An important contribution that Jung made to understanding the personality was its tendency to dissociate, or split into parts. He called these parts complexes, or splinter personalities. On occasion, a person ‘falls into’ a complex and it takes over the personality for a time. The inferiority complex is, by now, familiar in our cultural landscape and when in the grip of this, a person feels inadequate, incompetent, weak and lowly. Even people who have objectively achieved excellence can still be prey to feeling inferior at times.
At the centre of a complex are some strong feelings, which are described as archetypal due to their intensity. They are usually out of proportion to the event that has triggered them and can carry us away, into acting in ways that we might, in a different state of mind, not countenance. Some familiar expressions capture this well: ‘I was beside myself with rage’; ‘I don’t know what came over me’; ‘it is not like me at all to…’ The ‘cure’ for complexes is for the heart of them to find expression and understanding in a safe place, which can be psychotherapy for some people. They take quite a bit of unravelling which is why they are called complex. If we think of small children and how intense their feelings are, it is easier for us to think of how normal it is to behave in unacceptable ways and to understand how we socialise children into our culture. When these strong feelings are lived and accepted, they become humanised – no longer the province of the archetypal – and then they can become more integrated into the personality and put to good use. If, however, the feelings are repressed (rather than understood and accepted) because they are socially unacceptable, then they move into unconscious territory where they will erupt via a complex at a later stage. Rage is not often helpful but in its attenuated state of assertiveness or healthy anger, then it is an important part of the psychic economy that can protect and stand up for us, giving us energy to do what needs to be done.
Anna was born into a poor family where money was tight, but just as importantly, where there was also psychic impoverishment. Her father spent too much of the family budget on nights down the pub and was not only emotionally unavailable to his family but when he was present, he would be rough, both verbally and physically. Anna learnt to keep out of his way and to ‘swallow’ much of her resentment, trying her best to keep the peace and to help her mother. When she found the capacity to come to therapy in her thirties, she would fall into her ‘money complex’. She would become profoundly anxious that she was spending the entire family budget on herself (as her father had) and terrified that she would become dependent on the therapist (as father was dependent on alcohol) and at risk of falling apart if money ran out (which was mother’s fear for herself and the family). The parallels between the family poverty and the current deprivation were played out with money as the currency for emotional expression. A lot of attention was given to money transactions, including the payment of fees in the therapy, as they carried a great deal of feeling. As links were made between the past and the present and Anna’s needs were attended to, slowly there was a shift and Anna became less anxious generally and less anxious about money in particular. Whereas some people may need to learn to rein in their spending and become more prudent, for Anna it was the opposite and she learnt to let go a little, waste a little and to enjoy herself more. She had plenty of resources as she was intelligent, capable, and in a good and emotionally nurturing relationship. We began to use the symbolism of money to understand that she was rich in many ways and that her financial and emotional poverty were literally a ‘small’ part of her, that is belonging to her child self.