Jung’s Complex Theory

Barbara Miller*

The complex, as defined by C. G. Jung, is a structure of the psyche that gathers together similar feeling-toned elements. Each complex is united by the same emotion and each complex is united and organised by a mutual core of meaning. That is, the complex organises experience, perception, and affect around a constant central theme.

In what way or how is a complex visible? One way is to observe stereotypical behaviour patterns. Of course mankind has made observations of behaviour patterns for countless generations, and we may credit Jung for his methodology on this matter, which was broad in scope. He considered man’s reflections on behaviour patterns in other eras and from other cultures. It can be helpful for our understanding of Jung’s theory of the complex to look first at the direct forerunners to Jung’s theory, and then to go into Jung’s use of mythology.

Forerunners who formulated ideas on what Jung will later call the complex include Jean-Martin Charcot, Pierre Janet and Josef Breuer who worked closely with Freud. Each has made insightful observations.

Jean-Martin Charcot, known for his studies on hysterical paralysis, stated in a lecture of May 1885, “[A]n idea, a coherent group of associated ideas settle themselves in the mind in the fashion of parasites, remaining isolated from the rest of the mind and expressing themselves outwardly through corresponding motor phenomena…” (Ellenberger 1970, 149).

Pierre Janet formulated his observations of hysterical patients in terms of fixed ideas. These fixed ideas in hysterical patients are thoughts or mental images that take on exaggerated proportions, have a high emotional charge and become isolated from the habitual personality, or personal consciousness (see Monahan 2009, 40). A fixed idea facilitated the mechanism known in Janet’s day as ‘splitting of consciousness’ or dissociation.

Jung concurred with Pierre Janet’s basic argument that when a person experiences emotions that overwhelm his capacity to take appropriate action the memory of this traumatic experience is split off, and there is dissociation. Janet’s view of dissociation was that it was inherently pathological. Jung, in contrast to Janet, saw the dissociability of the psyche as a fundamentally normal and universal phenomenon. Jung was aware of the potentially disastrous psychological consequences of extreme dissociation, but saw dissociation as fundamental to the operation of the psyche. In this view Jung anticipates the modern study of dissociative disorders by envisaging dissociability as a continuum extending from normal to seriously abnormal states. To quote Jung on this matter:

Let us turn first to the question of the psyche’s tendency to split. Although this peculiarity is most clearly observable in psychopathology, fundamentally it is a normal phenomenon… It need not be a question of hysterical multiple personality, or schizophrenic alterations of personality, but merely of so-called ‘complexes’ that come entirely within the scope of the normal (CW 8, § 253).

The term complex as used by Jung has been generally viewed by the psychoanalytic community as introduced by the Zurich school. However, Josef Breuer used the term complex in this sense already in 1893 in his chapter “Theorectical” in the work he co-authored with Freud, “Studies on Hysteria” (see Myers 2009, 516). In this chapter Breuer comments on Janet’s idée fixe writing, “[S]ense-impressions that are not apperceived and the ideas that are aroused but do not enter consciousness….[s]ometimes accumulate and form complexes – mental strata withdrawn from consciousness; they form a subconsciousness” (Ibid.).

What these famed observers are noting is that a traumatic event can overwhelm the ego and bring about dissociation of the psyche. And then, what is formed from the trauma — what Janet calls the fixed idea and Jung the complex — may at a later time also overwhelm the ego and bring about dissociation of the psyche.  Jung, however, does not totally agree with Janet’s fixed idea in his understanding of the complex, for Jung the complex may have traumatic roots but not necessarily. For Jung the complex belongs to the basic structure of the psyche and every emotionally charged event forms a complex. And just as for the dissociation of the psyche, complex activity can be observed on a continuum extending from normal to seriously abnormal states.

To continue tracking Jung’s concept of the complex via his collaboration with his associates I turn to the Freud/Jung letters. Freud wrote to Jung in 1908, “One thing and another have turned my thoughts to mythology and I am beginning to suspect that myth and neurosis have a common core” (Freud/Jung 1979, 106F; Myers, 522). Jung responded with an expression of interest, and Freud replied, “I was delighted to learn that you are going into mythology. A little less loneliness. I can’t wait to hear of your discoveries… I hope you will soon come to agree with me that in all likelihood mythology centres on the same nuclear complex as the neuroses” (Freud/Jung 1979, 160F; Myers, 523). Then Jung wrote to Freud, “For me there is no longer any doubt what the oldest and most natural myths are trying to say. They speak quite ‘naturally’ of the nuclear complex of neurosis” (Freud/Jung 1979, 162J; Myers 523).

Freud and Jung have agreed and then indeed disagreed, but here they agreed that the same complex could lie at the heart of myth and neurosis. What is of course history on this topic is Freud’s use of the myth of Oedipus, which he formulated into the Oedipus complex.  Jung acknowledged his debt to Freud in the 1950’s by describing Freud’s Oedipus Complex as being the first archetype. Jung:

[The Oedipus Complex] is what I call an archetype. It was the first archetype Freud discovered, the first and only one. He thought this was the archetype. Of course, there are many such archetypes… [but] Freud omits completely the fact that with this Oedipus complex there is already given the contrary, namely the resistance against it…a compensation” (Jung 1957, 288-290; Myers, 527).

On this note of introducing the role of compensation we can consider another player in the arena of ideas on the complex, and this is Alfred Adler, who was also at one time an associate of Jung and Freud. Adler made compensation a basic concept of his system, explaining neurosis in terms of a drive for power, which has arisen as an attempt to compensate for feelings of inferiority. Adler concluded that the tactics the child uses to compensate for his feeling of inferiority is to try to reach his goal of superiority by displaying ambition, arrogance, jealousy and hatred, which is a manifestation of that side of his inferiority complex. When the child resorts to indirect means by retreating behind barricades such as weakness, shyness and anxiety, the child exhibits another side of his inferiority complex (Ellenberger, 612).

Jung could see the validity of Freud’s and Adler’s concepts of respectively the Oedipus and Inferiority Complex, but Jung was not content to limit his concept of the complex to these examples nor to the roots of infantile sexuality and the will to power. For Jung, we could say, there were more myths than the myth of Oedipus and the ugly duckling.

Additionally Jung found application for his theory of the complex, and was preceded by Charcot, Janet, Breuer and Freud, in giving a psychological explanation for the medieval view of possession by an evil spirit. Charcot had described hysterical symptoms as ideas that took possession of the brain and Janet had considered obsessions and fixed ideas. Jung comments:

Freud and Breuer did not gloss over the significant analogy with possession, but rather, following the medieval theory, hunted up the factor causing the possession in order, as it were, to exorcise the evil spirit, they being the first to discover that the pathogenic ‘ideas’ were memories of certain events which they called ‘traumatic’ (CW 15, § 62).

And concerning Jung’s own views on possession, Jung writes:

Possession, though old-fashioned, has by no means become obsolete; only the name has changed. Formerly they spoke of ‘evil spirits’, now we call them ‘neuroses’ or ‘unconscious complexes.’ Here as everywhere the name makes no difference. The fact remains that a small unconscious cause is enough to wreck a man’s fate, to shatter a family and to continue working down the generations…. (CW 18, § 1374).

Jung developed his theory of the complex during his application of the Word Association Experiment. Jung started his association studies under the director of the Burghölzli Clinic, Eugen Bleuler. Jung’s attention was drawn to the so-called faults or mistakes, to where there were disturbed reactions to the Test. Jung concluded that attention must be disturbed from within, that is, the so-called mistakes in the Test appeared because of unconscious tendencies that disturbed the course of conscious intentions, and it was these unconscious tendencies that Jung called “complexes.” The set up and procedure of the test can help us in our understanding of the complex. The test giver has a list of 100 words and a stop-watch. The tester says a word and the test taker replies with the first word that occurs to him or her. The tester, with the stop watch, records the time elapsed and each response. The test proceeds to the second phase. The tester goes through the same 100 words and asks the test taker to respond with the same word as was said the first time. What Jung observed was that with some words the test taker took more time to respond and often it were these same stimulus words for which the test taker could not reproduce his response during the second round. Jung considered that the stimulus word had triggered a complex.

When a complex is active, triggered, or we say ‘constellated’, a mistake is one typical reaction. Additionally notable are the narrowing of vision, the lowering of consciousness, the automatic nature of an act, and forgetfulness.

Let me give you an example of the experience of a complex. This will be from out of my own repertoire and is still fresh in my memory. Recently I was on the internet reserving a flight to Los Angeles for myself and for my partner, Sigvald. After making the reservation the procedure asked for our birth dates. I had Sigvald’s birth date written down in front of me and I was looking directly at the date while typing. However, instead of Sigvald’s birth month I typed in my ex-husband’s birth month. I did not realise my mistake at the time, but I had some vague rumblings of doubt just prior to going to sleep that evening.

The influence of a complex on consciousness can be either great or very slight. In the main, the complex will have an increased force or potential to eclipse consciousness when there is no awareness of the complex. So to proceed with our understanding of the complex it is needed to consider consciousness and with it the structure of the ego. To quote Jung, “The ego is the psychological expression of the firmly associated combinations of all bodily sensations. One’s own personality is therefore the firmest and strongest complex – and (good health permitting) it weathers all psychological storms” (CW 3 §83).

According to Jungian psychology the archetypal self is the formative principle in an individual’s development. At first the child is not conscious of his or her ego complex. The ‘self’ guides the ego complex as it becomes increasingly conscious. And the ego complex becomes more conscious through the experience of the physical self and through the caregiver’s attention to the child. The ego complex also comprises the personal history of the individual’s development of consciousness and self-awareness.

The ego complex is in a relationship with the other complexes. The nature of this relationship can be a determinant for health. For example, a complex may overwhelm the ego causing the ego complex to fragment (as in psychosis) or the ego may identify with the complex and there is inflation. Neurosis contains a complex distinguished from other complexes through the energy it amasses and which thereby has a forceful influence on the ego complex.

There can be conflicting tendencies between the ego complex and another semi-unconscious complex; that is, a conflict between the tendencies that have been accepted by ego consciousness and those unacceptable tendencies expressed by a complex. Conflict is not in itself pathological. Jung saw conflict and the tension between opposites as an inevitable aspect of life and developmental processes. Conflict is rooted in the human condition and expresses, quoting Jung, “the apparent impossibility of affirming the whole of one’s nature” (CW 8 §204).

Jung put emphasis on the present and on the actual attitude of the person. There is potential development implicit in the conflict; there is dynamism in the tension of opposites. Whatever made the person ill could contain the seed of cure as well. The personal difficulty can be an instrument for expanding the constricted concepts.

An example of working with the complex can be useful. In one approach the therapist considers the patient’s registration of emotion. Here I give a fictitious case, actually a composite of many cases, where a specific emotion plays a role in a person’s life, in this case guilt. During this patient’s youth she did not register guilt. She would say, “I never feel guilty.” Later when she married, she married a man of whom she said: “He somehow always makes me feel guilty.” In analysis the work was to build a bridge that connected both experiences. In addition, religious symbolism expanded her reach. Presently guilt is an emotion that is available to her, it is neither denied or possessing her.

In this case it is as if guilt had been a forbidden possibility, which she effectively removed from view with her thought, “I never feel guilty.” And then guilt played up as a sort of haunting later in her life. The working method is not simply to lift the repression of guilt, not to say, “Have a good bout of feeling guilty and then it is over.” As a therapeutic problem Jung does not advocate a simple release of a highly charged emotion but directs his concern to the dissociation of the psyche. The complex brings about dissociation of the psyche and the problem is how to integrate the dissociation.

Jung has written giving us a good personal example of the problem we are circling around. In his youth he had a vision of shitting on the Basel cathedral. He first experienced the forbiddances of the vision that was forming; there was extreme tension. When he finally permitted the vision he felt it was important for his psychic health. Jung’s father was a pastor, and we may follow Jung in his interpretation of this vision that Jung was experiencing a growing criticism of his father. We all have a conflict with rejection whether it is our rejection of another, or rejection from another, or our own rejection in self-criticism. We can not rhyme our two positions of “I am close to you” with “I am far away from you”. Registering that it ‘feels so’ is a step towards having the conflict. Not having the conflict reinforces the complex.

Our working method for integrating dissociation includes working with dreams. In dreams the difference in the tendency of the complex to the tendency of the ego complex can appear in personified form. What shall we make of, for example, this dream: “I am speaking with my boss and an angry biker disrupts us.” The dreamer’s associations are the first to be considered, and then such questions from the therapist as, “What kind of anger did the biker have?” By the dreamer’s answer the therapist can get a feel for how close or far such anger is from the dreamer’s awareness, and the dreamer is entertaining the notion that such anger is possible. A positive outcome could be that at the end of the session the dreamer recalls that he himself has indeed been angry with his boss, while his first association was that he has never been angry with his boss.

A suggestion that I think can be valuable for working with complexes, and one that is effective to do on one’s own, is to ask oneself, “is it true?” and then, “is it not true?” It, for example, can be a certain opinion or a feeling; perhaps, “They are ignoring me.” Ask yourself, “how is it true that they are ignoring me”, and then, “how is it not true that they are ignoring me?” The surprise in this exercise is how difficult it is to imagine one of the options. When there is a relatively integrated complex involved, one can more easily imagine both possibilities. Integration of the complex means that one is conscious of and can register the tendency expressed in the complex, which formerly has been locked away out of view; a tendency that has played up without conscious awareness, but now is recognised with, “Ah, ha, I do it!” Typically, prior to integration of the complex, one would see this tendency in the behaviour of another person – in projection.

My final example of working towards the integration of a complex employs fairy tales, and I will introduce it with a question that can be useful, as follows: “A child knows that witches exist, an adult knows that witches do not exist, our question is to answer, how do witches exist.”

For this, consider what witches are reported to be able to do. A witch can immobilise, enchant, and enslave. These are effects that can also be noted as subjective experiences of a constellated unconscious complex. That a witch can immobilise has been noted in the Word Association Test in the retarded reaction, a sort of paralysis. Enchant, the constellated complex can wrap one in a cloud of illusion. Enslave, the complex can dominate and effectively reduce the ego’s functioning, the person repeating one thought endlessly.

The witch’s activity in a fairy tale would be expressing the subjective experience of a constellated unconscious complex, and the complex so felt may be called a negative mother complex. Of course there are also good fairies in fairy tales, and we could consider a Fairy God Mother in terms of a positive mother complex. Jung includes in his understanding of the formation of a complex that the archetype has two poles, that of positive and negative. The mother archetype exhibits the positive nurturing side of life, and the negative, the devouring side of life. The fairy tale Sleeping Beauty demonstrates wonderfully well both the positive and negative sides of the mother complex. And especially the beginning of Sleeping Beauty is revealing for our topic. The princess is born and the wise old women are invited. However there are only twelve plates and there are thirteen wise old women. So the thirteenth wise old woman is not invited. The first wise old women bestow many personal riches on the child, she will be beautiful, she will be charming, etc. The thirteenth wise old woman arrives, uninvited, and curses the child, saying the princess will die on her thirteenth birthday after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel. The last wise old woman – who had not yet bestowed her gifts – can only insure that the princess will fall into a deep sleep rather than die.

Interesting to note is that prior to the incident of not being included the thirteenth wise old woman was not essentially different from the other wise old women. Rejection transforms this wise old woman into a witch. And we could say that this conflict of rejection haunts the daughter’s life. In a real life situation, where the logical outcome of this fairy tale is manifest, the daughter may initially have had a basically positive mother experience, but mother was overly protective of her daughter in response perhaps to the rejections mother experienced in her life. The mother’s unresolved conflict being then visited on her daughter. We observe that an overly positive mother complex can have this outcome of putting the daughter to sleep; the daughter never really becomes herself but is an appendage of her mother. Another way to express this is that the ego complex does not develop ‘enough’ and the daughter continues in identification with her mother complex.

The fairy tale helps us to imagine how this stagnation can be lifted. The masculine must make a radically different movement, not done up till now in the fairy tale. The King only tried to rid his Kingdom of spinning wheels. We could say his method was to try to banish the conflict. The hero must force through all that has accumulated in the meantime. In the fairy tale he works his way through the brambles and briar bushes. Prior to the hero’s actions, Earth’s wealth does not nourish, but only piles up unsorted. We can see that Mother Earth has continued to be prolific, but without a relationship with that which tills the soil. That is, the mother complex without a working relationship with consciousness. When our hero reaches the princess, his presence wakes her up. Our heroine can wake up to relationship, leaving behind her unconscious unity with mother.

The direction of growth and health is to establish a workable relationship between ego and complex. The work may be in the form of questions or dialogue. Questions open the door of the complex and the ego complex is strengthened by reflection. Some of the questions that have passed the review today:

  • “Is there an emotion that is not registered?”
  • To the dreamer, “What kind of anger did the biker have?”
  • Interpreting an opinion: “Is it true? Is it not true?”
  • “How does the witch exist?”
  • In Sleeping Beauty: “Where is the conflict of rejection?”

With a workable relationship between ego and complex, there is integration where before there was dissociation. And the personality is richer, more varied and more vibrant.


Ellenberger, Henri (1970) The Discovery of the Unconscious, The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. Basic Books, New York.

Freud, S., Jung, C.G. (1979) The Freud/Jung Letters. ed. W. Mc Guire, abridged by A. McGlashan. Pan Books, London.

Jung, C.G. The Collected Works. Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

———– (1957) “The Houston Films” in C.G.Jung Speaking. eds G.Mc Guire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1977.

Monahan, Paula (2009) “C.G.Jung: Freud’s heir or Janet’s? The influence upon Jung of Janet’s dissociationism” in International Journal of Jungian Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 1: 33-49.

Myers, Steve (2009) “The cryptomnesic origins of Jung’s dream of the multi-storied house” in The Journal of Analytical Psychology, Vol 54, No.4: 513-531.

Dr Barbara H. Miller is Jungian Analyst in private practice in Hilversum