what are


“I feel like I’m a gathering of personalities … There’s the playful, mischievous me who tends to stir things up … Then I can swing into the serious-minded overbearing conventional me … There are a whole bunch of characters in me, and I think I need them all.”

Subpersonalities, more technically called complexes, are a normal part of the human psyche that hold packets of related memories, affects, and beliefs. They are the denizens of our inner world and the actors in our dreams,[1] and their presence has been noted by psychologists, philosophers and artists across multiple cultures and eras.

complexes as subpersonalities

Subpersonalities have their own perspectives, desires, and needs, and are best understood as semi-autonomous or autonomous. This means that, even though we usually feel as if our ‘I,’ our ego, is driving our mental ‘car,’ a triggered complex can bump us over and take control of the wheel for a while. When this happens, we see the world through their uniquely colored lenses. Their logic becomes our logic, and their priorities become our own. We may act in ways that seem ‘unlike’ us, and after they're gone, we may be left wondering, ‘Why did I do/say that?’

Our complexes often hold the traits that we don’t like to see in ourselves: our addictions, our prejudices, or secret wishes, our resentments. They may also represent our fragility — a wounded child self or suppressed artist, as well as any the dreamy, gullible, and lovely but unworldly parts. In many respects, these subpersonalities are the most precious — and the most neglected — aspects of ourselves. When we take the time to welcome them home, our complexes can become our greatest treasures.

Though we most often experience subpersonalities most directly when they are ‘constellated’ or triggered out by some external world experience, we can choose to reach out to them at other times. Two great processes for communicating with our complexes are dreamwork and active imagination.

Here are a few additional, important points about subpersonalities / complexes:

They have an archetypal core

Humanity’s recurring patterns of person and experience — often clothed in myth and dreams — are known as archetypes. Taking their origin in the most subtle reaches of psyche, we often experience archetypes as magical, powerful, or numinous. They stop us in our tracks, give us goosebumps, and knock our socks off. And they are at the heart of each of our complexes — the source of their power, fascination, and energy. If we take complex theory seriously, this archetypal principle can bring a great deal of magic into our experience of our lives and the world.

You, too, are a complex

The person you experience as ‘I’ is traditionally understood in complex psychology as the ego, or the ego-complex. This is the part of us who experiences ongoing consciousness and interacts with the world, makes ethical choices, and experiences the coming and going of the other complexes. Though we spend most of our time in the driver’s seat of our lives, we, too, are collections of related memories, affects and beliefs. In this way, we are one complex among many.

The psyche is multiple

If we take the idea of complexes seriously, we develop a picture of the psyche as multiple. This means that each of us, inside, is one of many. Often, when we begin to address our complexes as individuals with their own needs and preferences, life begins to run more smoothly.

Multiple personality alters differ only in degree

The alters of multiple personality (dissociative identity) can be understood as complexes with more profound barriers between them. The tools of complex psychology can be adapted for those with traumatic dissociation.

⌅   references for this article