Individuation: stumbling toward emotional self-reliance

Updated Jan 19 2019
Ecstasy Flowers art by Ouvra aka Maria Rozalia Finna. Buy her art!

Individuation is a word that I thought I sorta made up for myself to describe the psychological (and maybe spiritual?) process I've been going through since my divorce. Turns out, however, that I didn't make it up — it's a term from Carl Jung, which means I feel like I probably got it from my father, who's obsessed with Jung. You can read about it here, but here's the Jungian perspective:

In Jungian psychology, also called analytical psychology, individuation is the process in which the individual self develops out of an undifferentiated unconscious – seen as a developmental psychic process during which innate elements of personality, the components of the immature psyche, and the experiences of the person's life become, if the process is more or less successful, integrated over time into a well-functioning whole.

I'm not sure if I'm actually using the term correctly, honestly… but that's never stopped me before! For me, individuation has been about untangling and recalibrating my brain from marriage and family-of-origin dynamics, to a sole proprietorship. Instead of relying on a partner, or relying on my family, I rely on… me.

Divorce: my abrupt invitation to individuation

Maybe the most obvious way to talk about individuation is to say that, in the context of my marriage, if there was a bad feeling, I would look to my spouse to help me with the bad feeling. He was my windbreaker and my security blanket. When I got upset, just his presence (or even the IDEA of his presence) would help calm me down. Over the years, this meant that basically I held him at least partially responsible for my sense of well-being.

To put it in less kind language, if I felt bad, somehow it was my partner's fault.

Now, I'm not an awful person nor was I an awful wife, so it's not like this was extreme… but if something felt uncomfortable, first I would turn to my partner to help me manage the discomfort, and then if he couldn't, I would get even more uncomfortable. This increased discomfort would sometimes translate into frustration, disappointment, or impatience… with my partner.

The first step of my individuation process was making my well-being no longer the responsibility of my partner. Because I was surprised by my marriage ending, that first step was abrupt and out of my hands. The pain of the split was so excruciating that my brain just flipped into trauma mode. The trauma essentially hacked off the emotional arm and cauterized the wound. It felt firmly out of my control, and I couldn't really do much but move on as quickly as I could as an emotional amputee. The abruptness was rough on my nervous system, but there's no arguing that it got 'er done very quickly. I stopped holding my former partner responsible for my emotional well-being by the end of 2015.

Then, after a brief experiment with being in a relationship in 2016 (HA HA HA, shit-show!), the second step of my individuation process was making NO ONE BUT ME responsible for my sense of well-being. Another way of putting it is that first I had to give up on marriage as a source of comfort, and then I had to give up on partnership completely as a source of comfort. That took longer than the first step, and involved a ton of spiritual work (remember the "2017 is the year I started dating god" post?), but also a lot of psychological work…

Oh look, it's Ariel brain-hacking again!

The psychological component was mostly focused on parenting myself. Tiny children are dependent on their parents to be responsible for them, and inevitably part of childhood is being disappointed when your parents fail your needs in some way. (Not necessarily because of bad parenting but just because… human.)

For me, individuation meant releasing the need to blame someone else for failing me, and instead just taking it internal… and doing the awful work of stopping failing my fucking self!

This means stuff like not getting irritated with myself when I feel clingy or whiny and or needy or sad. My reflex is to be like Stallings, toughen up! You're fine! You've got it so good! How deep is your bottomless pit of need for xyz?! Why do you always need more? 

Instead of abandoning myself in my needy baby moments, I try to do stuff like wrap myself in a blanket and pet my own head and tell me I'm here for me. (You have not been truly humbled until you've spent entire evenings crying, wrapping yourself in blankies, and talking to yourself like a baby while you smooth your own tangled hair.)

When my anxiety and neediness and clinginess comes up, it's on ME to show up for myself and stop abandoning myself. No one else! That's what emotional self-reliance looks like to me.

What exactly does individuation look like when you're single?

When I was single, this meant that the times when I was the most desperate for attention and communication from others, were the times when I tried to most show up for myself. Those desperate moments waiting for someone to text back were basically just an externalization of my internal need for parenting — because let's be honest: "needing parenting" is the clearest way of understanding that desperate feeling when you're waiting for someone to respond to a text. My sensation of desperately needing to connect to others was actually a super intense, uncomfortable invitation to connect with and parent myself. And the more I pushed the need away, the more I put it on other people, the more I was injuring myself, telling myself I was too this, too that, too unworthy, too whatever.

The more embarrassing and shameful the neediness, the more desperate the call to self-tend my own hurt.

This is all easy enough to say (stop holding others responsible for your discomfort! start parenting yourself!) but the ways it actually play out aren't especially cute or empowered feeling. Crying at home alone for a couple years doesn't really feel like you're getting anywhere… but when I compare it to years (decades!) of avoiding discomfort and pain by holding other people accountable for my emotions, and desperately trying to control inputs to avoid ever feeling uncomfortable, it's a pretty stark contrast.

For me, individuation has been about leaning into discomfort so that I can learn how to manage it, and specifically: leaning into those discomforts ALONE so that I can learn how to manage them without trying to control other people.

Because let's be honest: while controlling other people feels good for a minute ("I told them to do a thing, and they did a thing, and now I feel all-powerful and like I'm in charge!"), it ultimately just externalizes all your good feelings on being able to get people to do the things you tell them.

UG! Why did I play this game with myself for so long? "What makes me feel good is reliant on other people accommodating my needs"? What a shaky-ass, terrifying place to be! "My sense of well-being is completely dependent on some other human doing what I tell them to do"?! Yikes. Humans are flawed and fundamentally unreliable. Not that we shouldn't love and trust each other, but having your whole sense of security based on feeling like you can control other people's behavior is a recipe for suffering.

What does individuation look like when you're partnered?

Ok, so what about when you're not single? What does individuation look like then? I'm seven months into a new relationship and it looks like completely releasing control of the person I'm in a relationship with. That doesn't mean I excuse behavior that's intolerable for me (lord knows I have no trouble with my boundaries), but it means that I alone am responsible for my emotions and reactions. It means I don't spend my time negotiating, trying to convince anyone to change their behavior to help me avoid discomforts that are ultimately mine.

This doesn't mean I don't trust people — it's the opposite. Because I'm accountable for my own emotional needs, I'm able to trust people more. It's hard to explain.

So the individuation process for me has been all about holding myself (AND MYSELF ALONE!) responsible for attending to my own emotional needs. When I can take care of me, I'm in a way better, more whole place to be present in relationship with others, because I'm not begging them to accommodate my emotions, trying to control their behavior to work around my discomforts, or seeking validation from them I need to build internally.

I now recognize just how much of my marriage (…many marriages? …most marriages?) was about tossing a ball of blame and responsibility back and forth. "I feel bad — YOU DID THIS!" "Hey, it's not my fault you feel bad!" "But this discomfort can't be mine to deal with — here, take it! If you don't take it I will sit around for hours tonight crying! …Don't make me sit around for hours tonight crying!"

Here's my painful truth: I should have sat around for hours crying. I wish I hadn't wasted so many years asking my partner to help me avoid sitting around and crying.

Because here's the deal: maturation is painful.

Attending to old wounds hurts.

Growth is loss.

We're all gonna die.

You're dying right now, and you probably need to grieve, and not only is it not a partner's fault that you need to grieve… it should be their privilege and honor to allow you to grieve, to witness it with love. Nothing needs fixing. It's nobody's fault.

I wish I'd understood that in my marriage. Feeling uncomfortable isn't bad. Crying for hours isn't someone's fault. It's natural and healthy and the only way through it is to REALLY DO IT, and stop making it someone else's responsibility. Things hurt. Stop building elaborate scaffolding to make them hurt less. Just sit in the hurt, and eventually the hurting shifts (or you shift? I'm unclear on what happens) and the emptiness becomes spaciousness and the hurt stops being as painful.

That's individuation for me. I don't know that it's what Jung had in mind?

  1. The owning your own feelings portion reminds me a lot of a section of the amazing and brilliant Come As You Are by Dr Emily Nagoski.

    “Staying over your own emotional center of gravity… means owning your feelings, listening to them, and being responsive without being reactive, taking emotions seriously without taking them personally.

    I’ve come to think of staying over your emotional center of gravity as the “sleepy hedgehog” model of emotion management.

    If you find a sleepy hedgehog in the chair you were about to sit in, you should
    • give it a name
    • sit peacefully with it in your lap
    • figure out what it needs
    • tell your partner about the need, so you can collaborate to help the hedgehog

    Getting mad at the hedgehog or being afraid of it won’t help you or the hedgehog, and you certainly can’t just shove it into your partner’s lap, shouting, “SLEEPY HEDGEHOG! ” and expect them to deal with all its spiky quills. It’s your hedgehog. The calmer you are when you handle it, the less likely you are to get hurt yourself, or to hurt someone else."

    • YES! Totally loved that book (I mean, that cover art is a work of clever genius), and the section about the hedgehog is definitely relevant to trying to stay accountable for your own emotions in the context of a relationship. I also love that she uses some basic mindfulness practices with the hedgehog — notice it, name it, observe it.

      Semi-related: Have you read the Belhaven series, Dr. Nagoski's attachment theory romance novels that she wrote under a pen name? They're super fun for those of us who like our attachment theory research like we like our lovers: articulate, relatable, and go down easy!

  2. Thank you for sharing this with us. You put into words what I have been going through and my journey with individuation. I just came out of a 2.5 year long relationship where I lost myself in it completely. I've been coming to terms too with being able to blame myself when something is my fault and taking my own feelings into my hands. Basically, that whole mantra where it's you who can control how you react to another person no matter what their reaction may be.

    Anyway, this was incredibly helpful, and I'm glad to see another person coming out better for it as a better version of themselves.

    Thanks, Ariel!

    • Yeah, being accountable for your reactions by standing back and learning from them, to see if you can reduce your own suffering (and reduce the misery you cause others) is tough work, but worth the time to examine.

  3. I came at this process the other way around… my life refused to provide me with certain layers of emotional support. It took me most of my existence to wrap my mind around the fact that the people who said they loved me didn't have my best interests at heart. Only once I had gotten to a point where I accepted that, shit, apparently I'm a solo flier, did the person I will be marrying finally show up. I'll be nearly 36 when that event rolls around.

    My whole life seemed determined to force me to accept my own individuation. I did things I wouldn't have otherwise, like grad school and teaching. I did get there in the end. I did. But I also found something else out…

    There's nothing wrong with the process of individuating. It's necessary to existence. It's also OK being a little codependent. If you can't function without your partner, that's one thing. But so much of my life seemed determined to force me to admit that I CAN DO IT ON MY OWN YES I CAN, and erase the fact that I do better in partnership. Financially, emotionally, mentally. (To be clear, Ariel, I don't think this is what *you* were getting at, but just my own experience.)

    What I finally figured out is that both experiences are good and bad, yin and yang. Like much of life, the timing can be unfair as fuck. It's not always when you're ready for it and the process doesn't always tie up neatly with a bow a la "Eat Pray Love." There's no trophy for having become a better person by the end. Sometimes you don't become a better person. Sometimes it's just about surviving. It's a rare person who looks back on her life with unmixed feelings; the best way of dealing with whatever cycle you're in may just be to shrug and say "it is what it is."

    I know that as valuable as the process of individuation was for me, now that I'm in a partnership cycle, I sometimes look back and get very, very pissed off about how much more I could have accomplished had I experienced this level of support my whole life.

    • *starts chanting* MIDDLE! PATH! MIDDLE PATH!!

      I'm totally with you on what you're saying here. For me, and other folks who've spent long stretches in partnership, you have to put in the work to learn how to healthily individuate. For folks who've spent long stretches out of partnership, it can be just as much work to learn how to healthily integrate and collaborate with another person. Either way, you're probably confronting some vestigial family of origin stuff, and learning new stuff… which can be rough!

      I want to award a trophy for everyone putting in the effort… but then your third paragraph, though! That is some profound tl/dr. You nailed it. THANK YOU!

  4. I can relate so much. I'm currently in the "crying alone a lot" between the old relationship and whatever comes next. It's definitely tough.
    I just went on this awesome retreat from one of my favorite teachers, Josh Korda (highly recommend his podcast Dharmapunx NYC for attachment centered stuff!) and I learned about Idealized Parent Figure Protocol therapy. It's something I'm curious about to add to my toolbox.

    • Ooh, interesting. I hadn't heard about Idealized Parent Figure Protocol therapy, but reading about it now, it reminds me a bit of some of the stuff I did last year… basically, trying to rewire myself to securely attach to my spiritual practice instead of a partner/parenting stand-in.

      Oh, humans. I have so much compassion for all the universality of our suffering. It's the most ironic part of loneliness: we're all united in it! We're truly the least alone, in our feelings of being alone.

  5. I'm trying to understand this in the context of my failing marriage (we are separated and likely entering mediation to divorce). For owning your feelings with a situation like this that happened time and again: Husband states intention to do something that is self-gratifying, but not good for some part (or multiple parts) of our relationship. I state my feelings and ask him not to. He does it anyway. I get upset because my feelings have been dismissed (yet again). I feel hurt that I am ignored and that he always chooses the impulse to feel good over our relationship. I can take responsibility for the pain I feel and help myself deal with the pain, but where does this leave me and this relationship?

    • Sounds like it leaves you in a great place to focus your energy on your own growth and development, separate from the dynamic with him. From what you're saying, it doesn't sound like energy put into trying to change the dynamic has worked, and it could be time to redirect your efforts on internal work.

      I'm not really in a place to give relationship advice other than that. Ultimately, it's all a bucket of pain either way, and I'm just some lady on the internet who doesn't know you or your situation.

      Sending love, regardless, <3

  6. Oh Ariel, this piece was both timely and AH.MAZE.ING. This is everything that is slooooowlllyyyy (so so so slowly urgh) dawning on me…Thank you from the bottom of my heart

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