The older I get, the more I wonder if we ever have direct encounters with other people, or if we only interact with each other’s complexes, projections and neuroses.

The idea of the complex is considered to be Jung’s greatest contribution to the field of psychology and most of what follows in this post is a synthesis of Jungian analyst James Hollis’s thoughts on complexes and projections.

A complex is an emotionally charged, internalized experience that has a splinter identity and a splinter script. When you get defensive and start justifying something, you are in the throes of a complex. When your reaction to something is disproportionate to the situation, that’s a complex. Bodily changes often accompany this.

An example of a complex is when you talk on the phone with one of your parents and find yourself reverting back to childhood in your feelings, behavior and what you say.

Some common complexes are the power complex (seeking sovereignty over environment and other people),  the fantasy of immortality complex, and the fantasy of the magical other (the notion that there is one person out there who is right for us). And, of course, the mother complex and father complex. “How many children are enlisted into the impossible, not to say unfair, project of making their parents feel good about themselves?” Eek.

Hollis says one can create an entire kingdom out of a complex.

Complexes are what bring people together. One might marry to find the good parent in the other, to find an abuser in order to confirm a wounded sense of self, or seeking what was missing in family of origin.

So what about projections?

Hollis says the central law of projection is that which is unconscious will be either repressed or projected. We are never free of projections. “It is truly frightening to realize how little one is conscious in the formation of intimate relationship.” Eek.

When we fall in love, what we fall in love with is some aspect of ourselves reflected back to us in the other. What we do not know about ourselves or will not face in ourselves will be projected onto the other. We project our childhood wounding, our infantile longing and our individuation imperative. Hollis said that when he was a college professor, his students could never grasp this, for they wanted desperately to believe that their romantic partners were the fulfillment of their dreams and couldn’t accept the huge role projection plays. “I’ll see you when you’re 40,” he would tell them.

Blaming our partner for stepping on mines we have laid is where most couples are when they walk into therapy, he says.

How to become more aware of and perhaps begin to outgrow some of our complexes and projections?

This requires that we ask ourselves of every impulse and behavior: “Where does this come from within me? Where have I been here before?”

If one can identify unquestioned, reflexive tendencies in one’s life, those for which rationalizations are immediately available, one might be able to walk backward to the formative experiences of which they are the ‘logical’ expression. Then one might be able to imagine alternative attitudes and behaviors as possibilities.

And as for projections in our relationships, he says we should ask that most difficult of questions: “What am I asking my partner to do for me that I should be able to do for myself?”

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