Symptoms and Complexes


Symptoms[1] result from obstructions or impediments to the ‘normal’ flow of energy.  Symptoms are signals to the conscious that there is lack of psychic equilibrium somewhere, and that homeostasis[2] requires conscious attention in order to fix the problem. 

It is, in fact, one of the most important tasks of psychic hygiene to pay continual attention to the symptomatology of unconscious contents and processes, for the good reason that the conscious mind is always in danger of becoming one-sided, of keeping to well-worn paths and getting stuck in blind alleys. The complementary and compensating function of the unconscious ensures that these dangers, which are especially great in neurosis, can in some measure be avoided.


Complexes are emotionally charged, splintered-off, psychic entities that manifest around certain archetypes and have escaped (split off) from consciousness’ control to lead a separate existence - in the unconscious.  The negative effects of complexes are commonly experienced in the four functions, while the complex dictates the reactions and responses in the thought process.  “Complexes interfere with the intentions of the will and disturb the conscious performance; they produce disturbances of memory and blockages in the flow of associations; they appear and disappear according to their own laws; they can temporarily obsess consciousness, or influence speech and action in an unconscious way.  In a word, complexes behave like independent beings.”[3]

“Everyone knows nowadays that people “have complexes”. 

What is not so well known, though far more important theoretically, is that – complexes can have us.”[4] 

Complexes[5] are both necessary and helpful.  They are naturally occurring, sustain the psyche[6], and they help us recognize that there is something discordant with our psychological balance.  Lacking consciousness of their existence though makes us liable to be controlled by them.  Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing where the problem is or how to get to it.  All one can do is create a ‘receptive’ field of consciousness that is ‘grounded’ enough to receive the unconscious symptoms or complexes (when they are ripe) for processing (working through).  If the conscious is incapable of accepting the symptom or complex (i.e. too toxic to ‘digest’) it will be ‘negated’ back into the unconscious via suppression or repression[7].

“A complex can be really overcome only if it is lived out to the full.  In other words, if we are to develop further we have to draw to us and drink down to the very dregs what, because of our complexes, we have held at a distance.”[8]

A complex is an agglomeration of associations – a sort of picture of a more or less complicated psychological nature – sometimes of traumatic character, sometimes simply of a painful and highly toned character. Everything that is highly toned is rather difficult to handle. If, for instance, something is very important to me, I begin to hesitate when I attempt to do it … Such disturbances are complex disturbances – even if what I say does not come from a personal complex of mine. It is simply an important affair, and whatever has an intense feeling-tone is difficult to handle because such contents are somehow associated with physiological reactions, with the processes of the heart, the tonus of the blood vessels, the condition of the intestines, the breathing, and the innervation of the skin. Whenever there is a high tonus it is just as if that particular complex had a body of its own, as if it were localized in my body to a certain extent, and that makes it unwieldy because something that irritates my body cannot be easily pushed away because it has its roots in my body and begins to pull at my nerves. Something that has little tonus and little emotional value can be easily brushed aside because it has no roots. It is not adherent or adhesive.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that leads me to something very important – the fact that a complex with its given tension or energy has the tendency to form a little personality of itself. It has a sort of body, a certain amount of its own physiology. It can upset the stomach. It upsets the breathing, it disturbs the heart – in short, it behaves like a partial personality. For instance, when you want to say or do something and unfortunately a complex interferes with this intention, then you say or do something different from what you intended. You are simply interrupted, and your best intention gets upset by the complex, exactly as if you had been interfered with by a human being or by circumstances from outside. Under those conditions we really are forced to speak of the tendencies of complexes to act as if they were characterized by a certain amount of will-power.

(The) so-called unity of consciousness is an illusion. It is really a wish-dream. We like to think that we are one; but we are not, most decidedly not. We are not really masters in our house. We like to believe in our will-power and in our energy and in what we can do; but when it comes to a real show-down we find that we can do it only to a certain extent, because we are hampered by those little devils the complexes.  Complexes are autonomous groups of associations that have a tendency to move by themselves, to live their own life apart from our intentions. AP 81

The complexes, then, are partial or fragmentary personalities. When we speak of the ego-complex, we naturally assume that it has a consciousness, because the relationship of the various contents to the centre, in other words to the ego, is called consciousness. But we also have a grouping of contents about a centre, a sort of nucleus, in other complexes. So we may ask the question: Do complexes have a consciousness of their own? AP 82

(When) Jung discovered the complexes of the unconscious, he (discovered) them as dark spots, namely, as holes in our field of consciousness.  By making the association experiment he found out that the field of consciousness was tightly put together, that we can associate clearly and correctly except when a complex is touched, and then there is a hole.  If a complex is touched in the association experiment, there are no associations.  That, therefore, is the normal view of the unconscious, namely that everything is clear except for those disagreeable dark spots of the complexes, behind which are the archetypes.  TPoPA 161

On the primitive level it is therefore, self-evident that “demons,” or in our language “complexes,” have to be removed from the realm of the subject; integration – that is, a responsible acceptance into the total personality – is attempted only exceptionally, namely, by certain shamans or medicine men who kept a few conquered “demons” near them as “spirit helpers.” 


The ego also is an agglomeration of highly toned contents, so that in principle there is no difference between the ego-complex and any other complex.

The parent complex can be all-encompassing:  the way we feel about our bodily life, the basic fears and guilts, how we behave in closeness intimacy, and sexuality, how we feel when we are ill, and our patterns of relating to family and friends.  The parent complex is not our parents'; it is our complex.  it is the way in which our psyche has taken up our parents.  Parents pass on fears and uncertainties to their children.  The difficulty lies not only in the expression of these feelings, but in the impenetrable loyalty to what has been expressed.  The parent complex protects one from experiencing life, and it encapsulates one from feeling and thinking what one feels and thinks.  A gap is created between us and life.  Life passes by and the richness of life is ignored.  We go through life in a state of psychological paralysis.  This paralysis frequently determines whether we are happy or sad.  The parent within us so long ruled the stereotypes of feelings and values that we lack awareness of our own value as individuals.  This pattern may even continue long after a parent's death.  JewishViJP 31/32

[1] I.e. anxiety, fear, depression, guilt, conflict, etc.  Symptom is defined as: Anything that accompanies X and is regarded as an indication of X’s existence.

[2] A return to equilibrium

[3] Psychological Factors in Human Behaviour.   Par. 253 (Jung Lexicon page 38)

[4] Bennet, E. A. What Jung Really Said, New York: Schocken Books (1983).

[5] For example:  Inferiority complex, Oedipus complex, God complex, Messiah complex, Castration complex, Hero complex, and father. 

[6] “In the same way that atoms and molecules are the invisible components of physical objects, complexes are the building blocks of the psyche and the source of all human emotions.  (Jung Lexicon – Complexes pg. 38)

[7] RE REPRESSION -  “Repression is not only a factor in the etiology of many neuroses, it also determines contents of the personal shadow, since the ego generally represses material that would disturb peace of mind”   (Jung Lexicon  Repression – page 118)

[8] “Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype”  CW 9i, par. 184 (Lexicon – Complexes – page 39)