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Complex (psychology)

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Complex (psychology)

A complex is a core pattern of 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 you had a leg amputated when you were a child, this would influence your life in profound ways, even if you were wonderfully successful in overcoming the handicap. You might have many thoughts, emotions, memories, feelings of inferiority, triumphs, bitterness and determinations centering on that one aspect of your life. If these thoughts troubled you, Jung would say you had a complex about the leg (Dewey, 2007).

Complex existence is widely agreed upon in the area of depth psychology. It assumes the most important factors influencing your personality are deep in the unconscious (Dewey, 2007). They are generally a way of mapping the psyche, and are crucial theoretical items of common reference to be found in therapy. Complexes are believed by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud to influence the individual's attitude and behavior.

History and development of the idea

Carl Jung distinguished between two types of unconscious mind: the personal unconscious and collective unconscious (Dewey, 2007). The personal unconscious was the accumulation of experiences from a person's lifetime that could not be consciously recalled (Dewey, 2007). 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 (Dewey, 2007). Jung believed the personal unconscious was dominated by complexes (Dewey, 2007).

The term "complex", "emotionally charged complexes" or "feeling-toned complex of ideas", was adopted by Carl Jung when he was still a close associate of Sigmund Freud.[1] Complexes were so central to Jung's ideas that he originally called his body of theories "Complex psychology" (Daniels, 2003). Historically the term originated with Theodor Ziehen, a German psychiatrist who experimented with reaction time in word association test responses (Daniels, 2003). 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 1900–1908 (Daniels, 2003). Jung developed the theory out of his work on Word Association Test (Daniels, 2003). In the word association tests, a researcher read 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 (Daniels, 2003). (Sir Francis Galton invented the method in 1879.) Researchers noted any unusual reactions—hesitations, slips of the tongue, signs of emotion (Daniels, 2003). Jung was interested in patterns he detected in subjects' responses, hinting at unconscious feelings and beliefs (Daniels, 2003).

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 (Mattoon, 1999). There are many kinds of complex, but at the core of any complex is a universal pattern of experience, or archetype (Wishard, 2004). 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 (Mattoon, 1999).

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" (Cowgil, 1997).

Jung's theory of complexes with key citations

Early in Jung's career, he developed the concept of the "complex", A "complex" meaning a personal unconscious, core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions, and wishes organized around a common theme (Shultz and Shultz, 2009). According to Jung's personality theory, complexes are building blocks of the psyche and the source of all human emotions. Complexes are thought to operate "autonomously and interfere with the intentions of the will, disturbing the memory and conscious performance".

Jung included the ego in a broadly comprehensive theory of complexes, often referring to it as the ego-complex as illustrated when he said "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" (Jung, [1921] 1971: par 706).

Jung often used the term "complex" to describe a usually unconscious, repressed, yet highly influential symbolic material that is incompatible with the consciousness (Daniels, 2010). Daniels (2010) described complexes as "'stuck-together' agglomerations of thoughts, feelings, behavior patterns, and somatic forms of expression". Jung spoke of one specific type of complex, an autonomous feeling-toned complex, when he said "what then, scientifically speaking, is a 'feeling-toned complex'? It 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." (Jung, [1960] 1969:par. 201)

Some complexes usurp power from the ego and can cause constant psychological disturbances and symptoms of neurosis (Daniels, 2010). With intervention, it may become conscious and greatly reduced in their impact (Daniels, 2010). Jung described the power complexes can hold 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" (Jung, [1960] 1969:par. 200).

On the other hand, Jung identified the development of the differentiating functions as essentially the development of useful complexes. However, even here there are 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. (Jung, [1960] 1969:par. 255)

In Psychological Types, Jung describes in detail the effects of tensions between the complexes associated with the dominant and inferior differentiating functions 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 (Jung, [1921] 1971: par 666).

See also


  1. ^ Hopcke, Robert (1992). A guided tour of the collected works of C.G. Jung. Shambhala Publications. p. 18.  


  • Jung, C.G. ([1921] 1971). Psychological Types, Collected Works, Volume 6, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01813-8.
  • Jung, C.G. ([1960] 1969). The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Works, Volume 8, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09774-7.
  • Shultz, D. and Shultz, S. (2009). Theories of Personality. (9th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
  • Daniels, Victor. (2010). Handout on Carl Gustav Jung. Retrieved from .
  • Carlini, C. (2005). Understanding Freud's Oedipus complex. Retrieved from
  • Cowgil, C. (1997, May). Carl Jung. Retrieved from
  • Mattoon, M. (1999, September 5). Jungian psychology in perspective. Retrieved from
  • Wishard, WVD. (2004, November 14). What is the archetype of the apocalypse all about?. Retrieved from
  • Bernardini, R. (2011), Jung a Eranos. Il progetto della psicologia complessa [Jung at Eranos. The Complex Psychology Project]. Milano: FrancoAngeli. ISBN 978-88-568-3449-9.
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