What Is Individuation?

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What Is Individuation?

When discussing human development, individuation refers to the process of forming a stable personality. As a person individuates, they gain a clearer sense of self that is separate from their parents and others around them. Carl Jung used the term "individuation" extensively in his work on personality development.

This process of developing a separate identity is an important goal of adolescence, but it is something that continues throughout a person's life. 

In Carl Jung's work, he suggested that this was a self-realization process. Throughout life, people are prone to losing touch with certain aspects of their true selves. Through individuation, they are able to integrate these aspects of themselves with all of their new learning and experiences that they gain throughout life.

Signs of Individuation

Individuation occurs throughout life, but it is an important part of the tween, teen, and young adulthood years. When individuation occurs:

  • People may seek privacy: During adolescence, tweens and teens may want more privacy. During this time, parents should get used to the idea of their children wanting to spend time alone in their bedrooms. They may no longer be as open about what happens during the school day or in their friendships. They may have romantic relationships or crushes that they keep to themselves.
  • They may focus on themselves more than others: Adolescent egocentrism may arise due to the individuation process. Teenagers are often focused on their own concerns and may struggle to see things from the perspective of others.
  • People may rebel against the family or cultural norms: Young people undergoing the individuation process may also seemingly rebel against their parents. If their parents are conservative Christians, for example, the child may begin to develop an interest in Buddhism or announce their interest in atheism. The child may reject conservatism to embrace liberal politics.
  • They may personalize their appearance: Children during this time may dress, style their hair, or listen to music to which their parents object. Parents should not take these style decisions personally.

In adulthood, people may go through periods of changing how they present themselves to the world. Much like in the teen years, they might try out new styles or even make bigger changes like switching jobs or moving to a new place.

Impact of Individuation

The individuation process can be challenging and sometimes lead to turmoil and conflict for some people. Suppressing or denying the authentic self can, however, lead to distress and problems with self-identity.

Poor individuation can lead to a number of problems. Some of these include:

Children who don't develop a healthy sense of self may become depressed as adults or have an existential crisis. They may wonder why they chose the career they did or the spouse they have and question if they were really supposed to lead a certain lifestyle. Did they make these choices consciously or simply listen to what others (namely their parents) told them to do?

Individuation is important not only in the development of a healthy identity but also for the development of healthy relationships. If people are not sure what they want, they may seek relationships that lack appropriate boundaries and support. They may feel unable to pursue their own interests and goals and instead simply go along with what others want them to do.

How to Cope

Whether you are dealing with a rebellious teen or struggling to get back in touch with your true self, there are things that you can do to help make it easier to cope.

Recognize That It's Normal

It's important that parents allow children to undergo the individuation process. While parents may want children to live the same way that they do or embrace the same values that they have, they must recognize and respect the fact that their children are unique individuals with their own paths in life.

If you have faith in your parenting skills and that you've given your child a good moral foundation, then be confident that your child will turn out fine, even if their life in no way resembles your own.

Create a Safe Space for Exploration

For parents, give your kids the security, space, and support to try out new things. For adults who are looking to reaffirm or reintegrate parts of their identity, work on trying new things before making drastic life changes. For example, seeking new friendships, trying out new hobbies, or exploring new places can be a way to test out changes you might want to make in your life.

Consider Therapy

Psychotherapy can be a helpful way to address problems with individuation since it involves analyzing and discovering things about yourself and your relationships with others. Working with your therapist, you can better understand how family dynamics, personality characteristics, and other influences may have played a role in individuation. 

In therapy, you'll be able to:

  • Learn to express your feelings
  • Identify negative thoughts
  • Practice communicating your wants and needs
  • Develop skills that will help you express your identity
  • Treat underlying problems with stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns

When to Intervene

There are times when parents may need to intervene during the individuation process if teens and tweens are engaging in dangerous or destructive behaviors. Adolescents are known to take risks as they develop into independent people. While it's important for parents to respect the differences between their children and them, it's not necessarily a good idea to give your child too much freedom during this time.

Let them know that you respect the fact that they're growing into adults but that recklessness at their age has real-world consequences that can affect them for the rest of their lives.

If your child shows signs of experimenting with drugs or alcohol, don't chalk it up to individuation. It's time to intervene.

Set boundaries for kids, even as they undergo the individuation process. Children can find a sense of self without resorting to drugs, alcohol, promiscuity or other behaviors that put them at risk. 

As an adult, there are also times when you should seek help if individuation is contributing to risky behaviors. If you are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness such as depression or anxiety, it is important to talk to your doctor. Such conditions may worsen over time, so addressing them early on can help you cope and get back on track. 

If you are using unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with identity issues, including alcohol or substance misuse, reach out to a mental health professional for assistance. They can help you understand the reasons why you might be struggling and help you learn new ways of coping when you feel distressed.

A Word From Verywell

Individuation is a critical process during development, particularly in adolescence when teens and young adults begin to assert their own independent identity and establish a cohesive sense of self. That doesn't mean that the process ends once a person reaches adulthood, however. Individuation is a lifelong process and your sense of self may continue to adapt and grow as you have new experiences

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Additional Reading
  • Rathus SA. Psychology: Concepts and Connections. Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2013.

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