Healing Emotional Triggers

What is a psychological complex, and how can it be addressed?
To understand psychological complexes, we must dig into the past. Photo: Petr Vyšohlíd

By Carder Stout, Ph.D.

Are you stuck in a psychological complex? You may have heard the term inferiority complex, and even used it before in conversation. Most of us know someone who fits into this category, usually someone who doesn’t feel as good as others. So, what do we really mean when we refer to this concept of a complex? The inferiority part is clear, but the term “complex” remains a mystery to most.

A psychological complex is a complicated set of emotions that we feel when encountering a certain situation. It is like having a minor version of PTSD. It stems from a negative belief that we have stored deep in our psyche that becomes activated when someone treats us a certain way, or doesn’t give us the attention we think we deserve. As human beings, we are walking complexes. Each one of us has a multitude of them that trigger an emotional response every day.

Here is an example. You have noticed that your partner becomes angry when you are on your phone too much. His frustration comes in the form of a raised tone of voice and critical words. Sometimes, he becomes so enraged that he yells and stomps around the house like a child. In most cases, it is not the phone that has upset him, or your pattern of using it (although this is what he might believe). The reaction actually comes from your distraction from engaging with him. When you are on your phone, you are not available to hear him. He feels like you are not listening, and this has touched an old psychological wound that remains unhealed.

When a complex is present, our response to something is disproportionate to the situation itself. If you use this as a formula for spotting them, you will become aware that they may be ruling your life. We have complexes about all sorts of things—abandonment issues, intimacy, low self-esteem, our physical appearance, being disrespected, not feeling loved, our intelligence, not feeling safe, being overlooked.

Yes, complexes are the cause of most of our negative responses to people, places and things. Unfortunately, most complexes remain hidden until they are let out of the cage. And when they are, they tend to roar like a lion.

So, what do we do with this new information? As a practicing depth psychologist, I am always interested in attempting to bring what is unconscious into consciousness. My aim is to shine a light on those elements, memories and emotional traumas that are driving thoughts and actions. These beliefs and feelings are what constitute emotional well-being and overall perspective on life. Most of us behave a certain way, and cannot pinpoint the origins of our behavior. This is definitely true with complexes. In order to understand them more fully, we must dig a little deeper into the realm of the past.

Let us consider the example of the man reacting to his partner’s cellphone usage. His reaction to not being heard is a psychological fissure that is probably many years old. Most of these cracks in our psyche occur when we are young and still forming an opinion of our value and self-worth. It is most likely that he grew up in a household where his parents were not available to listen, or even talked over him. The message this sends to children is that their voice doesn’t matter, and that they are not appreciated for their point of view. This is a painful realization that often trails into their adult lives as an unconscious belief that they are not intelligent or captivating. Any angry response to someone not listening to them is simply a defense mechanism that is meant to protect the psychological pain they are feeling.

So, if your partner is experiencing an overblown response to something specific, try to have compassion and use healthy communication such as, “It seems like you are getting triggered. I don’t think it is about what’s happening right now—it feels older and deeper. Let’s talk about what’s really going on.” If they are willing to open up, that is a good start as new awareness is always an entry point to emotional healing.

Here is an exercise that may help with discovering and attending to a complex:

Think about your angry outbursts. Are you getting frustrated and annoyed by the same type of interaction with frequency? Do you have a pattern of feeling deep emotion—sadness, shame, guilt or indignation—specifically around your exchanges with others?

Let’s focus on one of these emotional responses for now. Think about why you are so upset in this situation. Does it remind you of something that was unsettling from your past? At what age did you notice it first? Did someone bully you? Ignore you? Embarrass you? Hurt your feelings? Abandon you? When did this happen? How old were you?

Once you have determined an age range, find a photograph of yourself at that age. Print it out and put it in a frame. Place it somewhere that you can view it often. Familiarize yourself with that little child. Close your eyes and imagine them sitting next to you in the grass. Give them a hug and let them know that you are here for them and are now their protector. Tell them they are safe and no one will hurt them anymore. Whatever happened that was painful, affirm in them the belief that it will never happen again. If they feel insignificant, tell them how important they are. If they feel unloved, tell them how much you love them. If they feel sad, tell them that they deserve to be happy and make them laugh.

You will be amazed at how much this younger part of you is craving your affection. It is time to reparent yourself in a way that your own parents could not.

It is time for you to take back the reins and heal the old wounds that still trouble you. Continue to meet with your younger self each week in this imaginal space and you will begin to notice that your complexes are quieting down. You will be more aware of your reactions and begin to understand that you have been holding onto old beliefs that no longer serve you. Let them go and watch them float away like a bunch of red balloons into the sky. It is time for you to be present in your life. carderstout.com