In an earlier blog I referred to the duality inherent in life. Too bad we couldn’t just all wait for Grace and know that it would happen! Well, actually if we really trusted that it would, it would. The trouble is that a hoary thing, called the complex, which is the polar opposite of Grace, comes up and bites us when we are starting to go unconscious. I don’t mean that we are about to faint. Rather, we are probably about to create more karma – the unpleasant kind.

Jung first began to understand more about the complex when he was working on his word association experiment. He realized that when some words were said, the client would leave a long space of time before finally coming up with a word association. For example, the word might be mother, and the client might say milk, or kindness or the moon. But if there was a long time gap before the client came up with an association it was pointing to a complex of some sort.

The complex is basically an energy knot in the psyche, which builds up over time. It can constellate around anything, usually a wounding of some sort. I have found, working with clients, that it is most helpful if you can name it, as you get to know it. Why bother….you might ask. There is only one good reason. It stands in the way of everything productive you might want to do in your life, and it poisons your relationships.

Let me give you an example. A woman I know has an orphan complex. There are many variations on this one, but in this particular case, she easily falls into an experience of abandonment. You could call it an abandonment complex – it doesn’t much matter how you name it, as long as you get to know it. In any case, whenever she gets stressed in relationship, she feels that her partner is leaving her, abandoning her when she most needs support, etc. Her partner feels that she falls into this ‘snake pit’ all too readily and he is getting fed up. While he was very sympathetic and supportive in the beginning, he often feels sucked dry by her histrionics. She has no idea of how she comes across, and doesn’t understand why he withdraws.

Another woman I know has a major martyr complex. In stereotypic jokes this would be the wailing Jewish or Italian mother. In this particular case, she was a good old-fashioned White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. She was a master at manipulating her children and grandchildren with guilt. I don’t think she had any idea how much she alienated them, but she was a master manipulator – and she did it in the sweetest possible way!

Or take the victim complex….a close cousin of the martyr. The victim gets other people to feel sorry for him or her. They wear their woes on their sleeves and play their tunes with all the finesse of a master violinist. Other people will bend over backwards to give them a deal or to take care of them or give them money. But eventually, these relationships get tired. People get tired of giving, giving, giving with very little coming back. These people are forever comparing themselves to those who are more fortunate than they are and crying the blues. Eventually, unless they are partnered up with someone who has a forceful mother complex, they push most people away. Other people feel vaguely guilty around them – and no one likes to feel guilty!

I will just add a word about the mother complex – one that I am intimately familiar with!! Most therapists have had this one running at some point in their lives. It is the complex that tells you that you are only valuable or powerful if you are helping others. Someone with this complex operating will often come across as very good, kind, generous – and a good listener! The only problem is that they put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own, and then start to feel grumpy and resentful when they burn out. Anger builds up because their inner child says, ‘What about me? I take care of everyone else, but who takes care of me?’ So there is bitter resentment, which can easily marry up now with the victim or martyr complex. In other words, it’s a mess.

The inner growth for someone with a mother complex is to realize that no one will take care of you. You have to take care of you. When you put that on someone else, it poisons the well. The reason complexes are so dangerous to our well being and to our relationships, is that for the most part they are in the unconscious. If we were fully conscious of them, we could change our behaviour. We could ask directly for what we want or need, and then our friends or partners would have some clarity about our needs.

It is precisely because we are not fully conscious of what is operating in the underground of our psyches, that we say and do things that alienate others. We think we were being perfectly innocent, or funny or cute or clever. We have all been around people with passive-aggressive behaviour. This type of person has a complex that says he/she cannot ask directly for what he/she wants. For whatever reason, that is taboo. Or the person has learned that he/she is more successful at getting needs met by being manipulative. This type of person will be the last to admit or acknowledge his passive-aggressive behaviour, and will also be unlikely to acknowledge the anger or disdain that is underneath his/her actions.

As you can see, there are many types of complexes – but they all sit in the unconscious side of the psyche. I often liken them to a snake pit or a swamp. It’s not a pretty thing to fall into, and if you say or do anything of any consequence when you are in this place, you will be creating a whole lot more trouble for yourself. The smartest thing you can do is of course to become conscious of the pitfalls in your own psyche. I think of it as an inner landscape. You have to know your own danger zones.

The second smartest thing you can do is to at least realize that you have fallen into your own personal snake pit. Say and do NOTHING! Ask for a time out. Go to your corner, and try to figure out what has hit you. Go for a walk. Go to your room. Write in your journal. Get ye to a therapist. Do not engage in further conversation until the fog has lifted. Most of you won’t do any of this. But perhaps, if you have read this far, it will give you something to think about the next time it happens.

Above all, keep smiling and laughing at yourself. It is still the best medicine!