We grow up guided by parents who have their own value system. As part of growing up, we internalise those values. This is part of cognitive efficiency. If we did not internalise their ways of thinking and doing, then they would have had to stand over us 24 hours a day. By instilling in us an inner voice, they can let us operate independently of them and find our own way in the world.
However, in our adult life, those original values can become a bit of a burden. Our parents may have had ideas which, in later life, we find to be outdated or inappropriate. Our parents may have been obsessed by achievement and profitable business, but we discover that we prefer acceptance and non-profit living. Or, indeed, the other way round.
The fight for our preferences is called individuation. The word is often used in a Jungian context, but I use it more generally to mean the process of becoming a person who is not afraid to step away from their inherited background to flourish. It can involve a sense of guilt, because our wish to be individual has to break free from the internalised values we grew up with. We feel that we are somehow betraying our parents, and those close to us. We can feel very lonely at such times.
Finding our own value system is a continuous process. It has to be, since we change throughout our lifespan. The values we have when we are young and pushy, may not be the values we have when we are older and have a different type of energy. All the time, we are renegotiating our relationship with others and with life, discovering what works for us and what doesn’t.
Here are a few tips for managing the process of individuation successfully:
- FIND YOUR PEOPLE – Wherever you want to go next, it can help to find a social group that reflects the aims you have. This counteracts and supports the loss of parental, inherited values, and provides courage.
- ALLOW YOURSELF TO MAKE MISTAKES – Taking a progressive approach involves being prepared to risk breaking conservative values. Your inner critic may try to warn you that you are growing too far from your roots. But exploration can’t be done without mistakes.
- FIND YOUR JOY – Use your inner feelings as a guide. If a way of life feels wrong or deeply uncomfortable, be prepared to ask why, and to contemplate making a change. If an activity brings you personal joy, listen to that, and see what ways there are of introducing more of it to your life.
The process of individuation can be lonely, error-prone and full of inner conflict. But the reward – happiness – is great. We can make the path easier by seeking friendly companions, being more relaxed about mistakes, and learning to listen to our inner sense of joy as a directional guide.