celebrating the complex-driven psyche

Too often cast as villains of our inner world, our psychological complexes (or subpersonalities, alter personalities, or plural parts) can be, in truth, the marvels of our personal psyche — a heroic league of unconscious resources that we can call upon.

Psychoanalytic thought is quick to tell us about the challenges complexes present, both personally and in terms of treatment. Even as Carl Jung and others underscore that complexes form the foundation of a healthy psyche, our complexes are seldom granted a vigorous cheering section. This article aims to view the complex in a fresh light, considering it to be the foundation of much that is magical and precious in our lives. By examining the development of our complexes, including the ego-complex, and by examining their many intrapsychic gifts, perhaps we can develop a new relationship with these sometimes thorny, often lovely parts of ourselves.

origin story

Every origin story, from the beginnings of the universe to the unfolding of our parents’ first meeting, is by necessity, a fiction. We never have the whole picture; our information and our perspectives are always partial. James Hillman, in particular, emphasized the value of sustaining fictions[1] as a way of re-visioning our experiences and our lives. Calling our foundations ‘fictions’ is not to denigrate our underpinnings, but rather to acknowledge the idea that much of life is based on models. In this way, we move through our world largely on an as-if basis. We act as-if certain things are true, and this allows us to move forward — if not always with confidence, then at least with coherence, and sometimes with competence. We may survive on food and water, but we live by fictions.

The origin story I’m going to offer here is a model, an as-if. I make no claims as to its forensic or material truth. There may be other stories that speak to you more powerfully, or make clearer sense within the context of your world. But if you sit with this story, and it’s an as-if that works for you — at least sometimes — then complex work may be a tool that renews your sense of wonder and homecoming.

John Rowan is our storyteller for the first part of this tale. He is the author of Subpersonalities,[2] a book that interprets our inner lives in view of the idea that we are, each of us, pluralities.

Within us are discrete selves with their own perspectives and desires, and that we can interact with these subpersonalities to increase our — and their — quality of life.

If Rowan was here with us (unfortunately, he passed away in 2018),[3] he might share his ‘myth’ of how subpersonalities come to be.[4] It goes something like this: When we are small, perhaps even still in the womb, we experience some kind of trauma. It may be a common developmental trauma — the first time one’s mother was not immediately responsive, for instance. Or it may be something more sinister, like abuse. Whatever the trouble, let’s assume we all have one. And at the time of that trauma, we feel the causal flaw is within us. We decide we need to be different in some way, to ensure that we stay safe, remain lovable, and to manage the cognitive dissonance of living. To do this, we develop a fundamental psychic split, creating a ‘better’ self. The apparently insufficient self, then, gets shoved into our psychic shadows, intolerable because we believe it threatens our existence in some way.

No doubt the story so far will be familiar to many readers. But here is where Rowan’s view get interesting. Because, over time, as demands are made of us — as we learn about gender roles, for instance, or we go to school where we are subjected to the power of new and different adults — we find that we are insufficient, in some way or other, on an ongoing basis. We develop subpersonalities to show to different people in different situations, and in this way, we try to become optimally safe. In time, however, the psyche begins to firm up. Life generally demands that we ‘show up’ with a fairly consistent way of dealing with the world. And so we hold a sort of inner election. Somebody inside, among all those parts, is declared the ego.

One among many, and theoretically first among equals, the ego is the driver of a car filled with disparate individuals, all of whom have a major investment in their own way of being. And why not? Each believes that to act differently would be a real danger and could very possibly mean annihilation.

That, then, is the outline of our origin story, our as-if about how a multiple — but essentially healthy — psyche comes to be.

Now let’s consider the story through the Jungian lens. Because, what we’re talking about here, of course, are complexes. These autonomous splinter psyches described by Jung[5] are a fundamental part of the makeup of our inner world.[6] Additionally, they are, perhaps, our most direct, daily experience of the archetypal.

In our polycentric psyches, we are a garden — or a galaxy, or even a ‘fight club’ — of complexes. And, in fact, you-the-reader of this article, and I-the-writer, are not excluded from that scrum. The ego-complex may be a highly steadfast complex,[7] but it remains a complex nonetheless — the driver of the car, but certainly not the only one in the vehicle. And to the degree that you or I have emotional needs, preferences for comfort, and a unique history, so does everybody else in our ‘car.’

When we denigrate our complexes, ultimately, we’re belittling ourselves. But to the degree that you and I have the capacity for great beauty and good — so do our ‘subpersonalities.’

So, as my young inner companion asked in the active imagination excerpt above, What does it mean to be a complex? What can we do? What are our powers? That is the question this piece sets out to answer. It is time to get to know what is great, and magical, and maybe even superpowered, about ourselves and our selves.

secret identity, sensitivity & depth of feeling

If you’re a fan of superhero fiction, you know the life of the super-powered isn’t always easy. For this reason, many of our favorite heroes have a secret identity. But perhaps such extraordinary fiction often derives from ordinary experience; each of us is the bearer of a secret identity that conceals our superpowers, too.

Most of us, most of the time, appear as undivided persons. This is our secret ID — we masquerade as monads when, in fact, we are many inside. But as we move through our days, a busy inner world is hidden from the gaze of the outer people around us. Consider a secretly polycentric superhero at a job interview. One young, inner complex with exquisite sensitivity insists, concerning the interviewer, that she doesn’t like that scary man behind the desk! Meanwhile, an empathic complex may sense that the same man is weighed down with grief. This complex may even be perceptive enough to notice the tan line on his ring finger, a conspicuously empty spot on his desk where a framed photo must have gone. Our complex has sussed out that the man is recently divorced.

Sensitivities both physical and emotional, heightened powers of perception, a well-honed danger sense, an ability to monitor and juggle complexities, all of these can be the gifts of our complexes.[8] Of course, it is also in the nature of complexes to sometimes be paranoid, knee-jerk reactive, weighed down with despair. Complexes are strongly interwoven with affect,[9] and that is not always to our — or their — comfort. But there is an undeniable superpower that comes with experiencing deep and painful emotions. After all, the ruts of our sorrow clear a way for the cool waters of joy to flow.[10]

Complexes, in bearing the worst of our pains, create a space that, — when we welcome them home — can be replenished with joy. Our emotional capacity, I believe, derives in part from the affective range of our complexes, and the more we are in communication with these emotional depths, the more intricate and vital are our experiences with life, inner and outer.

Another phenomenon related to our secret identities is the common experience that complexes — in their sudden arrival, their autonomy, and their ability to shape our behavior — act and speak in ways that do not seem like us. Going back to that job interview I mentioned earlier, let’s imagine that our job interviewer touches us in a sexually suggestive way. While the ego-complex is overwhelmed with the conflict between getting the job and making a stand, an indignant teenage complex steps in, kicks the guy in the shins, and waxes unreservedly about the interviewer’s many unpleasant qualities. Physical violence, of course, is never ideal, and we might want to enter into an imaginal dialogue with our teen complex about that — but what we do have on our hands, here, is a fierce protector with the power to break in on dangerous situations. Even our very bodies can shift under the power of complexes, giving us the capacity for quick responses, often in situations calling for unique skills that some complex within us has acquired over a lifetime of drawing corresponding material to it. We’ll look more at this ‘drawing’ capacity below.

a superpowered, archetypal core

If Superman is an Apollo at heart[11] and Phoenix of the X-Men manifests the eternal theme of power-in-rebirth,[12] these heroes are not alone in having numinous, archetypal cores. Every complex has an archetype at its center — or more likely, according to Samuels, a couple of them: A complex is not just the clothing for one particular archetype ... but an agglomerate of the actions of several archetypal patterns, imbued with personal experience and affect.[13] This goes for every complex within us, from the shin-kicking teenager to the ego-complex we experience as ‘I.’

This is heady, lovely stuff — the idea that even on our worst days, when we feel depleted and underwhelmed, there remains within us the presence of something numinous, powerful and, depending on your point of view about the nature of archetypes, eternal.

It is not always easy to suss out the archetype at the core of our complexes; consider Jung’s difficulty in sorting out the nature of his own personal myth.[14] Still we may not need to identify as card-carrying avatars of Kali or Mami Wata to benefit from the knowing that something ancient and holy resides within us. Consider the archetypal film Rocky. The boxer’s trainer didn’t know which archetype occupied the fighter’s core, but he knew damned well a god lived there: You’re gonna eat lighting and you’re gonna crap thunder![15] Of course Rocky won the title after that! Knowing there is a god inside you — a virtual pantheon, in fact — matters.

similarity & contiguity magnetism

Activated archetypes, those same numinous figures we find at the heart of complexes, have a way of drawing things to themselves. On one hand, this drawing-toward creates the ‘shell’ of the complex, clothing it in personal and collective imagery befitting own life experience.[16]  But the complex also does another sort of drawing, pulling toward it the sorts of experiences that validate its understanding of the world.[17] This means the downtrodden complex who holds our hurt around relationships with women, for instance, might have an almost magical ability to zoom in on uneasy images of women in its environment. What ten other people might not even have noticed, this complex spies with such ease that you’d think someone had thrown a spotlight.

This power of archetypes, and by extension, complexes, comes from the archetypal ‘drawing’ powers of similarity and contiguity, described by Whitmont in his classic book, The Symbolic Quest.[18] Essentially, the principle of similarity says that archetypes will draw things to them which are similar to their nature. These drawn things, in turn, accompany their appearances in dreams and other images. For instance, the principle of similarity constellates the orphan archetype around Harry Potter and Anne Shirley because both of these literary kids have been orphaned.[19][20] Simple enough. But contiguity is a little more complicated and a lot more interesting, drawing things that touch on similarities. So, let’s imagine that I go to the movie theater. Because Dionysos historically resonates with theater, and because the movie I watched was so powerful, I have an intense inner activation around the archetypal image of Dionysos. That same Dionysos in my psyche may now also draw to himself, due to contiguity, experiences like lights dimming into darkness and the buttery smell of popcorn. When I see popcorn in my dreams after that, there is a good chance that the Dionysos archetype is present, too. If I have a complex with Dionysos at its core, this complex may want to go to the movies more often — or it might begin to constellate at the smell of popcorn!

This magical magnetism, this power of drawing, then forms the foundation for the next, and perhaps most impressive, complex superpower.

quantum manifestation ray

In recent decades, there has been a lot of discussion about how we create our reality. The explanations for this phenomenon range from the spiritual to the quantum but, as for me, I give credit to our complexes.

Projection, the phenomenon by which we see psychic realities stamped onto the persons and situations of the matter-based world, is part of the foundational functioning of complexes. If someone inside us feels there is ‘no help’ for us, that complex will interpret situations in the light of being unhelped and unhelpable. This may seem like a simple matter of perspective. After all, we can view our encounters with the world through any number of lenses.

But I’d like to suggest that there is more to this superpower than a simple lens. We’ve all known people — and perhaps we sometimes are those people — for whom, when it comes to a certain area our lives, the deck really is stacked against us. Consider a person who has a complex around debt. No sooner do they wipe out our longstanding credit card debt than their car needs an unavoidable, expensive repair. They’re finally close to paying off that debt when they get word that their child needs a medical treatment not covered by insurance. Time after time, they find themselves in debt not because of bad choices or irresponsibility, but because there are circumstances in life that are simply beyond their control, and sometimes those circumstances come in patterns.

This, I argue, is a manifestation of complexes creating reality though the psyche’s powerful use of subtle attractors which pull human experience in certain directions.[21] Especially considering the psychoid nature of archetypes — meaning they have origins in both the material and subtle worlds — it makes sense that such attractors might form the basis for synchronicities and the activation of other semi-material forces to manifest and re-manifest certain key situations.

But if this is really the case, and complexes have this negative reality-creating capacity, how can it possibly benefit me or my complex? What does a state of perpetual defeat or retraumatization achieve?

On one level, the answer may harken to Kalsched’s Self-Care System and the way the dark angel of the traumatized psyche injures or re-injures itself to shield itself from dangers it perceives as more threatening.[22] This may not the full story, however. I believe that complexes long to express themselves in the world, and when we, the ego-complexes, fail to create space for this to happen, complexes, in response, unconsciously both look for and create the kind of world they know best, where their talents and world views can be brought to bear. Projection, then, is more than a way of evaluating what is already ‘out there'. It is a form of creativity, sometimes yielding imaginal works, but at other times, material ones.

But complexes may create positive realities, too. When they are allowed a seat at the inner table[23] and their gifts are acknowledged, this same manifesting power might evoke beneficial synchronicities and situations. In these cases, life seems to ‘go our way.’ Because it is in the nature of complexes to project, I don’t believe they simply stop projecting because they are healing and receiving caring attention. Instead, the quantum manifesting ray has been turned to the good. Consider the popular Campbellian aphorism, follow your bliss...and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.[24] Why would this be the case? Perhaps because following our bliss suggests that we have overcome the persona-heavy life approach so often used by the ego-complex to feel secure in the world. Overreliance on a persona leaves our authenticity out in the cold. We become the person we believe we should be, focusing on safety and the approval of others. But when we bring attention to the loves and joys we’ve relegated to shadow — the turf of the complexes — what we’re really doing is giving those parts of ourselves an opportunity to express their long-suppressed, longings and gifts. So, suddenly, yes, doors do begin to open. The complexes are projecting — evoking out of materiality a world in which they can exist wholeheartedly, where they can shine.

secrets from ourselves

Imagine we had immediate access to, or worse, constant awareness of, every awful thing that ever happened to us. Would we ever make friends or transact business — or even get out of bed — if we lived with a perpetual awareness of just how awful life can be? What if every mention of death brought back complete, vivid recall of every loved one we ever lost? What if, each time we got into a car, we experienced the memory of every car wreck we’d experienced or heard about?

Somewhere, inside us, these memories are being held with attention and care. The trauma or sense of loss that accompanied them is being held in that sacred space, too. The name for this sacred container of trauma, along with the feelings it engendered, is complex. When we do get triggered by an event that casts us down the road of flashback, emotional or physical, it is because a complex has been activated. The part of ourselves that held that terrible moment (and the moments that touch upon it) has been shaken into wakefulness, often rising with the chemistry of panic still flooding through our system.

It is a difficult thing to be in the grip of a triggered complex — one, incidentally, that can be eased if we are already in communication with that complex during times when it is not constellated. Even so, this sudden, intrusive experiencing, is a far kinder option than one in which every trauma is a sun perpetually risen in our psychic sky.

And because we have multiple complexes, our traumas are spread out across multiple selves. This means, in most cases, a complex having to do with a memory of being locked in a small space will not simultaneously constellate with the memory of a parent’s death, an earthquake we experienced last spring, and that first time we had a visceral understanding of the grim scope of the Holocaust.

Complexes are intricately woven not only with ‘pathological’ dissociation, taking the form of alters within multiple personality systems, but with healthy dissociation, as well. They help us build the imaginal barriers that (generally) let us move through the world with manageable levels of stress and access to the memories we need, without hair-trigger access to what we do not.

This same superpower enables complexes to reveal information in gentle dribs and drabs — for instance, in the form of a sneaky ‘Freudian slip’[25] — or, with screaming sirens and flashing lights — as when we suffer a series of nightmares just before we’re about to take an inadvisable action. When we respect and attend to their communications, complexes are capable monitors of the internal flow of information. And if we think we have a need to know more, to have access to some nugget of the past — if our relationship with our complexes is friendly — we can ask for that information in imaginal dialogue or request it by dream incubation.

the superpower of free will

Rogue of the X-Men — who drains others’ power by touch, whether she wants to or not[26] — would be quick to tell us that not every super power is a good one, at least not all the time. It’s no different for our superpowered complexes. It is precisely because the origin story of many complexes connects to a trauma [27] that they are subject to the experience of being triggered. But beyond their many emotional discomforts, triggers introduce an important philosophical question too: How free is our will when we’re under the influence of a triggered complex? Constellated complexes often find themselves reacting to situations, rather than making conscious choices. From their point of view, then, the moment of triggering leaves a complex with little choice but to act from their wound, perceiving not in terms of the now, but in response to the painful past. In this way, the will of that complex cannot be truly free — and neither can the ego-complex riding shotgun alongside it. An active complex puts us momentarily under a state of duress, of compulsive thinking and acting.[28]

Considering how fundamental complexes are to the psyche, it seems likely that a lot of us — the next door neighbor, the mayor, you, and me — are acting out of old beliefs, old fears, old learning. But there is good news. We’re not stuck here. Befriending our complexes — and, especially, getting to know them when they’re not constellated — shines a light on projections, reveals old wounds, and shows us the places we’ve been stuck. With this awareness, we can develop a more accurate view of the world, and with it, greater choice. If the dream is the royal road to the unconscious, forming a superheroes’ league with our complexes is the via regia to a truly free will.

the heroic conclusion

Too often, we forget that we are marvels. We get bogged down in the discomforts of our symptoms, the mundanity of our routines. And this is a loss for us, the ego-complexes who interact regularly with a world so rich in wonder. But I think it’s even harder on our complexes — often disregarded, sometimes maligned, and so very heroic, holding our traumas and wounds as they do — who gift us with their steadfastness and, ultimately, facilitate our individuation. We would do far better, for them and us, to consider ourselves members of our own super heroes' league, shimmering with archetypal power.

It isn’t hard to begin forming our heroic team. Depth psychology offers us plenty of tools for working with the subtle selves inside — active imagination being foremost among them. But even when we’re on the fly, zooming through our busy lives wearing our secret IDs, it takes very little to pause and reflect on a recently constellated complex and say, Hi. I just want you to know, I know you’re there. I’d like to get to know you better. I believe you have superpowers, that you’re a gift and a treasure. And together, I think we can do incredible things.

⌅   references for this article