Individuation, in this context, is our ability to forge an identity that is our own, and feels authentic to us. When we grow up in a family, for instance, we can be overwhelmed by the existence of parents, carers, siblings and peers, all with their own seemingly established identities. Plenty of time is needed for us to decide, in our own time, what our tastes are, what we want to create in life, and what we are like as individuals.
The following are a few blocks to establishing our own clear sense of identity, and what we can do about them.
(Where stories are told, names have been changed and stories disguised.)
If we have a parent or carer whose view is ‘my way or the highway’, then the process of negotiation is stilted. We can grow up with a straight choice of whether to appease or reject, be nice or nasty, in the face of such forceful imposition. Gary had a dad who was extremely authoritarian. His process of individuation was a long process of obedience until aged 18, when the worm suddenly turned, and, in order to forge his own life, he completely rejected his father.
If we find ourselves with dominating parents, then we can be forced into a choice between extreme obedience and extreme rebellion. One way of mitigating the effects, and achieving an easier individuation, is to gain allies in the struggle, whether siblings, peers, or other relatives. In other words, do what you can to widen the circle of influence, so it is less of a one-on-one battle.
Traumatic events can inhibit the individuation process. Trauma generates a fear of loss, and thus caution – and individuation, in contrast, needs courage and the will to explore. Susan suffered a significant bereavement in her late teens. It meant that she felt insecure for years after that, and went into a series of unstable relationships in which she repeatedly became paranoid and clinging. For quite a time, she could only see herself in relation to others. Eventually, she took the time to learn more about herself, taking responsibility for a process of late individuation.
If we find ourselves suffering from trauma, and suspect it is holding us back from developing ourselves, we can take that time to learn, in safety, about our own preferences and wishes. This can be done in counselling, with peers, or as individual exploration – as long as we feel secure and stable enough to focus on ourselves.
Bill was a wartime child. Obedience was drummed into him at an early age, and he learned the art of not causing trouble, and going along with the flow. In later childhood, he was enlisted to help care for two ill relatives. This, together with a steady job in his father’s trade, took up all of his time. There was simply no time to discover for himself who he was, and what his preferences were. He found himself, in later life, lost and depressed, unable to escape his own sense of responsibility.
If we find ourselves with unfinished business later in life, we can still achieve some individuation. But it takes a degree of boldness, and preparedness to send out signals to those around you that you are taking some time for yourself. A sabbatical from work, or extended time off, might be necessary in order to explore a newer world, physically and philosophically, and integrate emergent personal thoughts and feelings into a new world view.
It is never too late to explore the world, and to discover your emerging and developing individual identity. To do so, you may need to ‘break a few eggs to make the omelette’.
Whether it is dominating parents, the effects of trauma, or a chain of overwhelming responsibilities, we can be kept from growing ourselves to our full potential. We can end up overly obedient, or overly resentful, or both. In any case, we may find ourselves suffering from unaccountable anxiety, which is our body’s warning that something isn’t right.
To enhance you own individuation process, at whatever stage of life you are:
find peers who are strongly supportive in helping you stand up for yourself
send out signals to others that you are taking time out for yourself
perhaps undertake a course of counselling, or exploration with peers, or find a new learning project or journey that appeals
take a sabbatical or holiday from work if necessary