Every self-respecting superhero has an arch-enemy. No matter how strong you get, there will always be a personal kryptonite that drops you to your knees, reduces you to tears, keeps you up all night churning, or causes you to behave badly. Even if you’ve grown wise to it, somehow it still manages to swallow you up. And once you’re inside its belly, it’s all you can do to breathe until it decides to spit you out again.
Everyone has them and few shake them free. Carl Jung called them “complexes,” but we know them better as monsters. When you’re a kid, they appear in your dreams with hooves, pointy teeth and reeky breath. As you get older, they take on subtler forms; a tidal wave, military men, a fleet of poisonous spiders or, in my case, a desk job. But the best way to spot them in your own psyche is to pay attention to your feeling. When you feel inexplicably haunted, anxious or out of control, then you are probably in the sweaty grip of a complex.
Like behavioural blueprints, complexes often develop as survival responses to the conflict and insufficiency we feel in childhood. Needing to protect yourself as a child, you may become withdrawn or confrontational, hypersensitive or disconnected. But long after you leave home, the patterns continue to hold energy, and over time the child grows up into an over-achiever who ploughs through the pain, or doesn’t put up a fight and suffers from incapacitating depression instead. Given the right trigger, the monster comes alive and you’re a cowering kid all over again.
The bad news is that we never really shake the complexes. We, and the poor sods who love us, just have to learn to live with them. The good (and mostly unbelievable) news is they are what make us lovely. They are the salt in the soup of us, turning our plain ingredients more delicious every day.
If you want to get a leg up, the first step is to take psychic inventory. Find out what stories are playing out unconsciously in your life. Look for recurring obstacles in your dreams and see how they correlate to the blocks you have in waking life. Maybe you choose aloof relationships because you conflate love with abandonment, or perhaps you stay stuck in poverty or illness to recreate an early experience of unworthiness or turmoil. Whatever the case may be, begin to see the blocks as gifts you’ve given yourself, as opportunities to leap them over.
Though a popular technique in fairy tales, I don’t recommend fighting your monsters. That only makes them stronger and turns you into their ally by learning hate. But what you can do is transmute the energy they trap, by collaborating with your demons. I know it sounds crazy, but what if the poison is the medicine?
Just as Tennesse Williams wrote in the “Catastrophe of Success,” there might be an intelligence to the poverty or stuckness you experience. The skills you learn from your deficits are what strengthen you uniquely. If you were raised with conflict, you may become an expert mediator. If you grew up around moodiness, you might be superbly even-keeled. Suffering might have honed your empathy, and so on.
So you see the paradox; you must resist the thing that thwarts you while also yielding to it. Alas, dreamwork is not for the impatient. It is a style of living in constant dialogue with the unconscious, applying a little more pressure to the left when you find yourself leaning to the right.
The Self, as Jungian analyst James Hollis says, is not a noun but verb. The Self selves. So for now, let’s assume that even our monsters are helping us towards wholeness. If we can stand our ground firmly enough, we might even be able to love them for it.