Issues Treated in Therapy:
Individuation is part of the separation/individuation process that begins at birth. When an infant is born, he/she is merged with mother. For the infant in this symbiotic relationship, there is no differentiation between you and me: mother and infant are one. As development proceeds, an infant and then toddler emerges from the symbiosis and begins to become a separate person. After the early stages of separation, we individuate from mother and become a separate self. This unique self, separate and different from any other self, is developed by the process of individuation.
While the individuation process is typically described as belonging to the early years of development, the process continues well into adulthood. For the young child, saying “NO” is one of the earliest signs of individuation. It is a statement that I am separate from you and want something different. When the child can say “NO,” she/he is preparing herself/himself to say “YES.” In this context, “YES” means there is an awareness of self and what one wants (to say YES to). A simple way of thinking about individuation is that it is a lifelong process of learning what we want to say NO or YES to. It is also a process not just about knowing. It includes acting in the world according to what we want and do not want. It is a statement of who we are (ME) and who we are not (NOT ME).
From toddlerhood through early childhood and then adolescence, individuating from parents takes on great importance. Ideally, families make room for the growing selves of their children and allow them to be (within reason) who they are and are becoming (even when this contradicts with what the family might wish). As adolescents move into young adulthood, they continue to individuate from their parents. They choose schools, friends, hobbies, careers, travel, and hundreds of life choices that may be different from who their families are or what their families want for them. For those who have successfully individuated, these choices will be able to be realized and there will be little anxiety associated with them. For some young adults, however, the amount of anxiety or depression associated with knowing what they want and how to get it interferes with having the lives they want. For young adults who struggle with individuating from their families, we can usually trace the struggle to the dynamics in the family. Typically relationships with parents and/or siblings affect the individuation process. At any stage of the developmental process, the seeds of later difficulties individuating may be planted.
Frequently, a parent’s anxiety may be passed on to the child. This anxiety may interfere with the infant/child/adolescent/young adult feeling comfortable with their selves in the world. A parent’s worry or perfectionism about colds and fevers, sleep, homework, eating (to name only a few) can result in feelings of inadequacy. The young adult continues to have his or her childhood feelings of:
Individuation from parents may also be interfered with when the child’s feelings are not accepted. For example, when children are not permitted to be sad, or worried, or angry, they are not helped to know and trust their feelings. They learn to lock them away. They develop little ability to trust themselves because they have not developed internal feeling cues to rely on. This can interfere with developing an adequate internal life. Decision making under these circumstances is very difficult since there is not a lot of ability to self reflect. Paralysis or dependency can result. Individuation cannot proceed: the capacity to know what one wants and the ability to get it is impaired.
Carol, a 26 year old young woman, begins therapy because of difficulties in her relationship. Her boyfriend, Steven, wants to move in together and Carol is very anxious about making that commitment. She thinks she loves Steven, but she has expressed her worry that she has been going along with Steven’s opinions and ways of doing things. She is concerned that she is often unsure about what she thinks or wants. If they live together, she fears she would become trapped in a relationship where she can’t be herself. At the same time, she admits she really isn’t sure who that self is. In therapy, Carol begins to explore her difficulty finding her own voice and getting comfortable with her own needs and wishes. Carol starts to see connections between her worry about asserting herself at work, with her parents, and in other significant relationships. She and her therapist will continue to explore Carol’s worries about being an individual: a person who is separate from the significant people in her life.
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Last updated: 05-14-2013