“When one follows the path of individuation, when one lives one’s own life, one must take mistakes into the bargain; life would not be complete without them. There is no guarantee – not for a single moment – that we will not fall into error or stumble into deadly peril. We may think there is a sure road. But that would be the road of death. Then nothing happens any longer – at any rate, not the right things. Anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead.”
Carl G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 297
I don’t know specifically where I first came across the word individuation. I think it filtered in from lectures or readings or conversations somewhere in college. What I assumed was the self-evident nature of the word allowed me to relegate it into the “known” category even though, as I discovered decades later, it wasn’t known to me at all, at least not known to me in the way it was intended to be known.
This was a regrettable oversight considering my later discovery that the word held the key to the single most significant understanding I have ever made about life and living. If I had truly understood it, I would have saved myself decades of self-contempt and maybe even a divorce (at least my part in it). Which is largely why I am so passionate about reaching into the lives of young men and women, both as a therapist and as a community leader – I want to help people individuate.
But then I wonder: is individuation a concept that can be understood through college courses, fellowship, therapy, or Internet posts?
So close to our very sense of being, true comprehension of the concept of individuation may only be achieved through individuating. Individuation is a product of the crucible of life, a product of becoming so cornered by circumstances that your only two choices are death or capitulation: death because you would rather die than experience the loneliness of psychically uncoupling from significant others and capitulation, which means surrender, because you finally recognize how much the crutch of approval has cost you your very soul and you would rather live your own life than snuff it out, whatever form that life may eventually take.
As ironic as it may sound, few people are ever fortunate enough to experience this existential crossroads. Instead they live in a psychic netherworld, allowing their emotions to be dictated by whether or not they please others, tamping down their true selves with denial, work, porn, drugs, alcohol. Meanwhile their souls ache and yearn, entangled among expectations that never quite constrict enough to rupture. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
While I do believe that true comprehension of individuation is a product of one’s own journey through it – once you see it you can’t not see it! – I also believe that it is from fellow travelers that one can conceptualize this journey, know which way to travel, spot it when you see it, and receive hope. Individuation is the pathway to contentment; in whatever ways an individual can begin to grope his or her way toward it, so much the better.
With this in mind, I will discuss my own experience with this most essential of all psychological concepts with reflections on some of my clients’ experiences with the same.
I didn’t take psychology courses in undergraduate school but inevitably psychological concepts filtered their way through the philosophy and theory I read as a Film Studies major – post-modernism, Sigmund Freud, depth psychology, Carl Jung.
The word individuation is old in my vocabulary but for years I used my inherited framework of organizing reality to decide that it meant something along the lines of what I had read, and thought I understood, of Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “Self Reliance”. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” Emerson wrote.
While Emerson probably meant something more akin to the true meaning of the word individuation, I took Emerson’s dictate as confirmation to push back against virtually everyone around me. Well, as it turns out, contradiction is not the same as individuating. Contradiction is really just a reaction against others, which means you are still living your life based on other people, not listening to your own soul and allowing it to guide you through life’s ups and downs – this being a fair definition of individuation.
Behind this impulse was past relationship dynamics. I’m the youngest of four, raised in a family and community of powerful, accomplished, and driven individuals – not to mention a bit of bullies. I learned at a young age that if I wanted to be seen, to be noticed, to belong, I too had to be powerful, accomplished, and driven, whether or not that was inherently who I was or if I could even be such things. And if I couldn’t be such things? Then I would either accommodate or avoid, these being the last two of the three main coping mechanisms humans employ in response to conflict. (“Technically,” the three are moving against, moving toward, and moving away. See “Non-violent Resistance in Intimate Relationships: A How-to Guide”.)
The will to belong and the will to be are both very strong in the human psyche. When these two elements are in harmony, we thrive. When they are in disharmony, the power of potential turns inward, at great risk to oneself and eventually the world.
“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” by Alan Sillitoe was a favorite short story of mine in my early 20s. The main character, Colin Smith, is a talented runner at a British reform school. He despises the staff that uses his talents for its own self-promotion. During a championship race, Colin approaches the finish line in first place but stops just short of winning. He couldhave won, but wasn’t going to give the staff the satisfaction of his victory.
From my emotionally enmeshed mind this was a highly rewarding scenario and one I would have relished doing. And in many ways I did just that, maybe not as literally. The trouble is, when you stop at the finish line at age 25, 30, 40, or even 50 years-old the only meaning such an act has is that you quit. As you get older, the people in your head against whom you continue to react – either to frustrate, please, avoid, or all three – become, in reality, more and more distant and fewer and fewer until they are literally just ghosts.
I found myself at age 43 having had “quit at the finish line” in a number of pursuits to demonstrate my fundamental independence. I found myself with my wife and two children in a neighborhood that was counter to whom I really was as a person, in which virtually all of our friends had moved out due to cultural and socioeconomic needs; isolated from our Christian community; and beginning yet another enterprise. I spent my life pushing against much that was around me, until there was nothing left to push against but myself.
I can’t speak for my ex-wife’s journey, but that summer she left too, emotionally first, and then physically. My daughter was at a summer program in New Hampshire and my son was at camp. I had just launched a therapy center with clients but no colleagues and my family of origin was both at arm’s length and 1,000 miles away. For the first time in my life I was experiencing the fullness of the effects of my entrenched coping mechanisms and I was utterly alone.
As a therapist and a community leader, as someone who works in the addiction field, I knew that there were no substances that could remedy my emotional collapse. I had to stare into the depths of my own personal darkness and decide whether I wanted no longer to exist – a real urge and why I don’t own a gun – or to finally acknowledge my coping mechanisms, and thus my inner conflict, and lay bare the shame that they were masking.
This is the turning point of individuation, when you finally give up your inner struggle, your inner conflict – capitulation! – and expose the shame of value and worth that they mask and begin to trust that the right people will accept you as you are and the wrong people will either go away or be forced to look at the extent to which they have required you to be someone other than who you are in order to please themselves. If things work out, those that stay will become open to rebuilding new relationships.
The day I decided to ascend from the depths of my personal darkness – shame! – and begin to live my own individuated life began with poor sleep, frantic journaling, and despair. I had tentative plans to go on a run with a friend who turned out to be unavailable after I had already driven out to Agoura Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles. I was alone at a trailhead with little more than running shoes and water.
I ran anyway, along the hills and trails of the Santa Monica Mountains. Afterward, I went to an outdoor shopping center where I ordered a burrito and sat in the open air looking at the chaparral. I was reminded of myself, the self I knew as a boy – simple pleasures and the outdoors. I liked it and remember thinking, Whether or not certain people accept me, moments like this exist. Whether or not I have made mistakes, life is still worth living. Whether or not I am perfect, I will allow myself to be who I am and let the world around me adjust.
A Seat at The Table
That was the first moment of peace I had had in many years and became my touchstone as I worked myself out of a lifetime of understandable emotional enmeshment. As I discovered, many aspects of my true self were already evident in many of the things that I was already doing – raising and loving my kids, living healthfully, academic pursuits, and a desire to do my part to transform the world for the better. If trying to make other people happy with who I am and who I am supposed to be or look like was making me want to annihilate myself, then I would begin to make myself and my own growth the center of my focus instead of other people’s expectations.
This was my own rock bottom. Not as dramatic as other peoples’ rock bottoms – trust me, I see clients at a drug and alcohol treatment facility; I know how ugly rock bottom can be – but it contained the same characteristics. In terms of individuation, rock bottom is when you finally recognize that your inner conflict with people from your past is both unwinnable and imaginary and you are faced with two options – annihilation or letting go. Sadly, many people do chose to annihilate themselves in their hopelessness. But others finally find their will, and their freedom, and start to live their own lives.
I had a client for a number of years named “Charlie”. Charlie is very successful in the arts and has worked for a number of studios in Hollywood and was instrumental in the production of many major movies. He is and has always been very well liked by friends and colleagues and cares deeply about his community and his relationships with his fellow Christians and church members. He also was heavily addicted to porn and masturbation since he was twelve.
I met Charlie as I have met most of my Christian clients and that is through the Tuesday night X3LA recovery group I have been leading since 2008. He came across an info webpage for it while surfing online. After attending a few meetings he became excited by the way in which recovery was presented in the group, largely because of the one-page “Recovery Map” that is utilized as a way of helping members locate themselves in their recovery – where they are and where they would like to go.
In his late thirties, Charlie had been nipping at his recovery for many years. The model we present in our group was something he had never seen before and the prospect of an at-a-glance, cohesive, systematic approach to recovery tapped into his passion for order, organization, and, shall we say, perfectionism.
But in the world of recovery, beware of quick fixes and certainty. Charlie thought he had found the Promised Land and he dug in. He attended both Tuesday night meetings and weekly individual sessions with me. Upon my suggestion, he became involved in Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). He worked a 12-step program and got a sponsor. For the first time in his life he decided to look carefully at his addiction and move beyond it.
Regardless, he continued to relapse, so badly, in fact, that he would go on 48-hour binges of masturbating to porn five or six times in a row and had been caught at work by a female coworker using porn on his computer. The week of this last incident, Charlie came to an individual session defeated and resigned. I noted all of the resources he had at his disposal, all of the work he had done. “I know,” he said. “The table is set.” The unspoken question being, Why don’t I just eat?
That was the last session I had with Charlie for well over a year. He had drifted off and I didn’t know where. He even stopped coming to the Tuesday night meetings. When I saw him again, he was contacting me because of challenges his wife was facing with her family. He thought I could help her. I asked how he was doing. Unbelievably, he had been experiencing vast stretches of sobriety, sometimes as long as six months at a time. He was hopeful and energetic. Something had clicked in him and I wanted to know what it was.
A central theme in Charlie’s work with me was his mother. Charlie had one sibling and his father had passed away years ago. In many respects, when his father passed, his mother had forged an emotionally-enmeshed relationship with Charlie. Of course there were problems with emotional boundaries within Charlie’s family before his father passed away, but when his father passed, a vacuum was created and Charlie was sucked into it.
While this was Charlie’s mom’s fault, Charlie, at a young age, did not know this and lived out the role that he felt was his to live out. In essence, a large portion of Charlie’s sense of self had been defined by his mother’s happiness. If his mother was doing well, then he was “good”; if his mother was not doing well, somehow he had failed her and was “bad”. Porn and masturbation were ways of escaping from the overwhelming anxiety caused by his mother’s emotional states.
Charlie’s big turn was when he was at an SAA meeting. He shared with another member some of the issues he had been wresting with in his life, especially as it related to his mother. The man looked at him with full comprehension and said, “You need to get this book.” He proffered a copy of When He’s Married to Mom: How to Help Mother-Enmeshed Men Open Their Hearts to True Love and Commitment by Kenneth M. Adams Ph.D.
For Charlie, this was the beginning of the end for his enmeshment, and the end of the beginning for his life as an individuated person.
The problem wasn’t that Charlie used porn. The problem was that his emotional life was so bound up in pleasing others, especially his mother as a primary attachment figure, that he was so overwhelmed with anxiety that he managed his affect with sexual arousal and masturbation. The “Real Change” goal for Charlie was for him to begin to individuate and recognize that he wasn’t responsible for managing other people’s emotions; he was only responsible for managing his own.
Years before my eventual collapse and rock bottom experience there was a period of “liminality” in which I could glimpse, but could not yet fathom, the cause of my chronic emotional distress. A liminal state is that which is neither fully here nor there; it is a state whereby there are faint glimmerings of awareness but no comprehension; it is the unconscious peeking into consciousness.
Since childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood there were countless moments in my life, unconscious I can now see, when I would feel a shock, a burst of adrenaline, a spark of shame in response to an errant comment made by someone whom I respected, a mistake I made, or thoughts of the presumed ill state of my life.
Unconsciously, my mind was weighing these events against who I was supposed to be in order to please significant people in my life. The shock, the burst, the spark was my fight or flight system telling me, “You messed up! You’ve done something that is going to get you kicked out of the group! Get back in line!”
Aggression, accommodation, or avoidance are antidotes to this uncomfortable state of affairs. If I lash out in anger, if I apologize a million times for my transgressions, if I limit my risks and remain in my place at least I won’t feel this spark of shame and I might even feel the elation of acceptance. But aggression, accommodation, or avoidance are ultimately unsustainable and that is where substances of abuse creep into people’s lives. Substances of abuse not only temporarily quell the spark of shame, substances of abuse feel like a special friend that wants nothing more from you than your pleasure.
About two years before my emotional collapse – which, as it turns out, was really my gaining of greater consciousness regarding the extent of my emotional enmeshment – I began experiencing the liminal state of individuation. In particular, I remember walking from a parking lot on Hollywood Boulevard to our Tuesday night X3LA group in the old Hollywood Pacific Theater. I was imagining the various ways significant people in my life were viewing how my life had turned out so far, the decisions I had made, the life choices, the detours and failures. And that’s when I saw “the arrow”.
I had a mental image of an arrow, like one you would see in a presentation slide pointing to what is relevant in a scene. It was pointing not at the conditions in my life and whether I could somehow contort them, spin them, present them in ways that might be acceptable to certain people in my life. It wasn’t even pointing at the people I was trying to please. Instead, it was pointing at the way in which I was viewing life, the lens I was using. As it was with Charlie, the problem wasn’t whether or not I could make things look right for others; the problem was that I cared about making them look right in the first place.
Why true individuation often requires a personal crisis brought on by a cornering of life circumstances is because true individuation is a personal crisis brought on by a cornering of life circumstances. Individuation is the painful realization that there is no one responsible for your life but you; there are no “big people”. You are free to make your own decisions and live your own life. For people who have built their lives and sense of self around other people’s expectations, to realize that those other people are just as human as you, faulty, or not too concerned about your wellbeing is not just sobering, it can be disorienting…and horrifying.
The currency of individuation is freedom and despite the many ways our current culture celebrates personal freedom, it is exactly freedom of which we are most afraid. Freedom means responsibility. Freedom means we must decide who we are and what we are about. Freedom requires that we figure out what matters most to us and take a stand to stick up for ourselves in non-violent ways. Not everyone is willing to embrace their freedoms with all of the accompanying rights and responsibilities and that’s why they live lives of quiet desperation.
When Charlie stated that the “table was set” what he was really saying was that he could see the adult’s table, and he could hear the invitation, but he was too afraid of leaving the children’s table – where he had been sitting his whole life – to join it. To leave the children’s table puts you in jeopardy of ridicule from the other children. To join the adult’s table means you need to sit upright in your chair, meet new people, listen to others, have something of value to add to the conversation, and demonstrate reasonable knowledge of etiquette. It also means you must feed yourself. In short, to join the adult’s table risks shame and assumes responsibility.
Charlie’s mother was still at the children’s table. Well into her sixties she expected someone else – her son – to feed her and care for her and clean up her messes. Few children willingly relinquish their parents’ governance. But if joining the adults’ table means you need to stop doing for others what they need to be doing for themselves then ultimately you are doing more than just yourself a favor. If someone sitting at the children’s table wants to join the adults, he or she can witness your leadership, get up from the children’s table, and join you. This is the essence of non-violent resistance.
Individuation is not a one-time event. Perhaps the initial consciousness of it can be, but once one is aware of the concept of individuation and what it means to be an individuated person – the opposite of enmeshment – the work of individuation lasts a lifetime.
It lasts a lifetime because as long as we are alive on this planet we are navigating the fine line between being an individual and being in relationship. It is both a neurological and social reality that we are individuals who need people and individuals whom people need. This never goes away. Our only option apart from denial is to accept this reality and then get damn good at navigating it.
The challenges of navigating individuation depend, of course, on your level of emotional enmeshment to begin with. Neurologically speaking, it takes time to rewire the neural connections that regulate emotional wellbeing. It takes time to go from a primary dependence on other people for emotional regulation to self-regulation with the help of others. While this is the subject of a much longer article, suffice it to say that the brain (mind) is organic and the same principles that apply to our body’s physical fitness apply to our brain’s fitness – you can’t get into or out of shape in one day!
Individuation is an art form, perhaps the truest and most ancient art form that exists. The most meaningful spiritual and philosophical practices developed throughout history have focused on individual centeredness and an ability to respect not only yourself but also your neighbor. The Golden Rule – treat others as you would treat yourself – is evident in all of the major religious traditions.
Notice that “yourself” is central to this injunction. We don’t do anyone any good when we are not our best selves. When we don’t know who we are, when we rely on others to determine our worth, when we aren’t individuated we either lash out in anger, throw our pearls to swine, or keep our treasure buried.
But when we know ourselves, know our call, and stay centered, we’re less reactive, we know our boundaries, and we stay in community. In this, not only do we benefit, but so too does the world. If you respect yourself, treating others as you would treat yourself makes a great deal of sense.
I was leading a group once, discussing the essence of human mood swings. I drew a continuum on a whiteboard with anxiety on one end and depression on the other. I explained that it is these two emotions between which emotionally-enmeshed individuals swing. Anxiety is about a lack of control over whether others will accept you and depression is about hopelessness that others will never accept you.
I made the conclusion that the pathway out of this miserable back and forth is centeredness – knowing who you are and being that person regardless of who does and doesn’t accept you; in short, being individuated. After underscoring the importance of defining who you are and being that, the importance of being individuated, a man looked blankly at me and intoned, “But how do you know who to be?”
How do you know who to be?
An honest question, one that humanity has been wrestling with since the dawn of consciousness and the question men (and women) who lead lives of quiet desperation try to avoid, either consciously or unconsciously.
How do you know who to be?
If any contented life is to be lived, answering this question is of utmost importance and the group I was leading was a Christian group; it seemed only fitting to turn to Christian resources to begin to answer this question. I noted that while there are many different Christian denominations, theologies, and perspectives, few Christians would argue against these truths:
- We are free.
- It is out of gratitude for this freedom that we help others free themselves.
- Some people may not respect other people’s freedoms but violence, accommodation, or avoidance won’t change their behavior.
- Individuation is the only pathway to fundamental and meaningful change, in yourself and others.
While these basic truths do not answer what to do with one’s life, it certainly sets the parameters for whom to be. We may have been conditioned throughout our lives to push against, please, or avoid others but we are, in fact, free to live our own lives. Living our own lives means we discover purpose and there is no purpose greater than helping others find the freedom we have found. Violence, accommodation, and avoidance only perpetuate the opposite of freedom and our best response to this reality is to remain in the center, remain individuated, regardless of the consequences. This is the narrow path of Christ; this is non-violent resistance.
As I look back on the first half of my life, at my chronic self-contempt, anxiety, or depression, at the ways in which I pushed against others in reaction to them, accommodated bullies, or just flat out avoided people out of my own fear, I have more compassion for my humanity. Life is difficult and we don’t come into this world with a user’s manual.
One way I have come to have more compassion for myself is recognizing the reality that our main coping mechanism, whether it is aggression, accommodation, or avoidance, holds the key not just to the worst in us but also, ironically, the best. People who tend to push against people are very good at sticking up for themselves and others; people who tend to accommodate are very good at empathizing; and people who avoid are very good at listening to their own souls and, perhaps, hearing God.
While in my stubbornness I may have led my wife and two children into a neighborhood that was counter to who I really was as a person I did so because I believe in socio-economic and racial diversity. We were isolated from our Christian community because that community had become cliquish, materialistic, and spiritually abusive and I disagreed with it. And I was beginning another enterprise – The Faith and Sex Center – because I can see the injustice and damage that sexual exploitation has wrought on our world and I want to do whatever I can to ameliorate the situation.
The key here is discernment. Life is messy. Living is messy. If we are truly individuating we continue to knock, seek, and try regardless of whether we knock on the wrong door, seek in the wrong forest, or try at the expense of others. If we value individuation far above “success” we take these experiences in stride, own them, and continue on in our freedom. It is through this experience that we can grow closer to the God in whom many of us profess to believe. In this way, individuation is the same as learning to trust. Individuation is synonymous with the pursuit of what is Holy.