Adult Tasks of Living: Individuation

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by Nicholas E Stratas

As promised in Adult Tasks of Living, a prior article, I expand on Individuation the first of four tasks. The others sense of self-reliance, sexualization and career development still to come.  These in order to achieve a comfortable sense of and with self. Furthermore each adult has a personally comfortable, and from time to time varying, level of need for separateness. Individuation is dependent on internal integrity and connectedness – being connected to one’s insides. This integrity is biologically, psychologically, socially and spiritually based.

Biologically we are a physical system of interconnected and interdependent subsystems comprised of interconnected and interdependent physical, physiological elements. Psychologically we processing the integration and connectedness of the millions of data bits that are experienced through our feeling, thinking, behaving and perceiving ourselves and the events of the people and world around us. The human being is the ultimate, most complex information management system. A bit of data comes in and is recorded. Another bit of data comes in, is also recorded and if similar to the first then a file is set up for both, or, if different, two separate files are set up. Additional data coming in goes into the appropriate file or more files are set up. The files, in turn may be collected, cross referenced and stored by categories also cross referenced and connected to each other, providing for connectedness and access to the whole system from any part of it. It must be said at the outset, Individuation is uniquely defined by whether one is female or male. Female and male come with different hormonal systems. Moreover females come with child bearing organs. In another article I will deal with this difference.

A metaphor for what occurs internally might be the way human beings settle.  We can imagine that early settlers created their homes, some, miles apart and others close to each other.  As more people came into the area, little clusters began to develop, which with additional people became neighborhoods and gradually larger clusters, towns.  Towns became cities.  Traffic between the neighborhoods, towns and cities means roads, which in turn give rise to developments. These begin to flow together. So it is with our human information system. There are many phrases in our vernacular referring to the process of individuation including: “being connected”, “coming together”, “becoming one”, “getting it together”, being oneself”, “getting it together”, “having integrity” and others.

The stage is set for internal integration, meaningful individuation, with meaningful bonding in our early life between child and parent.  Largely physiological initially when the baby is in mother’s uterus, the psychological and especially the social dimensions are also present. It is not unusual that women “talk with” or at least “think” with the young life that they have within them.  This physiological/interpersonal bond needs to continue during, and after birth, infancy, and childhood.  The experience of presence, stability, predictability, comfort and unconditional love affirm the infant’s exploring, crawling, walking and running. In adolescence moving to a greater degree through the rite of separation. Even clearer is driving, enabling further separation from parents.

Psychologically, just as physically, we can postulate that the infant initially experiences oneness with mother.  With birth and neurological maturation the infant becomes aware of the separateness, physically, emotionally and cognitively. The experience of union between child and parent provides the security and foundation for the child’s comfort with separateness. This separateness goes with increasing internal connectedness.  The better connected we are the better we separate. The better separated we are, the better connected we can be. This separateness is not the same as disconnectedness. Many of you have heard me say that we are born alone, we die alone and we spend much of our life alone. We deal with ourselves and with the world around us alone regardless of how many people are around us. The more adequate our separation, the more we experience the aloneness without the experience of loneliness. We experience the presence of others with us. In contrast the less adequate the individuation the greater the experience of loneliness. Again here I add the fact the female from childhood is keenly aware of her childbearing potential makes for very early awareness of connectivity which remains whether there are children born later or not.

With trauma or abuse in the earlier relationship the hurtful experiences may be walled off and kept separate from other internally stored experiences. If severe enough this can create an internal disconnectedness or what we call a “split” or “dissociation”. The hurtful experience may be emotional or physical abuse of varying degrees, deprivation of a parent occurring through physical and/or mental illness or abuse, separation and/or divorce, death or abandonment of parents. This internal separateness is generally unconscious and can show up in a variety of ways.  In most extreme examples, the result may be what we call Dissociative Disorder and colloquially, a “multiple personality”.  Less extreme and more commonly suppression of an event or period of one’s history accompanied with difficulty in having peer experiences and entering adult committed relationships. Internal disconnectedness makes parts of our selves unavailable to our awareness and therefore not fully available to be in a full relationship.  This is frequently the case when a young person moves abruptly away from parents to marriage in a problematic attempt to separate (read disconnect) from the parents. Inadequate bonding, insufficient internal integration and ultimate premature marriage create a less than full commitment and basis for ultimate disconnection from the spouse. This may manifest in extra-marital affairs – be they with another partner or with work or hobbies.

I subsume under the word “spiritually” that which is as yet unexplained and may even seem unexplainable. Religions have come about in an attempt to give a story to this part of experience. All of us have and will experience coming up to an event which is unexplainable. A few are able to accept and believe that someday we will have an explanation. The majority create some set of beliefs to explain. However we deal with the unexplainable, it is integral to our individuation that we somehow accept that experiences occur which we have not yet explained in human terms. We must attain a level of Faith. Even the belief that everything is explainable and someday we will have an explanation is a faith although the self-proclaimed rational person contests that reason trumps all. Again here the difference between female and male is important to note. Most current religions are male dominated. This is not an article about spirituality thus enough said.

Clearly, most of us get married while we in the process of integrating and thus maturely separating from the parents.  Affirming bonding with and individuation from parents permits comfort in being in a marriage while continuing to individuate without the need to act outside the marriage.  Further individuation enhances and strengthens the marital relationship.  It takes two ones to make a well connected two. The stronger the individual, the stronger the couple and vice versa. In order to enhance individuation it is important to contain urges to leave pre-existing arrangements until we are clear about our feelings and thoughts.

Life changes need to be made in ways that do not fracture the rest of our life. New experiences need be integrated with the whole of the self. The movement we make is a comfortable step towards our own separateness.  Frequently in a marriage this further stabilizes the relationship. When disconnectedness exists within one’s self and within significant relationships, working on one’s connectedness is essential. It is not unusual to find fault with a partner as a projection of one’s own inadequate individuation. Frequently, couples work to improve the relationship is the same work required for individual separation. If a person is leaving, or between relationships, it is important to take enough time to allow for significant individuation to occur, usually 18 to 24 months and depend on a variety of other factors. Characteristics of a well individuated person include acknowledgment and appreciation of feelings, all of them, sad, mad, happy, anxious, and peaceful. At the same time managing the clarifying, owning and valuing one’s thoughts including the unthinkable, ideas, beliefs, and proactive behavior toward our goals.


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