In Jung's theory, complexes may be related to traumatic experience, or not. There are many kinds of complex, but at the core of any complex is a universal pattern of experience, or archetype. Some of the key complexes Jung wrote about were the anima (a node of unconscious beliefs and feelings in a man's psyche relating to the opposite gender) and animus (the corresponding complex in a woman's psyche); and the shadow (Jung's term embracing any aspect of psyche which has been excluded from conscious awareness). Many Jungian complexes appear in complementary pairs: for example, the puer, or eternal youth, often appears in relationship to the senex, or archetypal old man. A puer complex might manifest as an individual's unconscious dread of growing up, of losing one's romantic ideals or freedom; a senex complex, by contrast, might be seen in a person who, without seeming to understand why, is driven to act out an "old man" role, in creative or destructive ways. Only when a complex results in destructive behavior would it be seen as pathological; otherwise, a Jungian view of psyche accepts the presence of diverse complexes in ordinary health.
Aside from the assertion that all complexes have an archetype at their core, this definition of complexes can just as easily be a definition of subpersonalities. Few, if any, complexes are transpersonal, while there are many transpersonal archetypes. Jung's reliance on archetypes as an explanation for complexes makes them more complex and esoteric than they need to be. It's worth noting that the same is true of subpersonalituies -- few are archetypal or involutionary (though it is possible).
Jung's vision of the complex as an autonomous element in the psyche is the first attempt at grasping the nature of the multiple-self that we all live with (Roberto Assagioli was doing something similar in Pyschosynthesis a few years later).(1)
According to Jolande Jacobi, one of Jung's students and translators,
[E]very complex consists primarily of a "nuclear element," a vehicle of meaning, which is beyond the realm of the conscious will, unconscious and uncontrollable; and secondarily, of a number of associations connected with the nuclear element, stemming in part from innate personal disposition and in part from individual experiences conditioned by the environment.
Once constellated and actualized, the complex can openly resist the intentions of the ego consciousness, shatter its unity, split off from it, and act as an "animated foreign body in the sphere of consciousness."(2)
~ Jolande Jacobi, Complex, Archetype, Symbol in the Psychology of C.G. Jung
This is essentially the definition of a subpersonality, though we will have to replace the archetype as the "nuclear element" with some form of trauma, dissociation, or some other event that can create the need for self-protection in the psyche.(3) And just as complexes gather associations around the initial kernel, so too do subpersonalities.
Once a sub gets created or split off, as either a manager, firefighter, or an exile, it will see all similar experiences as a reason to activate, thus accruing more experience and validation for its existence (and more psychic energy). For example, I lose my father at a young age and suffer horrible pain around that loss. At some point, without good guidance through the event, the psyche will block out the pain to protect itself, creating a manager to protect the wounded child. Each subsequent experience of loss will reinforce that manager's role and the pain will be exiled with original childhood pain. This would be considered a complex in Jungian psychology, but with better explanations now available, we can see that there are several things occurring in the creation of a subpersonality complex.
Just as complexes can act autonomously to "take over" the psyche, so too can subpersonalities. For the most part, we remain oblivious to the subpersonalities lurking behind the veil of awareness. They are covert, not wanting to be seen directly. They do their job and then they retreat, and we are left wondering why we acted as just did.
Jacobi suggests that the ego can take four different approaches in dealing with a complex/subpersonality: total unconsciousness of its existence, identification, projection, or confrontation. When the complex/sub takes over the psyche, even for a short time, we generally have no choice but to identify with it -- for the moment, the complex/sub assumes the position of the proximate self (the sense that this is "I").
Rather than a confrontation with the complex/sub, however, I prefer the idea of an integration, which is where Jung takes the idea as well, after the initial confrontation. One of the ways Jung accomplished this in therapy was through active imagination. The same basic approach is used by Richard Schwartz in his Internal Family Systems model.
Here is a brief excerpt from an IFS therapy session:
Client: Sometimes I tell myself that I should work less and I feel a little guilty but then she [his wife] explodes and I think, "Why should I try?"
Therapist: So there's another part that is critical of you and still another that feels guilty but then that angry part returns. Of the parts we have begun to identify so far, which one would you like to get to know better or change your relationship with first?
Client: Maybe that trapped guy because I feel that way all the time.
Therapist: Okay, try to focus on that part exclusively for a second, however you experience it, whether it's a voice or a thought pattern, or a feeling, and as you focus on it see if any image of it as something alive comes to you.
[The client] saw a little boy cowering in a corner of a room, for whom he felt sympathy. [The therapist] had him focus on this image and ask the little boy what he wanted. The boy answered that he wanted to feel safe and protected. Eventually the boy admitted that he made [the client] feel so boxed in because he felt at risk from [the wife's] frontal assaults and wanted [the client] to get away from her. The boy also said that he was afraid of [the client's] angry part because when it took over, it made [the wife] even more enraged and dangerous. (4)
Cited in Schwartz, "Know They Selves," Family Therapy Networker, N/D 1998.
What the therapist used in this case was a form of active imagination, which can allow the different parts of us to have a voice. Schwartz often uses this approach to allow his clients to access the complex/sub/part that needs attention. As often as not, there are many complexes/subs working to protect a very vulnerable, child self that was exiled to protect it from shame, trauma, fear, or some other overwhelming emotion. We all have exiles within, with managers and/or firefighters whose job it is to protect the exile, or sometimes to simply keep it exiled rather than face its pain.
When the exiled self is brought to awareness, along with the managers/firefighters that protect it, they can no longer act as an "I" in our consciousness -- they move from subject to object, from proximate self to distal self (as me or mine, but not as I). Further, once the different parts/subs are identified, they can be integrated as a "family" of selves in the psyche that operates more holistically and with a lot less energy spent keeping them unconscious -- repression is hard work and it takes a lot of psychic energy.
Jacobi mentions the positive role that complexes can play in our lives, which is equally true for subpersonalities:
The complex in its "seminal function" even deserves a place of honor as the life-renewing and life-promoting source whose function it is to raise the contents of the unconscious to consciousness and mobilize the formative powers of consciousness.
We should take this same view of subs (since I am arguing that complexes and subpersonalities are one and the same). Subs can disrupt our lives, but once we learn to be mindful of them and identify them, they can lead us to unresolved pain from our past which is crying out -- through the actions of our subs -- to be recognized and healed. We cannot heal what we do not know is there, so rather than seeing subs as bothersome, we should recognize that they arose in the first place to take care of us in some way, and that they can lead us to a more whole and healthy sense of self.
1. Jung and Assagioli were friends and corresponded in their later years.
2. Jung: "A Review of the Complex Theory," The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8) .
3. Not all subpersonalities arise from trauma, obviously -- we can actually create our own subpersonalities, especially as teenagers, by "trying on" different roles. Other subs develop as our roles develop, for example as a parent, or as an employee, and so on. But the subs I am interested in here are the ones that can "hi-jack" the psyche and make us wonder why do what we do.
4. The client identifies three parts here: the critical self (a manager), the angry self (a firefighter), and the scared little boy (an exile). In many cases, especially child abuse or sexual abuse, it may take ongoing negotiation with the managers and firefighters to gain access to the heavily protected exile. It often is not as easy as it seems in this example.