When it comes to dieting, my willpower buckles when I’m faced with mashed potatoes and gravy. I may have just read a book on eating only green veggies, and I’ve resolved to go the Spartan route, but I can’t pass up the basic food that I associate with my mother and grandmother and cozy dinners with beloved family members in my childhood. It probably doesn’t help that I left home at an early age for a boarding school. My diet problem is not so much that I lack the willpower but that my “Warm Irish-American Family” complex is so strong and deeply planted in me.
A psychological complex is a set of emotions, memories, anxieties, desires, and habits focused around a theme—my need for family comfort, for example—that urges a person in a certain direction that may or may not fit his or her conscious and rational purposes. For example, you may do certain things automatically, desperately, and compulsively in spite of yourself.
Most of us have a certain collection of complexes that shape our lives and identity. They are not bad things, yet they cause trouble when they get out of hand. It helps to get to know them and tame them and get them in tune with your values and ideas. I’m not telling you to repress these complexes and imagine that you have to create a perfectly healthy self by controlling them. The goal is more to befriend them. C. G. Jung said that they’re like separate people inside us and that we can dialogue with them and give them some acceptance and containment. James Hillman advised not “feeding” them, and thereby not increasing their hold on you. He once told me to put my depression in a suitcase and carry it with me—close but not dominating.
We are beset not only by psycho-logical complexes, like my mother–grandmother theme, but also by spiritual ones. We may be driven, controlled, or guilt-ridden because of a spiritual complex. I once knew a young man who believed he was the reincarnation of Jesus. He had to save the world and maybe one day be executed. If you tried to talk to him, you discovered that “he” wasn’t there. The only “person” at home was this Jesus complex. This is an extreme example, but maybe you can see how anyone might be susceptible to this kind of deep-seated fantasy, though in a less-crazy way.
Fanaticism, close-mindedness, self-denial, guilt, proselytizing, excessive devotion to a teacher or a teaching, and moralism—all are signs of a spiritual complex. Try to talk to well-intentioned people caught in these complexes, and you can’t reach the human being. The complex is too strong. Often, like-minded church members or leaders support the complex by maintaining a closed system and encouraging extreme positions.
You can be passionately spiritual and not fall under the sway of a complex. But if your dedication diminishes your life, your complexes are probably at work, and you may need to deal with them thoughtfully. Here are my own guidelines:
- Get to know your complexes and where they come from.
- Don’t feed them, especially when they are acting up and want attention.
- Don’t try to get rid of them but instead befriend them. Understand that at best they are the positive building blocks of your person and your life, but that they can get out of hand.
Spiritual people have special trouble spotting their complexes because extreme emotion may seem appropriate. You’re supposed to be dedicated and passionate about your beliefs and bold in your practice. All right, but you can learn to distinguish between passion, which is usually a good thing, and being taken over by an anxious and demanding idea that makes you rather crazy and out of synch with the people around you. This kind of self-awareness is one of the most difficult to achieve, yet it can keep you from flying off into the spiritual void.
I have a strong mother complex that I always defend as a gift. It has made me sensitive and allowed me to write Care of the Soul. The word “care” comes right out of my mother complex. But it can get out of hand, as when I take care of other people at my own emotional expense. Your spiritual complex may urge you to deny yourself in the name of some version of perfection. Or it could be something else entirely. Whatever your complexes are, appreciate their gifts but be aware of how they can grow and interfere with the tranquil unfolding of your life.
Thomas Moore has been a monk, a musician, a professor, and, for the past 30 years, a psychotherapist practicing archetypal therapy with a spiritual perspective. His latest book is A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World.