complex psychology

the sum of our parts

Complex psychology

The field of complex psychology holds that the personal complex is the fundamental unit of the psyche. This unconscious aspect of our mental experience is the key to understanding the imaginal processes of our inner life — the source of our imagination, our inspiration and our dreams.

what is

complex psychology?

The term complex psychology can be used in multiple ways. Here, we consider Jung’s original use of the phrase, as well as offering a functional, contemporary interpretation. pinned article

what is

the unconscious?

The unconscious mind is the part of our psyche that operates below the level of awareness — our consciousness. Sometimes called the subconscious, we may never fully solve the mysteries of the unconscious psyche, but imaginal practice offers us ways to understand its structure and functions. pinned article

what are


Learn the basics of subpersonalities: who they are, what they do, and how they affect our lives. If you’ve ever marveled at your behavior, thinking, “That didn’t seem like me, at all!” this introductory article might be of interest. pinned article

how does it feel

when a complex is active?

Psychological concepts are often best understood through the lens of our experience. In this article, we get to know complexes, or subpersonalities, by considering what it feels like when they are present and active. article

it’s a complex story:

complex in fairy tale and myth

Myth and folklore reflect and reveal the processes of psyche. In this 4-part series on Complex in Fairy Tale and Myth, we consider how stories can help us develop our understanding of the workings of complexes by studying the stories of Erisichthon, Pasiphae and the Minotaur, and the lovable, furry old Grover. article

Daughter of God:

the personal complex in the life of Joan of Arc

Perhaps one of history’s most beautiful and tragic figures, Joan of Arc’s story offers us an opportunity to study the nature of the personal complex in the psyche, in religion, and in our wider human narrative. article

archetypal images

for complex psychology

Many archetypes give us insight into the nature of particular complexes, but the archetypes discussed here open new vistas for complex psychological work, in general. article

mansion of mind:

the imaginal world of Stephen Leeds

Brandon Sanderson’s novella trilogy Legion explores the larger-than-life imaginal world of Stephen Leeds and his community of subpersonalities. In this relatively spoiler-free exploration, we consider the series through the lens of complex psychology. article

multiple personality:

the complex psychology of dissociative identity disorder

What do personal complexes and the alters of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) have in common? Here we consider the shared origins of alters and complexes, ultimately suggesting that it is not plurality of psyche, but rather the impermeable barriers to communication between parts of a dissociative self, that constitute the ‘disorder.’ article


celebrating the complex-driven psyche

Often cast as the underdogs — or even the villains — of our inner world, complexes are a foundational part of the psyche. When we consider them through a more heroic lens, we discover just how much they have to offer. article

the lexicon

complex psychology

Complex psychology can be understood as a synonym for depth psychology. However, in terms of the research addressed here, complex psychology focuses specifically on developing relationships with one’s complexes as a means of improving quality of life.

what is complex psychology?

A normal part of the human psyche which holds collections of related memories, affects and beliefs. Generally understood to have an archetypal core and a more personal shell, they are sometimes called subpersonalities or parts. The alters of multiple personality (dissociative identity) can be understood as complexes with more profound barriers between them.

what are subpersonalities?
collective unconscious

The wellspring from which the shared archetypal heritage of humanity is drawn. Also known as the objective psyche, it is placeless and timeless, providing the ‘ur-stuff’ of our myths, dreams and symbols.


Used to describe the state when a complex is active. In some respects similar to a state of being ‘triggered.’ Perhaps best understood by illustration: Imagine that you are driving a large van. Your unconstellated complexes, or subpersonalities, sit in the rows of seats behind you. When a complex becomes constellated, it may either 1) take the seat beside you, perhaps advising or nagging you, and thus impacting your driving decisions, or 2) bump you out of the driver’s seat entirely, taking control of the van.

how does it feel when a complex is active?

A process by which we ‘shelve’ certain, often traumatic, information differently than other information. In dissociation, memory may be ‘held’ separately from the feelings experienced at the time the memory was formed. Dissociation can, in many cases, be understood as a ‘safety valve’ that keeps us from being overwhelmed by traumatic or strongly undesirable experiences.

dissociative disorder

A diagnostic category comprising disorders characterized by a division of self, from self. Because of these divisions, there may be lapses in recall, sense of identity, or access to knowledge.

dissociative identity disorder

The part of our psyche that we experience as ‘I,’ which experiences conscious awareness. Freud distinguished the ego from the id and superego, but Jung simply considers the ego, or ego-complex, to be one complex among many.

Jung, Carl Gustav

With Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud, one of the three ‘fathers’ of depth psychology. Jung’s contributions include development of the theories of the collective unconscious, the complex, and the nature and role of archetypes in the psyche.

multiple personality

Also known as dissociative identity. Generally understood as a pathological state, multiple personality is the traumatogenic, intensified version of the normal and predominantly healthy plural psyche. In cases of multiple personality, however, the level of dissociation is more marked, and more pronounced ‘walls’ exist between parts/alters.


The part of the psyche that shapes itself to meet the demands of the outer world. This complex has the sometimes difficult job of behaving in ways that feel — and, perhaps, are — antithetical to the deeper, authentic nature of the individual. Our persona, for instance, may present itself as a logical and fearless team player, while we more genuinely experience ourselves as timid, artistic, and introverted. Arguably, the persona’s function is to facilitate our survival, to create a ‘game face’ that allows us to integrate into the tribe.


The tendency to see in others the behaviors and traits we, ourselves, possess but reject. Projection, once perceived can be withdrawn, which enables us to see others more clearly. Complexes function largely by projection, and so this phenomenon gives us an opportunity to discover and work with our complexes.


The tendency of the parts of our psyche to manifest as persons, as seen most clearly in dreams. Also, a deliberate, often therapeutic choice to envision parts of our psyches as people, generally with the goal of creatively interacting with these parts to discern their needs or inner forces they represent.

plural positivity

A grassroots, largely online movement in support of those who identify as plural, experiencing their inner worlds as occupied by multiple inner figures. Embraces a variety of experiences of multiplicity, ranging from the normative to the disordered.

pluralistic psyche

A model of the psyche which embraces the idea that we are made of many semi- autonomous and autonomous parts called complexes. Related ideas include polytheistic psyche, multiplicity, plural self, and polycentric psyche.


The totality of the inner world, encompassing conscious and unconscious, ego, shadow, inner figures such as complexes and psychic archetypes (anima, Self, etc.), and processes like thought, memory, perception, and more. Arguably, psyche can be understood to extend beyond the limits of mind, embracing somatic experience, the fields of projection and transference that exist between people, intersection with a collective unconscious and/or the wider experience of an anima mundi, or world soul.


An inner archetype, force, or over-complex that moves the psyche as a whole toward the individual’s greatest fulfillment, destiny or individuation. The concept of the polycentric psyche may, however, cause us to ask whether there is more than one teleological ‘center’ in the psyche — or perhaps more than one Self. If this is the case, it may be that a person individuates not in respect to a single Self or Telos, but, rather, may achieve individuation by way of numerous centers within the psyche.


The parts of ourselves — or the place occupied by those parts of ourselves — which get suppressed because we perceive them as dangerous, inconvenient, too fragile, or otherwise undesirable. The shadowing of our inner parts is not necessarily a conscious process, and often it is strongly interwoven with fears about survival or being excluded from the tribe. Complexes (with the exception of the ego-complex) are generally said to dwell in the shadow region of psyche, and can certainly be understood as shadow-selves.


A normal part of the human psyche which holds collections of related memories, affects, and beliefs. Generally understood to have an archetypal core and a more personal shell, they are sometimes called complexes or parts. The alters of multiple personality (dissociative identity) can be understood as subpersonalities with more profound barriers between them.

transcendent function

A capacity or process in psyche (and in the world) that considers two opposites held in tension, finally resolving them in a symbol or other ‘third thing.’ This deep and somewhat difficult concept is best understood by way of example. For instance, consider a college student who is drawn to major in art, but her parents are pressuring her to choose something more practical. The ‘opposites’ in this case are art versus practicality, autonomy versus obedience, soulwork versus practicality. Upon holding this ‘tension of opposites’ (rather than surrendering to one ‘side’ or the other), the student dreams that she gives a grandfather clock to her parents. Her dream-self feels a great sense of personal power in this giving act. Upon waking, this symbol — the clock — awakens in the student an a-ha moment. She understands that there are many gifts she can give her parents — spending time with them, among the most important — but that she must also retain her autonomy — choosing for herself which gifts she gives to her family, to the world. The transcendent function can be understood as both the process by which the student comes to her epiphany, as well as its outcome, the symbol which yields awakening.


The part of our psyche that operates below the level of awareness or consciousness, particularly in relation to the perceptions of the ego-complex. Sometimes called the subconscious, we most commonly interact with this part of ourselves as the source of our nighttime dreams. Much of depth psychology is involved with making unconscious material conscious, as with practices like active imagination.

what is the unconscious?