Complexes, chronic pain, and change

Clouds and moon

Recently I found myself caught in a complex—one I didn’t realize I have, or didn’t understand the full extent of—about control. Or a lack thereof.

Carl Jung’s definition of complex was one of his biggest contributions to depth psychology, so central to his work he almost named his collection of theories “complex psychology.” Complexes are generally described as emotionally-charged memories, ideas, and images around a core theme. Essentially: from a very early age, we start to associate certain feelings, attitudes, and experiences with archetypes like mother, father, sister, brother, power, creativity, etc. The more associations attached to a particular theme, the stronger its influence on the psyche. Complexes are not inherently negative, but our reactions to them can be.

If, for example, you were often criticized as a child and made to feel less-than, you might develop an inferiority complex, which could manifest in any number of ways. You might overcompensate by being very dominant and competitive, or struggle with self-esteem, with seeing tasks through to completion. If it is a mostly unconscious complex, you might project it onto others, criticizing weakness and dependency in those around you. (See: Trump.) Should someone or something trigger those old, uncomfortable feelings, causing you to want to act out, you might find yourself “caught in your complex.”

(Side note: I am not a professional, so please take my interpretations with a grain of salt.)

Is it over?Anytime you have a disproportionate reaction to a situation, you can almost guarantee you’re in the midst of a complex. And anyone who’s ever been caught in the riptide of one knows that shit will fuck you up. You’ll swell with emotion, might want to jump to all kinds of action, but in general the best response—thank you, This Jungian Life—is to sit on your hands, shut up, and wait it out. As Jung said, we have complexes, but complexes can have us. And apparently I have a complex around control.

Last month, we had some issues with our heating. First the boiler was acting up, then maintenance suspected there might be air bubbles in our pipes. Multiple days we didn’t have any heat, but not for more than 12-24 hours at a time.

On the surface, this is not a big deal. Our apartment has never been toasty, and anyway I love cold weather. I’ve lived in many cold climates. In the grand scheme of things, I am blessed to have heat at all. Just put on some more layers, right?

But my reaction any time we’ve lost heat in the winter has been… very disproportionate to the situation. Distress. Anxiety. Rumination. Intellectually, I know it will eventually be fixed, but my heart goes straight to low-grade panic.

I’ve tried to figure out why this is so triggering. When I lived in Maine, filling the oil tank in our apartment was so expensive, we usually kept it pretty low. Throughout the winter, I always had this fear of that moment when the heat would turn off, when we’d have to scrape together hundreds to turn it back on. Blizzards would blow through and knock out power as well, and then too I had that same fear: the house growing colder and colder, the heat never coming back on. I know family and friends in coastal areas who have similar fears after living through hurricanes. But is that what this is about? Mother Nature?

If winter in Minnesota didn’t bother me, then surely a briefly broken heater in Seattle won’t… right?

A little bit, for sure. But David pointed out something I hadn’t thought of: because I suffer from migraines, and because they can be debilitating, I am extra mindful about my surroundings. I don’t eat food that makes me feel like shit, I generally don’t drink because it makes me feel like shit, and I am particular about everything from lighting, temperature, and the amount of sleep I get each night, to exercise and how I spend my energy. I go to a chiropractor to keep my body aligned, and I go to therapy mostly because it’s awesome, but partly because I know how sensitive I am to unprocessed emotions: they literally make me sick. So this complex I fell into is not just one about control, but about pain, even safety.

Access to healing modalities and the ability to regulate my surroundings is a privilege. I am not a controlling person in general, but I guess I am controlling of my environment. I feel I have to be, because I know what will happen if I am not. When the heat shuts off unexpectedly, it’s like someone’s pulled an errant thread and I can sense already the ways in which the whole thing will be undone.

This might sound extreme to anyone who hasn’t wrestled with chronic pain. I’ve gotten migraines since I was a child, so bad they’d make me puke, but I literally didn’t learn the word “migraine” until I was 21. No one in family gets them—a fact that prompted my most recent neurologist to order an MRI “to be safe”—and growing up I didn’t know anyone who got them, either; it wasn’t in our vocabulary. It was just assumed I had a headache, the kind everyone gets. But one day at work, shortly after college graduation, I was describing the pulsating, unbearable nature of these headaches—which, at the time, I had been getting daily for months—when a coworker said, “Those are migraines. I get them too.” It was the first day of the rest of my life. After more than a decade of visits with neurologists, acupuncturists, naturopaths, osteopaths, allergists, therapists, and chiropractors, I have a pretty solid understanding of my body and my pain, what makes it better and what makes it worse, and I live in mindful awareness of these boundaries.

Santa Cruz
Post-migraine during a trip to California with my sister some years ago. See: water, painkillers, woozy posture, the way my hair looks because I’d been shoving my hands against my head for hours.

Sometimes a mindful existence doesn’t matter, though. I go through periods in which I get migraines daily and others in which they are a rare visitor. Four years ago, I got a migraine so bad I asked to be taken to the hospital. In that moment, I had lost the thread; I felt a total lack of control, a total inability to help myself.

This is the crux of chronic pain: it isolates you—and much of the time you are OK with this—but healing is often hastened by the care of others. I remember laying in the hospital and the nurse standing next to me saying, “it’s OK, you’re OK,” and it making all the difference, like all those times a loved one helped me to bed, laid silently beside me, and/or rubbed my back while I fought off searing pain and nausea.

I have not always received this care in reaction to my migraines. Many people have underestimated them. But we must take people’s pain seriously. We must take them at their word.

David shared a perfect metaphor for complexes: they are like the sun, blazing and blotting out everything. But beneath it is a sky of stars, all the countless times we got what we needed, received care and attention when we were hurting, felt the steady warmth of heat in winter, lived outside the boundaries of our lives and thrived not in spite of but because of it.

We must remind ourselves of all the times things went right.

Screen Shot 2020-02-12 at 9.53.07 AM
Taking the advice of this piece by dancer and writer Marlee Grace (@marleegrace, &

When I told my therapist about the heat, about the undone feeling of it all, she nodded slowly and said, “You’re moving to an island, Lynn, 3,000 more miles away from everything you know.”

Oh, yeah. 

On the surface, I have been over-the-moon excited about this move, about living on Maui and everything I will learn, all the good people we will be around and all the good good things we will do. But I’ve had trouble sleeping deeply the past couple weeks and a few times now I’ve dreamt about losing my teeth. What will come of our time there? How will it go? What I want to feel is control, assuredness, because control is what makes me feel safe. But it’s not really possible right now—it never really has been. I suppose I will keep trusting and leaping until I learn this lesson, I will keep reminding myself of the stars on days when all I can see is the sun.

3 thoughts on “Complexes, chronic pain, and change

  1. Pingback: Managing My Pain During the Pandemic, Pt. 1: Microdosing Cured My Cluster Headaches – a welcoming place

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s