid. After many sessions (I assume after she began to trust me a bit) she told me that her ex-husband had beaten her up repeatedly, often in their barn. Men, barns, and pain formed a complex in the mind of this woman. When she saw a barn, she remembered her husand and the beatings and became frightened. When she saw any man she remembered the barn and the beatings and being agitated. Being touched by a man was part of this complex. Even being in my office, alone with me was an act of bravery of the woman, as it activated the complex. The very idea of the events was part of the complex, and it was very difficult for the woman to talk about them. This complex was an example of what I am calling a simple complex, but this doesn't mean that it was unimportant in the woman's life. In fact it was central to it, forcing her into a very limited and unproductive life style. Further, it is the type of deep and painful complex that probably can never be dissolved completely. Over the years it can become severe, less and less pervasive, and the "sore spots" can become less and less sensitive, but it is impossible for it ever to disappear completely. We all have such simple complexes, to a greater or lesser degree. When I met this woman she had suicidal and homicidal impulses and had spent a fair amount of time in a mental hospital. So, again, the fact that it is a simple complex does not mean it wasn't important for her and for others from a physical danger point of view, and it also had financial implications.

A relatively new, and now quite popular, diagnosis in psychiatry is PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. If you have to choose one psychological phenomenon that underlies this diagnosis, it would be the complex. Current research I have seen by those who specialize in the treatment of PTSD is that there is no simple cure with psychotherapy. If the patient trusts the therapist and the therapist cares about the patient and the atmosphere of the the therapy is loving, then the patient may begin to talk, without being forced or grilled, about the incidents that led to the complex. This exposure, if it is handled sensitively by the therapist, can lead to a de-sensitizing of the wound, and this is the healing or the beginning of a healing.

Simple complexes may stem from severe trauma, in which case, as we said, they may not be completely dis-solvable. But a simple complex may develop from episodes that are only minimally traumatic, and, by exposure and discussion in a friendly environment, they can all but disappear completely. If a red-headed man insults you, your mind may expect the next red-headed man you meet to insult you, and this is, in essence, a complex. A few experiences with a red-headed man where he acts friendly to you may dissolve the complex completely (or almost completely) and forever. Whether the complex stems from a series of severe traumas or from a single relatively minor incident, it is still a simple complex.

A mega-complex is, like a simple complex, an association of ideas and memories and feelings, but it runs much deeper and is often much more difficult to cure or even to ameliorate. Here is an example.

This is a story told by a wealthy woman in her early sixties. She complains that she is getting older and complains particularly about how her skin is aging. She says she remembers when she was young and beautiful, and she says she can not and will not adjust to her new looks. Not only do the wrinkles remind her of the inevitability of her death, but she is more than a little concerned about her marriage. She was known for her beauty and says that she got her husband of forty years, in large part, due to her beauty. Over the years her husband has had a few affairs, but she overlooked them, as she did not see them as threats to the marriage. But, over the last five years or so, she has sensed her husband withdrawing. She has noticed him watching younger women, and she is convinced that he may very well leave her for younger woman who is still in the new bloom of her youth.

The woman seems level-headed and realistic. We feel her assessment of the situation is quite possibly accurate. The woman is not naive or unaware of the ways of the world. She is aware that advertisers are often more concerned with selling their products than with sharing accurate information with the public, and she has never believed in the claims of advertisers about their skin creams. She uses them to keep her skin soft and moist but has never believed that they could reverse the aging process.She wouldn't even allow herself to begin to believe in such a thing. As most woman of her times and of her social class, she uses many of the other body care products besides skin creams. Over the years she has tried many types of deodorants, soaps, cosmetics, and so on, some made in the U.S. and many imported. Money was no object. She always bought what she liked and what she thought was the best.

The story goes on. About two years ago she found one deodorant she feels is more effective than any she has ever used, and she has been using it for the two years and still feels the same way. When she last bought the product she read the label more carefully and noticed that it was made in France, but she did not think about this. She had been to France many times and considered the French the most cultured of all people. She felt they had the best clothes, food, wine, and the like. She added that her favorite grandmother had been French and had always told her that the French had a joi de vivre like no other people. Though she had not seen her grandmother that often, she had been a significant influence in her life. Her cultured elegance, sophistication joi de vivre, financial support, and emotional encouragement at critical times in her life were perceived by this woman to have been of major importance to her.

The lady tells us that recently she had been in a mall and had spent time browsing in a specialty body care boutique. She was looking for a soap. It was an expensive specialty store that sold soaps from France, and she noticed that the soaps were unusually expensive. In the same section as the soaps, there were hand-creams, and some were open for sampling. She tried one and, to make a long story short, that night she noticed that her hands looked and felt different — softer, smoother, younger.

The next day, the lady returned to the store and examined the jar and found that the cream was made in France and by the same company that made the deodorant she liked. She bought the hand cream and began to use it and found it to her liking. A few weeks later she need soap, and the question came to mind if the company that made the cream and the deodorant also made soap. It turned out they did, and she went ahead and bought one of their soaps and found that to her liking also.

The lady now had a tried and true and trusted deodorant; an hand-cream she liked and that she thought, maybe, just maybe, it was changing her aging skin; and a pleasant smelling, serviceable soap. All three were made by a French company, and the lady began to think about this. As mentioned, she already believed that the French were masters of the senses and of the sensual and that they knew how to live and had some sort of secret about life. When she had traveled in France, she had enjoyed French bread, French cheeses, French sausage, French wines, and French pastries, and she had noticed, or thought she noticed, that the French did not seem overweight, on the whole. She had thought about this and read studies about it. Right or wrong, reasonable or unreasonable, she had marveled at how the French could eat such wonderful and fattening foods and stay thin. Now, in her mind, much of her experiences and thinking came together. She put two and two together and thought that, if there is a people, a country, that could come up with a hand-cream that could help check the aging of skin, who could do it better than the French? They are masters of the senses, masters of deodorants, and the cream seemed, on the face of it, to help. And the soap seemed good as well.

By now the woman was going around praising the products and the French company to her friends. She was telling them her thoughts and arguments: "If anyone knows about how to keep the body young and sensual and feeling good, leave it to the French!" It is not that the products made the lady's life changed anything in relationship, but she had hope and felt younger and more alive.

There are many possible reactions to this story. One reaction would be to find oneself going along with what the woman thought. An attentive therapist who was aging might find begin to fall under the spell and even ask for the company's name, and thoughts might come to mind like, "Can't wait to get some! On the way home I'll stop and pick some up! This is what I've been waiting for!" Another possible reaction is for the therapist to take a neutral, wait and see attitude. "Maybe this woman is on to something. It's outside of my area of knowledge. And maybe not. Who knows? Maybe 'Yes,' maybe 'No.'" And a third reaction, perhaps the one most therapists would have, is to just assume that the whole idea of an hand cream that can inhibit or reverse the aging process is just the wishful fantasy of an aging woman who is becoming increasingly desperate about her marriage.

However I reacted to this story, the main point for me here is that this whole story expressed a complex, but it is not such a simple complex such as the ones presented earlier. The simple complexes discussed earlier had one theme that attracted more and more to it and perhaps caused more and more damage, but it remained as a single unit. In this current case, there are many themes, each one a center, and these themes weave together into an incredibly complex and subtle net or web. There are the concerns about aging, the worries about her marriage, the upset about the loss of her beauty, the memories of her grandmother and her trips to France and all the experiences she had there of the bread and chees and wine and pasters. Then there are her rather routine experiences and assessments of the deodorant, creams and toothpastes and then all the thoughts and reactions about the French company and the theory that the French might very well have a unique knowledge about such matters. This is not a painful moment or series of moments caused by a single traumatic stimulus, a stimulus that became associated with cues from the surroundings in which the pain occurred. This is a series of emotions and subtle feelings in the present linked with deep memories from childhood along with pleasant and quite ordinary experiences from the present and even with thoughts and theories about countries and cultures and companies and health and the good life. The earlier examples were simple compared to this network of processes. They were examples of simple complexes; this is an example of a mega-complex. It may be that a mega-complex is no different in kind than a simple complex and that it is just more complex. But, at the least, it is much more complex. It has many themes or many centers, not just one. It is rooted in the past but draws from the present as well. It is like a tree with many roots, some deep and old and some superficial and new. And the tree has many branches each giving rise to many leaves. A simple complex may cause more problems and be more painful than a mega-complex, and it might even be more invasive. It may make a person stay home and lie in bed all day every day. But it is still simple in the respects mentioned above.

I have already mentioned how difficult it is to dissolve or "cure" a simple complex. In many cases it seems all but impossible. The best one can hope for is an amelioration of the pain and the symptoms over a long period of time. It may seem that, if this is true of simple complexes, it must be even worse for a mega-complex. Let's say you were a therapist and that you heard the woman's story and that you reacted by thinking she was in a fantasy dream-world about these French products. And, let's say that you think that this fantasy is hurting her, that it is taking her from the reality of her situation and keeping her from making realistic plans for her future. If you thought all this, you might start thinking about whether you should try to burst her bubble, and, if you made a decision to try, where would you start? The task seems imposible. You can't tell her not to worry about her husband leaving her, because he might. You certainly can't argue with her fear of growing older; this would be disingenuous, because who is immune to these fears? You wouldn't dare go about her grandmother who was probably impressive in reality, but who has become almost god-like in the memory and imagination. Would you try to debunk the idea that the French have a secret of health, possibly unique in the world? This is probably not a good approach for a variety of reasons. Would you try to convince her that the company's products are not what she thinks they are and that the cream did not really make her skin softer and smoother? Good luck! You would be going up against a life-time of experience. It is almost as if you would be going up against a person's whole life, against the whole body of experience of this venerable woman's life.

Political views are, to my mind, often the results of mega-complexes. They are the tips of ice-bergs. They have been growing for years, and their roots are sunk into the deepest regions of the soul and are woven together with thousands of minor and major, pleasant and painful experiences. Two people arguing intellectually about politics may appear comical even if it isn't.

But it is wrong to think that mega-complexes can never change. What's more, it is possible for them to disappear completely and in an instant. This may seem incredible given everything I have said about them, but it can happen with the right combination of circumstances. In fact it happened with the woman I have been describing. I will tell the story in a minute, but I would like to mention a parallel between this type of experience and conversion experiences in politics and religion. I have just said that a political outlook or view can often be based on a mega-complex. And the same for a religious view. People are usually intimately involved with their religion from birth. Current beliefs and views are almost never arrived at by argument. They come from many interwoven sources, and so they can be thought of as based on mega-complexes. So it may seem surprising that, suddenly, apparently out of no-where a person can have an inner conversion and see everything totally differently. And it can go both ways: A religious believer can suddenly convert to another religion or to atheism, and an atheist can have a religious experience and convert to a religion. The history of politics and religion is filled with such conversions (fascinating as a document of religious conversions is William James' Varieties of Religious Experience.)

As to the woman we have been discussing, here is what happened.One day she bought a new product from the company, to see if it too was a step better than the products from U.S. companies. This was a toothpaste, and, after she had bought it, she looked over the label just as she had looked at the labels of the other products. And again she saw the writing in French and felt the peaceful little feeling that she had a genuine French product. But this time she read the French a little more carefully and noticed that it didn't say "Fabrique en France" but "Fabrique en U.S." The sentence was in French, but it said that it was made in the U.S. She had always seen the French and leaped to the conclusion that it was made in France. But, when she read further, she saw that it was made in Hoboken, New Jersey. And with this awareness, the whole fantasy exploded on her. She realized, in an instant, that all her thinking about the superiority of these products because they were made in France, were just a fantasy. And the fantasy that she had found an hand-cream that really worked went up in smoke. But more, the woman went into a major emotional crisis. Everything came crashing in on her. She had developed a little hope that she might regain the beauty of her youth and that her husband would notice. She even had a small and growing fantasy that she would not have even admited to herself that she might be able to postpone the aging process itself and, dare we say it, maybe even master death, a fantasy that probably lies waiting in embryonic form in everyone. All these fantasies crashed in a moment. More, she realized, in a flash, how much she had built up the French and her grandmother and how foolish and vulnerable and gullible she had been, and she had prided herself on being level-headed. It almost, for a moment, felt to her that her whole life was a dream, that nothing was real, that she had no knowledge or wisdom at all.

From her point of view this was a dreadfully painful moment, and it seemed pointless and meaningless. To the psychologist, however, and to her, looking back later, this was a wonderful and rare moment when a whole series of delusions were wiped away in an instant. It is like a brush-fire that clears away all the transient brush and allows the bigger, stronger plants to grow to old age in their full beauty and glory.

Response to eMail of 3-5-2013

Response to an eMail question of March 5, 2013


I received an email through the Contact link on this website asking "how one develops a complex. Is it chemicals, inherited ....?" I think this is a good question and that it is worth adding my response to it to this article.


I think there are different types of people, psychologically speaking, and that genetic factors undoubtedly contribute to our type, to our being the way we are. This is true physically and must be true psychologically also. We can breed animals with different dispositions, and, to me, this proves that emotional dispositions and probably many other features of our human personalities are determined, in part, by our genes, our inherited genes. A gene, as I understand it, can be thought of as, among other things, a tiny map for the production of proteins, and these proteins are in our cells, make up much of our cells, and so are part of the chemical make-up of our bodies, of ourselves. They exist in the brain, and modern monitoring systems can show some of their changes as we think, as our emotions come and go, as we wake and sleep, and so on. It stands to reason that people with different genes, with different expressions of proteins, with different chemical make-ups, will have different propensities for developing complexes in general and may even tend towards having this or that specific complex (say a mother complex or a father complex).

I have never studied the genetic/chemical side of our psychologies. I have always been more interested in the Experience side, in the problems of life as we Experience them in the rough and tumble world of our day to day lives. So I can not give an educated picture of the genetic/chemical side of things, of the genetic/chemical "World."

However, I have noticed a few things in my area of expertise, and I can present you with a picture of the etiology (the causation) of complexes from the ordinary, practical point of view of our everyday experience. I find the most natural way to say what I have seen (or think I have seen) is to give a visual image, a metaphor. From this angle, complexes can be pictured in the following way:

Imagine different pieces of debris floating in one area of a large ocean. From your boat you see this piece of debris and then that one and then that one and that one .... There is a dead fish, and there is an apple, and there is a piece of a dead fish, and there is a shiny tin can, and so on. Each is floating independent of the other.

If we look at ourselves, our own minds, it is tempting to think of our minds as streams or oceans. For example, William James spoke of the Stream of Consciousness. And it is probably natural for most of us to speak of the Ocean of our Experience. Now, if we picture ourselves as on a boat on the ocean of our experiences, watching carefully, looking around, we can imagine noticing certain things floating around, and we imagine these things catching our attention (for example, a thought of our father telling a bad joke, a momentary flash of anger at a close friend, a memory of a catch for a star football player at a football came we saw, a desire to go to the gym and work out, and so on). These are all independent, as independent as the tin can and the dead fish and the apple on the ocean, as described in the last paragraph.

But what psychologists have noticed is that these seemingly independent "objects" on the ocean of consciousness may not be independent at all. Under certain circumstances, they may form something (or be an expression of something); they are a "complex" thing not a this and that and that and that ....

To return to the earlier metaphor, suppose we are on a boat, looking at the fish, the can, the apple, and the other things floating around randomly, and another boat pulls up next to us. It is a fishing boat, and we notice the fishermen are beginning to pull up the long line they laid down earlier, before we came on the scene. We see that, on the line is a series of hooksand that all the things we saw floating around independently are, each one, attached to a hook and that each hook is attached to the line, the line set down by the fishermen for the purpose of catching fish. Though, from the surface the dead fish, the apple, the can, and the piece of fish look independent, when we see what is going on, see just a little below the surface, we see the line that connects all things things and holds them together and the reason why the whole thing is as it is.

It is the same for psychological complexes: A complex is a series of seemingly independent mental events that appear to be associated by chance and chance alone. However, if we go a little below the surface, we see that they are all "tied" together, expressions of the same thing.

And what is that thing? Just as the fishermen have a goal that was unknown to us, so too, with a complex, there is a goal that is unknown to us and which, once we understand it, each individual piece of the complex makes perfect sense.

Perhaps, in our case, there is anger at an abusive father along with feelings of inferiority and hurt. Secretly, we would like to pull him down and demean him and pay him back, and this explains the image of him telling a bad joke (the image demeans him in our eyes); it explains the momentary flash of anger at a friend (because he used the same tone our father always used towards us); it explains the memory of the football catch (which reminds us of the feelings of humiliation we had when our father, who was much bigger than us, used to beat us in athletic contests); and it explains the sudden desire to go to the gym (an expression of a fantasy in which we become strong enough to beat our father — which can occur even if we are already strong enough and know we are if we think about it rationally).

The more powerful the upset, the more powerful the goal, the more things are "magnetized" by the goal and drawn into the complex, into the "web." The further away from consciousness the upset and goal lie, the "deeper in the unconscious," the more independent the items that make up the complex will appear to us. At the same time, the more uncanny it will all feel, as if "Something is going on I don't understand!"

What goes on, on a chemical level, during the process of complex development is studied in another "department" (as it were), and so too for how our genes make us more or less susceptible to complex development. It seems possible to me that if you have certain genes, you will have no interest in or ability to understand your unconscious motivation. If you are this type of person, as you go through life, you will find all sorts of "strange" things popping into your mind and find yourself doing strange things over which you have no control. Genes may make others of us more willing and able to peer into our depths and clear up some of the mysteries of our own beings (and it is probably just this type who has trouble dealing with the external world).

Since no one is fully conscious of their needs and desires and goals, all of us, in all likelihood, have some complex or complexes.

Psychotherapy, in so far as it helps a person recognize and accept into consciousness his or her needs and goals, will make complexes disappear or, better, will make them clearer and more understandable.

And, using the concept of meta-complex introduced in the last section, there are some needs and goals that are so pervasive and so unconscious that a good part of what we notice in ourselves, in our behavior, and even in the world itself, are little pieces of a vast mega-complex. We live in a world, unconsciously arranged for ourselves, by our needs, and we have trouble separating ourselves from the world and come to blame everything on the world and things we meet in it. If it is a big enough mega-complex, we never see anything of ourselves except one, big surface complex, and we have an ongoing feeling that we are a deep mystery to ourselves.

From another angle, complexes (and meta-complexes) allow us to see at least part of our selves, without having to see and understand our depths. Or, again, they allow us to get a superficial picture of ourselves, which is probably better than getting no picture at all.