Psychology in Perspective
Obstacles & Helps to Self-Understanding*
Mary Ann Mattoon
"I get the neck of the chicken;
I get the plate with the crack."
So begins a popular song from the 1940s. Its words express the feelings
that result from a "complex." This particular complex brings a
feeling of being at the bottom of the importance ladder. The words also
suggest that the feeling is "projected"--assuming that family
and friends see the person as unimportant, worthy of only the least desirable
food and dishes.
The word "complex" is used to identify a variety of situations.
An apartment complex is a cluster of living units. A sports complex provides
simultaneous athletic activities, such as swimming, tennis and basketball.
The late President Eisenhower spoke of the "military/industrial complex"--a
cluster of organizations and institutions. Psychological complexes
are clusters of related thoughts, feelings, memories and impulses; many
of them have been "repressed"--pushed out of consciousness. These
complexes put false ideas into our heads--about ourselves, other persons
and situations. Complexes may tell us, for example, that we are unlovable,
unattractive or incompetent. Sometimes we refer to such concerns as "hangups."
In psychobabble, the word "issue" has come to mean complex more
than its older meaning of a disputed matter.
The most widely known complex, probably, is the "inferiority complex."
It was identified by Alfred Adler, one of Sigmund Freud's early associates,
in the first decade of the twentieth century. Adler attributed emotional
problems to the fact that that each of us has an "organ inferiority"--a
weakness or defect in some part of the body. A complex forms to compensate
for the weakness. For example, "Ted" had been small in stature
as a boy, with arm muscles too weak to throw a baseball well enough for
him to play in Little League. Consequently, he felt powerless. As an adult
he became obsessed with the desire to be boss, to exert power. According
to Adler's theory, this desire expresses Ted's need to compensate for his
feeling of inferiority, a need that arises from his small stature and is
aggravated by his weak throwing arm.
A few years before Adler identified the inferiority complex, Freud had
discovered a complex that he believed to affect everyone--at least every
male--beginning in childhood. He named it the "Oedipus complex,"
harking back to a Greek myth. (Oedipus had been abandoned as an infant,
and did not know his origins. Meeting his biological father as a stranger
who tried to force Oedipus from his path, Oedipus killed his father. Later
he met and married-inknowingly--his widowed mother.) Freud believed that
each boy, at about four or five years of age, desires his mother sexually
and wishes to get rid of his father. The boy's mental conflict--he also
needs his father--produces the "oedipal situation" which, if not
resolved, will be a life-long problem.
The corresponding situation for a girl--desire for her father and antipathy
for her mother--has come to be known as an "Electra complex."
(Electra, in another Greek myth, wanted her mother killed in order to avenge
her father's death, which had occurred at the hands of the mother and her
Varieties of Complexes
Not everyone has an Oedipus or Electra complex. Indeed, data from many
cultures suggest that the Oedipus complex may be culturally determined.
In some cultures, for example, the father plays a small part in a child's
life; the mother's brother is the primary adult male. As Jung discovered,
moreover, even in Western culture a boy does not necessarily fall in love
with his mother (as Freud had it) and, thus, compete with his father. Some
boys have mainly negative feelings about their mothers and cling to their
fathers, to some other adult or--worst of all--to no adult. In many families
fathers favor their sons over their daughters, inviting the sons to share
the father's interests, such as in sports such as hunting, fishing and football.
Conversely, some girls' more positive attachment is to their mothers,
along with--often--a negative response to their fathers. Indeed, psychologists
increasingly consider the girl's positive attachment to mother as the natural
one. Perhaps Freud's generation found girls resenting their mothers' unwillingness
or inability to assert themselves in the face of a patriarchal society.
More common than Oedipus/Electra complexes are inferiority but, it now
seems clear, they are not necessarily related to organ inferiority.
Moreover, not all complexes reflect perceived inferiorities. Jung, using
a word association test and clinical observation, found that individual
temperaments and experiences result in a wide variety of complexes.
Indeed, the contents of complexes are as varied as human experiences.
We can have complexes about love, status, intelligence, competition winning,
being recognized, money, food, addictions, honor, and so on, and so on,
and so on. Each complex produces a "knee-jerk" reaction to certain
sets of circumstances. For me, being ignored (or feeling that I am) easily
brings a feeling of resentment. For example: I am in a small group, start
to say something and someone else speaks at the same time. The group attends
to the other person. I feel put down, insulted. I want to leave the room
but, more likely, I withdraw from the conversation, interrupt as soon as
possible--or demand to be heard.
Most of us have some complex about money: a persistent feeling of being
deprived because we are not wealthy, of guilt because we have more than
our neighbors or of fear that we cannot earn enough to support ourselves
and our dependents. Out of our money complex, we may spend too much or too
little. We may be stingy or so generous that we endanger our own welfare.
We may worry about money so much that we become depressed or even cannot
function in the jobs we need for earning money. Or we may flip back and
forth between contradictory spending practices.
My money complex fits well the old adage, "penny-wise and pound
foolish." I keep my not-very-expensive clothes until they are worn
out ("waste not, want not") and refuse to patronize expensive
restaurants ("millions of people are starving")--but travel freely
in the United States and elsewhere, and give repeatedly to many causes.
Many complexes are destructive to our self-esteem. For example, we may
think of ourselves as unable to think analytically; we assign ourselves
a label. "Lame-brain," for example, may identify a "stupidity
complex." Similarly, we may be unable to take a suggestion without
getting angry, because of a "criticism complex." An acquaintance
of mine calls herself "a bear of very little brain" (borrowed
from A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh). Despite this humorous way of
identifying her complex about intelligence, she demonstrates it by getting
angry when someone challenges an idea-any idea-that she has.
It is easy to get the impression that all complexes play a negative role
in our lives. However, many complexes have effects that give us positive
feelings. They make us feel good, stir us to enthusiastic responses or make
us eager to undertake an unusual enterprise or experience.
But such a complex can have negative effects. A high school classmate
of mine had an "adventure complex." He was eager for the excitement
and challenge of combat service, so volunteered for the navy long before
he would have been drafted. He saw combat in the war and, when it was over,
stayed on as a non-commissioned officer. He seemed to be hoping for further
adventure comparable to his war experience. Thus, his adventure complex
prevented him from exploring other avenues for which he had ability.
Similarly, an "achievement complex" motivates some of us to
prodigious amounts of socially-useful, productive work. We get accolades
from people around us but pay a price in having too little time for family,
friends, recreational activities and, potentially, in health.
Positive complexes are pleasant to have, at least for a while, but they
can give us the illusion that we can expect great results from little effort
or that life can be always pleasant. The resulting disappointment is painful.
Both "positive" and "negative" complexes consist
of a collection of mental and emotional contents that are not under conscious
control. Our egos can neither produce the state nor squelch it; they can
only decide--perhaps--whether to express the accompanying emotion.
Both categories carry value as well as difficulties. The examples here include
a preponderance of the "negative," perhaps, because such complexes
seem more common and certainly are more noticeable, because of the accompanying
Categories of Complexes
Jungians speak of various categories of complexes. Each category is rooted
in a particular archetype (see Ch. 3). Major categories include: father,
mother, brother, sister, hero, child and animus or anima. Because of its
archetypal root the significance of each complex, its numinosity and some
of its contents arise out of the collective unconscious. In many instances--but
not all--it is possible to perceive a direct connection between the observable
complex--manifested in attitudes and behaviors--and the underlying archetypal
A father complex can be positive, resulting--for example--in a
respectful attitude toward men of the father's generation. Thus, a young
man or woman may adapt readily to working for a particular employer. Then,
growing older, the young person may identify with the father archetype;
becoming super-concerned with being protective and maintaining structure
Or, the father complex can be negative, perhaps leading to a distrust
of older males, including one's own father. For example, as a high school
student, I was on the debate team. The coach was trained in public speaking,
but not in debate. My father, a lawyer, had been a skilled college debater
and tried, on occasion, help me to improve my skills. My negative father
complex made it impossible for me to listen to him.
Another person with a negative father complex is likely to be resistant
to hierarchical organizations: corporations, religious institutions or the
military. Such a person is likely to refuse to work in a corporation, to
see all churches as dogmatic, and--whatever his or her attitude toward war,
to avoid anything military. This attitude may hamper the person's career,
which may depend on participation in one or another of such bodies.
An authority complex can derive from the father complex.. (No matter
the gender of the authority figure, authority is considered to be an aspect
of the archetypal father.) Sometimes the complex is manifested in an individual's
desire and effort to be boss or to be the ally of a strong leader. The leader
may take the form of a charismatic public official, a spell-binding preacher,
a street gang leader--or a Hitler.
A positive mother complex can lead to an exceptional capacity
for strong bonds with women and, in a female, a positive feeling about herself
as a woman. A negative mother complex can result in a persistent dependency
on older or stronger personalities, out of a desire to experience the mothering
that may have been missed in childhood.
Mothers, in many cultures, are expected to be accepting and nurturing.
A woman I know has received a minimum of nurturing from her mother and has
developed an intense fear of being abandoned. Thus, she has an "abandonment
complex" intertwined with her negative mother complex Her fear keeps
her in a state of anxiety. Because of her over-eagerness to be accepted,
she tends to drive away friends and lovers.
Only recently have Jungians begun to pay attention to brother and
sister complexes. Since even only children have cousins (usually),
playmates and classmates; sibling figures are a universal experience--the
stuff of archetypes. People with positive sibling complexes have unusual
ability to relate to peers of both genders. Moreover, a close relationship
with a sibling can help to make up for lacks in parental nurturing.
A fairly well-known expression is "sibling rivalry." If the
parents are not reasonably even-handed with all their children, rivalry
can lead to a complex that produces exaggerated, life-long destructive competitiveness.
With luck, however, siblings and, hence, the sibling complex can challenge
a person in a way that strengthens ego development. When the parents are
elderly or deceased, the comradeship that is possible between siblings may
be strengthened. Then, rivalrous siblings can become mutually respectful..
Just as the father, mother and sibling complexes take different forms,
so does the hero complex. It can lead--positively--to taking initiative
and being adventurous or--negatively--to foolhardiness and bravado.
The child complex can provide a person with playfulness and creativity--or
feeling helpless and victimized. It arises out of the developmental processes
described in Chapter 4. In non-Jungian theories of psychology and psychotherapy
the child complex has become known as the "inner child."
The animus complex, when it functions constructively, helps a
woman to be appropriately assertive and able to cope with the world of structure
that is a domain of the animus (See Ch. 4). It shows itself as an ability
to reflect, deliberate and take initiative. When this complex takes a negative
cast, the woman can be opinionated and power-driven.
A man's anima complex helps him to form personal relationships,
to be compassionate and gentle. A negative anima complex is likely to make
him moody and self-righteous.
Animus and anima complexes affect the choice of mates. A primarily negative
complex often leads to selecting a mate to match. A primarily positive animus
or anima can help a person to choose a mate who has admirable qualities
that complement one's own.
Even though each complex has an archetypal basis (is rooted in the collective
unconscious), we do not all express our complexes in the same way. Each
of us is likely to be especially subject to certain archetypal forces that
cause us distress but, as we develop psychologically, we find other archetypes
to be congenial and the basis for constructive, even creative action. Thus,
a person with an authority complex may have difficulty in being a member
of a group but, by channeling the desire to be "in charge," may
become a creative, democratic leader--one who is authoritative but who considers
the wishes of other persons.
How Do Complexes Behave?
Jung described complexes as seeming "to delight in playing impish
tricks. They slip the wrong word into one's mouth, they make one forget
the name of the person one is about to introduce, they cause a tickle in
the throat just when the softest passage is being played on the piano at
a concert, they make the tiptoeing latecomer trip over a chair with a resounding
Such slips reveal the distorted view of ourselves and of the world
that complexes give us. For example, we may be convinced that everyone we
meet is determined to show up our stupidity, criticize our every move, order
us around, defeat us in our best efforts or rob us of our financial resources.
In contrast, we may believe firmly that we are destined to be millionaires
or "household names" as artists, public officials or athletes.
Thus, complexes can give us an illusion of control over our lives, or the
lack of such control.
Complexes are powerful. We do not have them; they have us. When
a complex is active, one is said to be "in" it. I am probably
in a complex when I think that an idea or perception is "self-evident":
for example, when I claim that "It is obvious what 'they' are trying
to do." Similarly, when someone disagrees with my "take"
on a situation and I feel insulted, angry, agitated, defensive. Then I may
say that the other person "doesn't know what he is talking about."
If I am enthusiastic about a plan or new idea and someone says "Simmer
down, don't get so excited," I can feel thwarted. Or I can become still
more optimistic, even grandiose.
A complex's archetypal roots are the source of its excessive emotionality.
The rageful demagogue and the rageful rebel, although opposite in their
stances, share an emotionality that is typical of complexes. Moreover, one
emotion may lead to another. For example, a certain woman has a "failure
complex." When she makes a mistake, she berates herself severely. Much
of the time she lives in fear that she will be fired from her job. To counteract
this fear she gets angry at her employer--who has the power to fire her.
She is also grouchy out of anger at her co-workers, whom she perceives to
be more self- confident than she is. Their irritation at her grouchiness
makes her feel unsupported by them and, thus, more fearful.
A man in her office suffers from a similar complex but, instead of making
verbal attacks on his co-workers, he retreats into sullen silence. He forgets
an appointment with a friend who is successful; the friend's presence would
stir the man's envy and, hence, his anger and anxiety.
Despite the frequent destructiveness of complexes, sometimes they act
constructively, such as in heightened sensitivity to the sufferings
of others. Another man, who comes from an underprivileged background, has
a "poverty complex," but it contributes to his sympathizing deeply
with the poor and has motivated him to help homeless people in finding housing.
It is important to keep in mind that not all emotions are complex-determined.
Other experiences that set off emotions include: fear of actual danger,
anger at injustice to oneself or others, sadness at the loss of a loved
person or a prized possession, joy over a new love, enthusiasm about a creative
How Do We Get Complexes?
It is normal to have complexes. Everyone has experiences that carry emotional
impact and, consequently, leave deep impressions on the psyche. Indeed,
much of the "raw material" of complexes is in the sufferings and
joys of childhood. Just as they lack physical stamina, young children lack
psychological strength to cope with powerful emotions. These emotions distort
their perceptions of life. The result is a set of complexes that persist
Many of our complexes have originated in experiences with our parents.
Even if they were kind and loving in general, their responsibilities--paid
work, household tasks, illnesses, emotional problems, griefs and other distractions--made
the parents not always available to us. Consequently, as infants and young
children we sometimes experienced delays and deprivations in receiving food,
comfort and other gratifications that were necessities to us or at least
strongly desired. Complexes formed in us around the feelings of frustration,
disappointment, anger and sadness from such occasions. My complex about
being ignored (mentioned earlier), for example, may have arisen out of my
family's "pecking order": Father did most of the talking at the
dinner table, followed by my mother and brother, with me last. (Since I
was considered to be "shy," it may not have occurred to the three
of them that I had anything to say.)
At other times, we may have been over-protected, indulged and rewarded
to a degree that encouraged us to expect more than we could realize in the
world outside the family. These expectations are raw material for complexes
that develop later than early childhood.
Another source of complexes is the tendency of children to see their
parents as powerful and wise. Yet they may have given us negative, destructive
messages: that we were obstreperous, stubborn, lazy, temperamental--whatever
was inconvenient to them. Or they may have given us the message that our
abilities and possibilities were unlimited, invariably superior to those
of other people. When we are adults, we carry burdensome self-doubts or
exaggerated self-confidence (or some of each) based on such messages.
As growing children, it was difficult for us to relinquish the image
of powerful, wise, truthful parents. We needed this image to be lived out;
our identities were tied up with our families. Thus, in order for me to
think well of myself, I tend to assume that I must be the offspring of acceptable
Even if we gave up this image of our parents, we absorbed their judgments,
including the verdict that we were either wicked or super-special. An alternative
view of the parents, that they did not tell the truth, would make us the
offspring of liars--and therefore still exceptionally bad. The feelings--such
as dread and disappointment--based on these erroneous ideas remain in the
unconscious. Then the child-become-adult can live for many years on the
basis of a distorted self-perception.
Not all complexes result from parental messages. Some arise from experiences
outside the home, in childhood or later, such as failures, exceptionally
easy successes, being rejected or adulated, life-threatening situations
which one barely escaped, severe griefs or supreme joys.
An example of such a formative experience of the outside world is that
of living through a major war, even as a civilian. I was in my teens when
the United States entered World War II. My brother and my boyfriend were
both infantrymen in that war. Both returned safely but with memories of
their agony at seeing their comrades shot down beside them in battle. I
had experienced great anxiety for the young men's safety over the many months
that they were in combat and was deeply pained by what I heard of their
experiences. Over the succeeding decades, each time the nation was in serious
conflict with other nations, I found myself more deeply distressed than
were most of the people around me. The power of my response is an indication
of a complex. Its effect is destructive in that it made me feel isolated
and helpless as an adult. It is constructive in that it has given me energy
for long-range work toward peaceful solutions of conflicts, especially those
among ethnic groups and nations.
Typology as a Factor in Complexes
Typology (see Ch. 2) is a factor in some complexes. In that case, a person's
pain is likely to be associated with the "inferior" (least developed)
function. The inferior function is our "Achilles heel"; it often
gets us into trouble. When we are called upon to use it, we can feel totally
inadequate. (Since everyone has an inferior function, having one does not
make you inferior.)
When a person has dominant intuition, the inferior function is sensing.
A person in such a situation is likely to have a "facts and figures"
complex, hating to balance a checkbook and anxious in seeking the way around
an unfamiliar city.
Another person with inferior sensing may have a "body complex":
standing in awe of physical prowess or disregarding bodily symptoms. For
instance, a friend told me that, when engrossed in a project, she sometimes
gets a headache. Only an hour or two later does she realize that she is
In our culture, many people expect men to be able to think. A man who
has difficulty in thinking analytically may consider himself to be mentally
slow. Such a man can have superior intelligence but, when called upon to
think--especially if he must do so quickly--he feels inept, the victim of
an "I hate math" complex.
I am best acquainted with my own inferior function--intuition. I feel
earthbound and dull in the company of highly intuitive friends. When I try
to plan for the future, I have negative intuitions--seeing only problems
and obstacles. We can call this an "obstacles complex."
The third function is also quite undeveloped: for me, feeling. When called
upon to make a decision, especially in a limited time, I have great difficulty
because of uncertainty about what is the most important among conflicting
values. I can be said to have an "indecisiveness complex."
Identifying a Complex
How do I know that I have a particular complex? I can notice what stirs
my powerful emotional reactions, especially what I am defensive about: what
idea I turn into a dogma or about what practical matter I insist forcefully
"That's the way it ought to be done." For example, everyone ought
to eat all the food on one's plate, not waste money on expensive restaurants,
dress for the weather more than for fashion, contribute money to causes
that I consider worthy, and vote in every election. This complex is akin
to one of control: wanting others to share my values, so that I don't have
to feel conflicted about them.
Another such complex indicator may occasion the words "That's just
the way it is." A man whose business is in difficulty may tell his
wife that he fears he will lose "everything": his savings, his
business and his status as a leader in the community. His wife, characteristically,
tries to reassure him of his worth as a person regardless of how much money
he makes. He may shout at her, "You may not like the fact that the
world revolves around money and earning power, but that's just the way it
is." We can surmise that the man has a money complex and perhaps a
Other Markers of Complexes
1) Whom do I love or hate, and for what qualities? I am likely to love
or hate someone in whom I see qualities that I like or dislike about myself.
2) About what projects or causes am I a fanatic? If I am fanatical (not
just enthusiastic or even passionate), my emotional response comes from
deep in the unconscious psyche, thus has archetypal intensity--the core
of a complex.
3) Which of life's challenges make me "fall apart"? When I
become unable to function, my ego is not in control and my psychic energy
(See Ch. 8) has fallen into the "black hole" of the unconscious
4) What situations make me become belligerent, spend money foolishly,
make imaginary speeches to myself, whine and ask everyone for advice? Again,
my ego has lost its effectiveness; I am at the mercy of unconscious forces.
When a Complex is Touched
1) We are likely to experience more emotion than our best judgment says
2) We may experience less such emotion, presumably from suppression or
repression of our true feelings.
3) We are likely to have a strong feeling of inadequacy.
4) We may feel gripped by a compulsion that we cannot control.
5) We are likely feel angry when someone talks encouragingly.
6) We are tempted to speak or act precipitously.
7) We may talk harshly to ourselves or to other persons.
8) We consider our perceptions to be self-evident and refuse to listen
to another point of view.
9) We may see a situation euphorically--as "perfect" or highly
What avenues have we for discovering complexes? As we have seen, strong
emotion is one. Projection is another; we can spot our complexes when we
perceive our feelings and thoughts as originating in (caused by) another
person or an outer situation.
Pro-jection means "throwing forward." Like a film projector;
the unconscious psyche throws an image onto a screen. In psychological terms,
one person (the "projector") perceives in another (the "screen")
a thought or feeling that belongs to the projecting person (the "film
A man's song from the popular musical play, "South Pacific"
(by Rodgers & Hammerstein) expresses a powerful projection:
Some enchanted evening / You may see a stranger
Across a crowded room.
And somehow you know / You know even then
That somehow you'll see her again and again....
Who can explain it / Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons / Wise men never try.
Some enchanted evening / When you find your true love
When you feel her call you / Across a crowded room
Fly to her side / And make her your own
Or all through your life you will dream all alone.
Although the recipient of the projection is a stranger, the character
Emile "knows" that he will see her "again and again."
He claims that a fool gives reasons, but wise men don't try. At the risk
of being considered (by Rodgers and Hammerstein) to be a fool, I am venturing
a guess that Emile has an inner image of an ideal woman (his anima; see
Such a powerful image clearly originates in the unconscious psyche. Indeed,
it almost certainly arises, in part, from the anima archetype and, thus,
from the collective unconscious. Something about Nellie's appearance impels
Emile to project onto her the entire image. He assumes that she matches
his image and that "making her his own" will prevent his being
alone for the rest of his life.
Even the most romantic observer probably knows that life does not work
so smoothly. Nellie can't/won't fulfill all of Emile's expectations; there
will be difficulties. But the moment is a magical one that virtually everyone
would like to experience. This desire makes the projection irresistible.
At the sight of someone who resembles our inner image of the person we
long for, passionate desire flares up for that person. The flare-up is in
response to the desired person's physical appearance, facial expressions,
way of standing or walking, voice, accent and verbal expressions; many or
all of these are attractive. From them we assume agreeable qualities of
personality and character and find ourselves "in love." Later,
we may discover that the beloved lacks many of the assumed qualities, sometimes
the most important ones. With such a discovery, the connection may break--or
a true relationship may begin (See Ch. 6).
The projection has an impact on the projector, but also on the projectee
(the recipient of a projection). A song by Bob Dylan describes the way a
projection feels from the point of view of the person who "catches"
one: in this case a man receiving an unwelcome projection from a woman.
He finds himself to be seen by her as quite different from his own image
Go away from my window / Go at your own chosen speed.
I'm not the one you want, Babe / I'm not the one you need.
You say you're looking for someone / Never weak but always strong,
To protect you and defend you / Whether you are right or wrong;
Someone to open each and every door.
But it ain't me, Babe / No, no, no; it ain't me, Babe.
It ain't me you're looking for, Babe.
Via the song, the man expresses his unwillingness to live out the woman's
demands, which he lists: always strong, protective of her whether she is
right or wrong, and capable of "opening doors" for her.
Varieties of Projections
Not all positive projections carry the intensity and eroticism of being
in love. Some projections lead to enjoying the company of a peer: a person
who shares one's values and interests. Such companionships may develop into
true friendships (See Ch. 6).
Or a young person's interest in history, or chemistry, may develop out
of a positive projection on the teacher of that subject. Indeed, a young
physician had chosen a specialty--proctology--which many people would consider
unpleasant. When asked why, the young man said, "I liked the professor
I had in that specialty."
Just as some complexes are positive and others negative, so it is with
projections. When I find myself thinking that a new acquaintance dislikes
me, I must ask myself whether I have negative feelings toward that person.
Other negative projections assume, with little evidence, that a certain
person has specific qualities that we dislike. For example, the projection
may make us see that other person as selfish or snobbish, "reactionary"
or a "knee-jerk liberal."
During the 1996 presidential election campaign, the news media reported
that House speaker Newt Gingrich "whined" that President Clinton
had made Gingrich exit by the back door of Air Force One. A columnist pointed
out, "Clinton may be guilty of many things, but bad manners are not
among them; that's the kind of stunt Gingrich himself would have pulled."
She called this incident one of a "pattern" of "accusing
others of that of which he is himself guilty; the shrinks call it projection."
Projections, like complexes, tend to be long-lasting, even when we learn
facts to the contrary. Most persistent are projections based on experiences
with our parents. But many facets of a parent's personality are not evident
to a child. For example, the father may seem to be all-powerful and all-wise
because the home life revolves around him. Some families see to it that
the young son or daughter does not learn of the father's failing in business,
being discharged from his job, or doing something unwise outside the home.
As adults, we may observe more of the father's failings, but we still may
persist in seeing him as more powerful than he ever was.
Effects of Projections
Projections can have paradoxical effects. "Positive" projections,
which can bring euphoric feelings, and open the way to relationships, also
can sow the seeds of the destruction of those relationships. For example,
in projecting exaggerated strengths and virtues on her husband, a woman
may overlook the fact that he has weaknesses and negative qualities as well.
Her eventually-disappointed expectations can arouse such anger at him that
she seeks a divorce. Indeed, many marriages begin with each partner assuming
that the other will be the perfect lover and friend, and will provide for
all one's needs. When the original passion cools and expectations of each
are not met, both may feel betrayed. Each assumes that the other is at fault:
being inconsiderate or purposely withholding the expected actions and attitudes.
This phenomenon is aggravated by the fact that projections tend to make
us exaggerate how much we know about a person or situation. For example,
in a relationship--whether with parent, sibling, lover, or friend--a person
often has a sense of knowing the other thoroughly. After all, the two have
confided in each other--their hopes and fears, sorrows and joys. They have
shared experiences: adventures, laughter and quarrels. Each knows some of
the other's hurts, satisfactions, desires. Each can surmise or intuit some
of what is withheld or lies hidden in the unconscious of the other. But
no matter how long they have been acquainted, the two do not know everything
about each other. Supposing that they know all gets in the way of learning
Recognizing Our Own Projections
Sometimes our perceptions seem self-evident; "anyone" would
see what we see. Then we hit a snag. The person we are observing denies
what we perceive. We begin to suspect that we are projecting. I may believe,
for example, that my friend is angry at me, even though she has not said
so. I ask her if she is angry; she says she is not. Although it is possible
that she may be refusing to admit her anger, I must look at the possibility
that I am projecting. Perhaps I am angry at her. Or I may feel guilty about
being inconsiderate and project the anger that I would feel if someone treated
me that way. Or...or...or.
Another indication that we are projecting is our not wanting to check
out contradictory information or challenge our impressions, perhaps for
fear of discovering an unwelcome truth. That truth could force us to give
up a love--or a hate. The "unchallengeable" perception is likely
to be a projection. It is not surprising that we are reluctant to give up
a love, especially a love that is returned. But it may be surprising that
we do not want to give up a hate. In my experience, it is easier to endure
hating (which puts me in a rather superior position) than to admit, more
accurately, that I am envious or resentful (either of which can put me in
a "one-down" position).
A complicating factor in recognizing projections is that for every projection
there is a "hook" on which to hang the projection; that is, a
grain of truth in it. For example, Martha may show a degree of kindness
and compassion that is not unusual. An acquaintance, who has a "kindness
complex" (an exaggerated need for kindness) sees Martha's moderate
kindness (the hook) and projects that Martha is saint-like.
Negative projections also find hooks. For instance, an outburst of anger
(the hook) may support a perception/projection that the (temporarily) angry
person is generally "hostile."
Subsequent experiences may challenge a projection. For example, I was
invited to dinner at the home of a colleague in a distant city (when I was
there for a conference) for whom I had once done a favor. The seemingly
cordial welcome occasioned my projection that she was friendly to me. To
my amazement--and disappointment--she barely spoke to me at subsequent conferences.
With a stronger positive projection, I might have felt betrayed rather than
The projections that we receive can be valuable in giving us insight
into ourselves. Before I entered training to become an analyst, I had a
job in which I supervised two other employees and many volunteers. One day
a friend visited me in my office and witnessed an interaction between me
and my secretary. My friend turned to my secretary and said, "Doesn't
she [meaning me] make you feel as if you have goofed?" In my dismay
and chagrin, I began to realize that, in my anxiety to do an efficient job,
I had not been sufficiently aware of the feelings and concerns of other
people. (The projection was that I could "make" another person
feel a particular emotion. The hook was that I had behaved in a hurtful
Some of the most destructive individual projections (and the complexes
out of which they arise) are seen in personal violence and abuse. An adult
who abuses a child probably sees in that child some of the adult's undeveloped
qualities. Among the possibilities are envy for the child's spontaneity
and innocence, along with anger at the child's demands; the adult comes
to feel inadequate, is not aware of the envy but is possessed by it.
A comparable situation pertains when a man beats his wife or abuses her
verbally. He sees in her an adult rival, and he wants power over her. He
may envy her what he sees as the privilege she has of being gentle and non-competitive.
Or he may see in her the mother who neglected or abused him.
There are other factors in personal abuse that do not arise specifically
out of projection onto the abused person. They include self-loathing (projection
onto one's own shadow) and rage at society in general. In such cases, the
object of the projection can be anyone who is handy.
The collective violence of war, immeasurably more destructive, thrives
on collective projections. For example, during the Second World War, propaganda
in the United States included drawings of mean-looking soldiers labeled
as "Japs" (Japanese) and "Huns" (Germans). Thus, we
were encouraged to view our adversaries as sub-human and incurably hostile
to us. There was a hook for the projection in the atrocities that the Japanese
had perpetrated in China and the Germans' unprovoked invasions of other
European countries, both before the War began in 1939 and the United States
entered it in 1941, but the inevitability of the hostility was unsubstantiated.
Complexes and Projections as Helps to Growth
As they have been described thus far, complexes and projections often
get in the way of effective action. They distort our perceptions of ourselves
and of outer reality, complicate our relationships and interfere with achieving
our goals in life. Indeed, they give us unnecessary pain and discomfort.
Is there a cure? No one can avoid having complexes or giving and receiving
projections. But an emotional jolt can bring a particular complex or projection
to consciousness and, with luck, modify it. Out of my friend's visit to
my office, for example, my complex about wanting to be the efficient administrator
was made clear. I gained a new awareness of my effect on my secretary and
on other people. I began to treat her more as an equal. In turn, she found
in me less of a hook on which to project the "mean boss" image.
Thus, complexes and projections can enhance our psychological development.
This enhancement begins when we know that complexes and projections exist
and, especially, when we can identify our own.
Having identified a complex, however, we are likely to want to hide it
from ourselves or even to get rid of it. Yet, if we want to know ourselves
better and to become more complete, we must discover what purpose the complex
What will we gain if we follow that twisted and murky road of discovery,
a road that leads into unknown territory? Won't it just upset us, make us
Almost certainly, we will experience suffering. And it won't lead to
a state of bliss. Nevertheless, the struggle has its payoff, in increased
consciousness and sense of meaning in life. Complexes and projections do
not become completely conscious, but we can extract some of their value
and modify the attached pain and power.
We can modify some complexes by conscious effort, fueled by the emotional
jolt. For example, Barb sees her friend Emily as wise (projects wisdom on
her). In seeking to make a decision, Barb asks Emily for advice. Emily fails
to utter words of wisdom. Barb gets angry and withdraws, hurt and disappointed.
The emotional jolt forces her to reflect on the conflict. Eventually she
recognizes her own "lack of wisdom" complex. She makes more effort
to seek out her own judgments and give them credence. She gains by feeling
better about herself, as well as taking pressure off the friendship.
But knowing facts about ourselves is not enough for psychological development.
We need to expand our personalities by "integrating" our complexes
and the projections that reveal them. (To integrate a content means to acknowledge
it fully, to feel the pain of it, then find its value.) By giving up our
egos' illusions that we are fully aware of ourselves, we can discover inner
resources. We will know ourselves better when we are acquainted with qualities,
feelings and ideas that have been repressed. Instead of allowing a complex
to hold these contents hostage, we admit them into consciousness and, thus,
open the way to their being transformed. The energy that is released can
be used more productively than when it was locked in the unconscious psyche.
Suffering our complexes consciously can help us restore to awareness
the experiences on which the complexes were built. Although those experiences
have caused us pain, they have value for understanding ourselves and for
guidance in living our lives. For example, if we reach the wounded child
within us, we feel again what that child felt, in the face of parents who
seemed infallible. Then our adult egos can challenge the complex which says
that our parents are superhuman and always right. After we accept the fact
of their faults, we can see that our own deficiencies are not heinous crimes
and we can accept ourselves, including our faults. The process is akin to
binocular vision; seeing an object--or a situation--from two angles gives
a more accurate perception of its size and of its distance from the observer.
Uncovering the "superhuman parent" complex helps us as adults
to correct the naive view of the world that we had as children. We must
acknowledge, for example, that there is evil in the world, a force that
cannot be conquered even by the best parents. An example is the horror of
neighbors killing neighbors in Bosnia (because they were of different religions).
Without such acknowledgment, a part of ourselves lies dormant and our lives
are poorer because we do not challenge the evil that destroys elements of
life that we value. Further, we will not have touched the archetypal layer
of the psyche, which connects us with the deeper aspects of life and humanity,
including the evil aspects.
The "superhuman parent" complex has its counterpart in us as
parents and parent-figures. When I feel unable to cope, I may "turn
into" my authoritarian father. Challenging that complex and thus experiencing
the frightened, wounded child within can help us to have more empathy for
the fear and pain in actual children.
Variations on the parent complexes are legion. Each of these complexes
(mother and father), however, is likely to be primarily positive, or primarily
A negative father complex, for example, has made me feel that men are
harsh, judgmental, emotionally violent and unwilling to work cooperatively.
When I came to see these impressions as embedded in a complex, I began to
notice that some men are gentle and helpful. Eventually (with the help of
a male friend) I found an "inner, positive father" who helped
me to think for myself without being dogmatic, to cope with the world, to
persevere in difficult tasks and to work with male colleagues. Thus, I was
aided by resources that had been buried in my complex.
An additional value in discovering our woundedness is that of finding
a truer sense of our capabilities. For example, there may be someone like
Jim in your workplace. A "take charge" person, he usually assumes
the lead in accomplishing a task. Another of your co-workers, Hans, resents
what he perceives as Jim's bossiness. But in response to Hans' expressing
his anger, other members of the work group state that they see him
as bossy. Grudgingly at first, he acknowledges to himself that he likes
to be in charge and resents anyone who gets in his way. He can see that
he has a "boss complex." He suffers from this realization, but
his suffering has a value. It releases the energy for him to adopt practices
of effective, democratic management. In this way, he may discover that he
values creative leadership and that he has some ability for it.
Other complexes can unveil a positive potential that is different from
that of one's rival. This possibility is exemplified in the experiences
of two women. Alice is able to participate ably in intellectual discussions
about politics. She articulates her ideas clearly and speaks in a way that
elicits positive responses from people. Sometimes she wins them over to
her point of view. Janet, because of her "ignorance" complex,
is envious. She says that she never knows enough to contribute to such a
discussion. If she identifies this complex, eventually she can correct some
of her self-depreciation. For example, she is well-versed in literature
and can learn to articulate what she knows, perhaps complementing Alice's
In order for complexes to contribute to our development, however, we
usually have to suffer discomfort from them. When Tim shouted at his wife
that the world revolves around money and power, his angry feelings brought
an opportunity for psychological development. He could ask himself, for
example, whether money was actually his top priority. Or did his shouting
express other people's values which intimidated him but conflicted with
his own? If he values compassion and a simple life-style and can acknowledge
to himself that he does, he may be able to accept having more limited funds
and to look for an occupation that puts less emphasis on money and power.
He must suffer, however: from his anger, then from his conflict of values
and, perhaps, from the sacrifice of status and material comforts, for the
sake of a more satisfying work life.
It is easy to see how negative complexes cause us pain. More difficult
to recognize is the suffering attached to positive complexes. It is likely
to be there, however. For example, a woman of my acquaintance has a highly
positive father complex which suggests to her that all adult males are honest
and caring. She has had to learn--painfully--that they are not. Although,
as I mentioned earlier, a positive father complex can enhance the possibility
of finding a congenial husband, it is possible for such a complex to contribute
to a woman's getting into a marriage that is destructive to her.
Despite all our effort and suffering, complexes cannot be completely
integrated or even modified. Nevertheless, they contribute to the structure
of our personalities, forming part of our identities, especially our vulnerability,
without which we would not be human. Indeed, they enrich our lives by connecting
us with our woundedness and finiteness; in turn, they open us to compassion
for others' sufferings. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, evidently suffered
throughout her life from the complexes that grew out of her insecurity as
a physically unattractive and rejected child. Out of her suffering, however,
grew her life-long passion for helping people who were victims of poverty
A related source of enrichment is the release of creativity through connecting
us to the deeper levels of human nature, to the soul. The creativity in
each of us is so connected. An example is the "wounded healer"--a
person who, by suffering consciously his or her own wounds, has a healing
effect on other people.
Whatever the specific complex, projections as such can contribute to
psychological growth. Because of projections, our perceptions differ from
other people's perceptions. The differences are likely to produce interpersonal
conflict and, consequently, emotional discomfort. When the discomfort is
severe enough, we have to reflect. Out of our reflections we may come to
see the situation differently and to reconsider our original perception.
The projection has been challenged, even partially dissolved; that is, withdrawn.
We have enlarged our perceptions of reality.
An example is found in the song quoted earlier, Bob Dylan's "It
Ain't Me, Babe." The singer objects to the projection placed on him
by the woman in his life. He tells her that he cannot fulfill her expectations,
such as being "never weak but always strong." Neither can he "protect
you and defend you, whether you are right or wrong." When the woman
acknowledges the situation, feels her disappointment and accepts the fact
that she cannot have a long-term relationship with this man, the projection
begins to be withdrawn. With luck, she then accepts responsibility for using
her own strength and abilities to protect herself and be the one to "open
each and every door." Thus, she integrates the qualities that she had
projected. (The value of projecting and withdrawing projections for building
true relationship will be discussed in Chapter 6.)
Clearly, we can make use of unconscious obstacles to help us reach self-
understanding and growth. The process requires effort, suffering and perseverance
but it is rewarding in the end.
There is no formula for the integration of complexes and withdrawal of
projections. However, there are available tools in the form of attitudes
toward our psychological "raw material" and toward our experiences.
A few guidelines can be identified:
1. Let yourself feel your strong emotions, no matter how uncomfortable
they make you.
2. Keep "chewing on" your thoughts and emotions until they
let you entertain some new ideas or feelings.
3. Ask yourself repeatedly: What is it all about? Why does this have
me by the tail?
4. Notice any images that come to mind. Do they depict what you would
like to do about your discomfort?
5. Imagine what it would be like to be free of the troubling feelings
and perceptions. Would you have lost anything? Would you have gained anything?
Harding, M. Esther. The 'I' and the 'Not-I'
Jacobi, Jolande. Complex/Archetype/Symbol, pp. 6-30.
Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Projection and Re-Collection in Jungian Psychology.
Whitmont, E.C. The Symbolic Quest, Chapter 4.
*Copyright ©Mary Ann Mattoon
The above article is a revised version of Chapter 7 and 8 of Jungian
Psychology in Perspective. (The Free Press, 1985) by Mary Ann Mattoon
and is printed here with the kind permission of the author.
About the Author
Mary Ann Matoon, Ph.D., has been a practicing Jungian analyst
since 1965. A licensed clinical psychologist, she is also Clinical Professor
of Psychology at the University of Minnesota. In addition to Jungian
Psychology in Perspective she is author of Understanding Dreams
(Spring Publications, 1984 and Jungian Psychology after Jung (The
Round Table Press, 1994). She has edited four editions of the Proceedings
of the International Congress of Analytical Psychology and is author of
numerous articles and book reviews as well as chapters in books edited by
© Donald Williams 1995-1999.
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Page updated: 5 September 1999