The concept of psychological complexes was one of Jung’s major theoretical contributions. Complexes are normal. We all have them. According to Jung’s views, a complex is a web of feeling-toned associations that accumulate around an archetypal core. So our experiences of our being cared for by our mother as children coalesce to form an unconscious set of emotions and expectations as we move out into the world. Complexes are always autonomous, and operate as sub-personalities. They have the ability to distort perception, and therefore the affect how we interact with others.
For example, someone who had basically good experiences of being mothered would be said to have a positive mother complex. People with positive mother complexes tend to have an unconscious expectation that things will basically go their way, and that new people that they meet will like them.
On the other hand, negative complexes can set us up to expect — and experience — the worst. Traumatic experiences can contribute to the development of a negative complex. If our father was stern and rejecting and made us feel as though we had to perform perfectly at school in order to earn his love, we may grow up to have a negative father complex. This may lead us to find ourselves in situations where we always feel as though we aren’t quite lovable enough. An activated complex may exert a strong, unconscious pull, drawing us into situations and relationships where the original wound gets enacted again and again.
But here’s the truly hopeful thing about negative complexes: even our worst, seemingly most destructive complexes are trying to engage us. They paradoxically ask for transformation—as many a fairy tale attests. Our most troublesome complexes will get us into hot water again and again, and plunge us back into our most painful wounds–but in doing so, they also spur us on to growth and individuation.
The Norwegian tale Prince Lindworm is very instructive on how we might transform a negative complex. In the tale, a barren queen is told that she must consume a one of two roses in order to conceive, but she is warned against eating both of them – advice that she ignores. She does indeed become pregnant, but gives birth to twins. One is a lovely baby boy, but the other is a loathsome lindworm, or serpent. The lindworm wriggled quickly from the room, however, and the queen soon forgot about him.
Years later, when the young prince was ready to marry, the lindworm reappeared, blocking the road that his brother took to seek a bride. The enormous lindworm lay with his huge mouth wide open, crying, “A bride for me before a bride for you!” And the young prince could go no further. So it was that the queen confessed that indeed, as the older twin, the lindworm was entitled to get married first, and the king and queen sought about for a suitable princess and a marriage took place. The next morning, however, the princess has disappeared. The lindworm lay sleeping all alone, and it was quite clear that he had eaten her.
This happened several more times, until finally the king insisted on marrying Prince Lindworm to a poor shepherd’s daughter. The distraught girl sought out advice from an old woman, who assured her that all would be well.
“Listen, then,” said the old woman. “After the marriage ceremony is over, and when it is time for you to retire to rest, you must ask to be dressed in ten snow-white shifts. And you must then ask for a tub full of lye, and a tub full of fresh milk, and as many whips as a boy can carry in his arms,—and have all these brought into your bed-chamber. Then, when the Lindworm tells you to shed a shift, do you bid him slough a skin. And when all his skins are off, you must dip the whips in the lye and whip him; next, you must wash him in the fresh milk; and, lastly, you must take him and hold him in your arms, if it’s only for one moment.”
“The last is the worst notion—ugh!” said the shepherd’s daughter, and she shuddered at the thought of holding the cold, slimy, scaly Lindworm.
“Do just as I have said, and all will go well,” said the old woman. Then she disappeared.
When the wedding-day arrived, the girl was fetched in the Royal chariot with the six white horses, and taken to the castle to be decked as a bride. And she asked for ten snow-white shifts to be brought her, and the tub of lye, and the tub of milk, and as many whips as a boy could carry in his arms. The ladies and courtiers in the castle thought, of course, that this was some bit of peasant superstition, all rubbish and nonsense. But the King said, “Let her have whatever she asks for.” She was then arrayed in the most wonderful robes, and looked the loveliest of brides. She was led to the hall where the wedding ceremony was to take place, and she saw the Lindworm for the first time as he came in and stood by her side. So they were married, and a great wedding-feast was held, a banquet fit for the son of a king.
When the feast was over, the bridegroom and bride were conducted to their apartment, with music, and torches, and a great procession. As soon as the door was shut, the Lindworm turned to her and said, “Fair maiden, shed a shift!” The shepherd’s daughter answered him, “Prince Lindworm, slough a skin!”—“No one has ever dared tell me to do that before!” said he.—“But I command you to do it now!” said she. Then he began to moan and wriggle: and in a few minutes a long snake-skin lay upon the floor beside him. The girl drew off her first shift, and spread it on top of the skin.
The Lindworm said again to her, “Fair maiden, shed a shift.”
The shepherd’s daughter answered him, “Prince Lindworm, slough a skin.”
“No one has ever dared tell me to do that before,” said he.—“But I command you to do it now,” said she. Then with groans and moans he cast off the second skin: and she covered it with her second shift. The Lindworm said for the third time, “Fair maiden, shed a shift.” The shepherd’s daughter answered him again, “Prince Lindworm, slough a skin.”—“No one has ever dared tell me to do that before,” said he, and his little eyes rolled furiously. But the girl was not afraid, and once more she commanded him to do as she bade.
And so this went on until nine Lindworm skins were lying on the floor, each of them covered with a snow-white shift. And there was nothing left of the Lindworm but a huge thick mass, most horrible to see. Then the girl seized the whips, dipped them in the lye, and whipped him as hard as ever she could. Next, she bathed him all over in the fresh milk. Lastly, she dragged him on to the bed and put her arms round him. And she fell fast asleep that very moment.
Next morning very early, the King and the courtiers came and peeped in through the keyhole. They wanted to know what had become of the girl, but none of them dared enter the room. However, in the end, growing bolder, they opened the door a tiny bit. And there they saw the girl, all fresh and rosy, and beside her lay—no Lindworm, but the handsomest prince that anyone could wish to see.
Poor Prince Lindworm! He must have lived out his lonely life knowing that he had to be humanized and transformed. Although to our eyes, he appears to be playing the villain, really he was crying out for attention! He wanted to have his monstrous layers stripped away, his squishy flesh flayed so that he could be redeemed.
I imagine our complexes like the lindworm. When they jump out and block our way as we are trying to get along down the road of life, they may seem monstrous and destructive, when really they are just trying to get our attention. In their own mute but eloquent way, they are trying to tell us what they need – what we need – to grow. The poet Rilke knew this too.
Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses, who are only
waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in
its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet