We need each other and we harm each other. We serve each other and threaten to devour each other. We yearn to rely on each other, and we profoundly disappoint each other. We can’t live with each other and we can’t live without each other.
Psychoanalytic models struggle with these conflicting demands. Fairbairn speaks of mature interdependence, Jung speaks of individuation, Winnicott speaks of the capacity to be alone. None of these are individualistic solutions to the dilemma of simultaneously needing each other and needing to protect ourselves from others.
Individuation is not individualism. Individuation is the fulfillment, the living out of one’s central calling, remaining conscious of our choices and our path even while powerful instincts and archetypes or external mandates to conform to cultural and community values try to take us over and steer our course.
Individuation is the lifelong process of collecting together all of your splits, projections, dissociations and repressions so that you have some understanding of your strengths and weaknesses and a clear idea of what gifts you may legitimately offer up to others.
Individuation does not assert individualism as a core value.
Individuation means that each one of us has specific and unique skills, which we must offer up to our community and to the wider world, and perhaps to God if such theistic notions resonate.
Individuating is embarking on a psychologically lonely exploration of what about you is specific to you. Individuation means you can’t default to what the collective says you should be but must discover what you have to give specifically.
Individualism is asserting your right to do “whatever you want” while individuation is uncovering obligations to others that are specific to you. Individuation means working to align with your soul, not to merely satisfy ego-appetite or a drive to power or status. Individuation calls on us to uncover our most honest, authentic Self- and Other- respecting service to the collective.
Individuation is threatening to social control, conformity and is generally devalued by the dominant culture. The highest goal of individuation is not complete autonomy: It is a mature, responsible, compassionate relationship to the larger world. The individuated human being is threatening to those who want systems and institutions to define our core values.
We often punish, exile, imprison, crucify, assassinate, or devalue humans who have committed to walk an individuating path. Individualists amass resources with no concern for the impact on others. Souls engaged in individuation are those who can tell us when we have agreed on norms that are destructive or incomplete. Those engaged in individuating unsettle us, they don’t accept our assumptions or premises. Souls engaged in individuation are often those who don’t do things “the normal way” as they are exploring callings that ignore society’s incentives and chastisements. We sometimes call individuators foolish, failed, stubborn, willful, contrarian. We sometimes lock up souls in the processes of Individuation and call them “mad.” We often don’t recognize the route of those engaged in individuation: they have let their soul guide them down uncommon pathways. They don’t fit easily in to institutionalized systems. Or they have left such systems behind them, shed like a skin and moved beyond.
When individuation is pursued, when the bravest souls dare to step over the electric fence of societal approval and disapproval, they often end up serving the deepest, unrecognized disavowed needs of the community.
There is extraordinary pressure – when a soul is discovering how it is meant to both pursue its essence and serve its community – to give up the project of individuation entirely. We are often convinced that it is wisest to pursue culturally sanctioned markers of enfranchisement and success, especially if we have something to give that others can’t easily recognize. There are a handful who pursue these profoundly specific personal processes – for the good of themselves and others – whose bravery is celebrated, whose generosity is rewarded. They may become reluctant leaders, heroes, even martyrs. But there are many more who are thwarted in these processes, derailed, attacked, silenced, traumatized, defeated by their environments for daring to be loyal to their soul’s calling.
The process of individuation is sometimes marketed by those who spiritualize “prosperity” as a golden road to success. And sometimes traditional forms of success descend, for a time. But more often individuation is never externally rewarded at all. Individuation and its attendant behaviors can only be pursued (never achieved) for one reason: because it is necessary to be simultaneously right with oneself and offer up the best you have to offer to the world around you. This often demands sacrifice. No, it always demands sacrifice. If sacrifice is not involved, it is not individuation.
Individuation can only be pursued as an end in itself- never as a means to an end. Individualism on the other hand- is entirely about engaging in means to one’s individual satisfaction. It is likely that we are all engaged in individuating in small ways now and then, and other times when we consciously or unconsciously succumb to the economic and societal pressures to live out individualistic ambitions and appetites. Individuation means developing the capacity to observe yourself while powerful instinctive templates, ruts in the collective road, threaten to suck you in. To pursue individuation is to hold onto as much consciousness as you can in the face of cultural and archetypal, societal and instinctive pressures.
It is easy to become despairing when the collective actively devalues or obstructs the processes of individuation. But it almost always does. If the greatest moral heroes, masters and the gods themselves could not escape being devalued by the collective how can we? To discover what you have to give, what you must live out, and then to offer it up even if it is rejected or ignored – simply because it is your soul’s purpose. That is individuation.
We may be blocked, or thwarted. The individuation process offers no guarantees. We will at some point encounter insurmountable obstacles and then we must accept and dig more deeply to find a deeper clearer sense of our soul’s purpose. We may even have to accept that what we believed was our calling was not, or that a purpose has been served, a chapter has been closed and it is time to discover a new purpose. Individuation does not inherently lead even to internal success or victory. It often leads, in fact, to surrender. But ultimately, the individuating soul is sacrificing external comforts and approbation (even if they end up receiving them) and facing powerful internal fears and anxieties to give the world their most personal, valuable gifts.
Participating in the processes of individuation increases one’s awareness of and responsibilities to confront the shadows of the collective. It requires ego-strength and sufficient differentiation and distance from the unconscious to recognize its symbols and signs and symptoms, and then, to listen, contemplating their messages. Individuation means grounding powerful instinctive energies from within and without while holding on to your humanity.
Individuation is what allows us to resist ego-inflation. Individualism is a grandiose denial of inalienable interconnectedness. Individuation maintains awareness of limitation, vulnerability, fallibility, and humility.
An archetype that is always dangerously present in individuation processes is the Sage, the Guru, the Healer, The Wise One. All archetypes are bivalent – with positive and negative aspects. The Guru, the Healer can also be a Snake Oil Salesman, a Huckster a Cult Leader, a Manipulator. When we are possessed, overcome by an archetype, or when such images are projected onto us by others, we may unconsciously exploit instinctive energies for power, or personal satisfaction. When we confuse our finite fragile humanity with a powerful species-wide instinct, we can be capable of great destruction or megalomania. Archetypal energies tempt us to believe that we are greater, more powerful than we are. The only antidote is humility.
So this is part of the journey of individuation too. To hang on to our humanity when instinctive archetypal energies are activated. Such archetypes surge up from within – and our society and culture instinctively pull for them, assigning them to us whether they serve us, match us, mirror us individually or not. An incomplete, oppressive, collectively imposed archetype is a stereotype. This is also the work of individuation: To be aware of the gifts and dangers of archetypal energies – how they can serve and malform us, help and harm each other.
It is very hard to make something a personal value when it isn’t a cultural one. It takes a great deal of psychological and emotional labor. The process of individuation is learning withstand without internalizing both the positive and negative projections of others as we simultaneously labor to take back all that we project out and on to others. To work to see others as clearly and compassionately as we see ourselves. And the reverse.
Here is what individuation will never do: Make you normal. Make life easier. Make you less lonely.
Here is what it gets you: A chance to feel well-used and self-regarding at once. The clarity that comes from facing your best and worst self without turning away or collapsing. The ability to tell your own small piece of the truth, and to offer it up to the world for whatever it may be worth, and to stand side by side with others, all in our own skin, responsible for ourselves and to each other, alone together.