About this series: Over the next few weeks, we will be discussing the work of Carl Jung on this blog and the role his work plays into hypnotherapy. Today's post is about the way that complexes organize themselves into clusters, which become a way for children (and latet, adults) to view the world in a shallow, archetypal, manner.


Complexes are the basic building units of psychological reality, and thus are simply normal parts of the mind. Our complexes allow us to multitask in everyday activities, and to operate on “autopilot” without having to consciously attend to every environmental stimulus. They are formed when a strong emotional experience, or one that is repeated many times, produces a patterning of the mind. The resulting pattern is behavioral (habits), and also consists of beliefs and expectations. A defining characteristic of complexes is that they tend to be bipolar or consist of two opposite parts.[i], [ii]

Usually when a complex is activated, one part of the bipolar complex attaches itself to the waking ego, and the other part is split off and rejected. It often gets projected onto someone else. This bipolarity of the complex leads to endless conflict with the illusory other. And an individual may identify at different times with one or the other pole of the spectrum. For instance, in a typical negative father complex, a rebellious son inevitably encounters the authoritarian father in every teacher, cop or boss onto whom he projects his negative father imagery. Yet when he is in the role of the father, or authority, he seems to always encounter the rebellious son onto whom he has projected that role. Complexes originate in the immature psyche of a young child, and therefore they carry the simplistic certainty of a black-and-white world view, in which there are only two possible positions.

When a complex is activated by some event which resonates with it, it steps in to assist or protect the ego self-image, leading to a decrease in the higher functions of consciousness and to a tendency for the complex itself to take over the ego identity. One can be playing innocently with her toddler one moment, and instantly shift into a highly capable adult ego identity when an emergency occurs. Some complexes are not well integrated into waking consciousness, however, and are related to the hidden shadow instead. They may be more demanding when activated, and attempt to invade and usurp the conscious ego identity. They are even capable of “possessing” the individual, in Jung’s terminology.[iii]

Jung used the term archetype to describe a deep tendency to organize experience in certain ways, related to universal human conceptualizations. He likened archetypes to imprinting in animal behavior: there is a critically sensitive time period after birth (or hatching from the egg) that the newborn is innately programmed to follow any available object as its mother. Ducks can imprint on a person or a dog if the mother hen is taken away and not available. The baby ducks now want to follow whatever they have imprinted as “mother”, they want to be near it and show anxiety in its absence. Instinct is at work.

In a very similar way, human beings are innately programmed to respond to cute babies and sunsets, to the vastness of the oceans and the fierceness of a wildfire, to the inspirational hero figure and the allure of power. Each of these operates as an archetype in the individual who is touched by it. Archetypes are to the psyche what instinct is to physical existence.

There is an archetypal core to every complex, so that the child’s personal experience becomes wrapped around powerful universal imagery. Heroes come to be regarded as superheroes, and villains as supervillains. Authorities may be generalized as protective and loving, or as threatening and dangerous. “Archetypes are like riverbeds which dry up when the water deserts them, but which it can find again at any time. An archetype is like an old watercourse along which the water of life has flowed for centuries, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it has flowed in this channel the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return to its old bed.”[iv] In another analogy, offered by James A. Hall, archetypes are like magnetic fields, having no apparent content in themselves but exerting a strong influence on the arrangement of any magnetizable material within the influence of their fields.[v] “. . . the archetypes are, so to speak, like many little appetites in us, and if with the passing of time, they get nothing to eat, they start rumbling and upset everything.”[vi]

Complexes are dissociated parts of the mind with an archetype at its core, holding clusters of memories together in an unconscious grouping which is dissociated from the rest of mental functioning and serves healthy as well as pathological purposes.[vii] Our complexes are created to allow us to multi-function, to operate on autopilot, and to provide cover and deniability to the ego who wishes to appear innocent. “Jung thought that whatever its roots in previous experience, neurosis consists of a refusal - or inability - in the here and now to bear legitimate suffering. Instead this painful feeling or some representation of it is split off from awareness and the initial wholeness - the primordial Self - is broken. . . . This splitting is a normal part of life. Initial wholeness is meant to be broken, and it becomes pathological or diagnosable as illness, only when the splitting off of complexes becomes too wide and deep and the conflict too intense.”[viii]

Active imagination, dream work, psychodrama, and hypnosis are all examples of an altered state of consciousness that provides simultaneous or rhythmic access to the unconscious, oscillation of identity between waking ego and imaginal egos. This access offers a decided advantage in identifying and working with complexes within the psyche. The dream ego, or the imaginal ego in hypnotherapy or active imagination, is not identified with the array of complexes that are the actual structure of the waking ego, which must contain and mediate them. This accounts for the neutral point of view available to the dream or imaginal ego, relative to the waking ego. The altered state ego is less defended and more loosely identified with a historic self-image. There is a natural fluidity to moving into and out of various complexes, and to recognizing the relationship between them. The phenomenon of self-hypnosis brings into focus this fluidity, where there is an active ego and a recipient or passive ego engaging one another.


There's a lot to learn from Jung's unique incorporation of hypnotherapy. If you'd like to remain subscribed to this series and not miss an update, simply input your email in the top right (if you are viewing this on your computer) or the end of this post (if you are reading this on your mobile phone). By subscribing, you can insure you won't miss a single update on this series.

Of course, if you'd like to follow in his footsteps and incorporate hypnotherapy into your own practice, we have a training and certification course for that. Just click the banner below to download the course guide.


Hall, J. A. (1989). Hypnosis: A Jungian Perspective. New York: The Guilford Press.

Hartman, D., & Zimberoff, D. (2012). A trauma-weakened ego goes seeking a bodyguard. Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies, 15(1), 27-71.

Jung, C. G. (1955). “Wotan,” Civilization in Transition, Collected Works, Vol. 10. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. (1978). C. G. Jung Speaking, W. McGuire (Ed.). Thames & Hudson, London: Picador.

Knox, J. (2004). Developmental aspects of analytical psychology: New perspectives from cognitive neuroscience and attachment theory - Jung’s model of the mind. In J. Cambray & L. Carter (Eds.), Analytical Psychology, 56-82. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Perry, J. W. (1970). Emotions and Object Relations. The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 15(1), 1-12.

Sandner, D. F., & Beebe, J. (1984). Psychopathology and analysis. In M. Stein (Ed.), Jungian Analysis. Boulder, CO and London: Shambhala.


[i] Perry, 1970

[ii] Hall, 1989

[iii] Hartman & Zimberoff, 2012

[iv] Jung, 1955, p. 189

[v] Hall, 1989, p. 43

[vi] Jung, 1978, p. 358

[vii] Knox, 2004, p. 57

[viii] Sandner & Beebe, 1984, p. 298