Individuation: the Path to Authenticity and Self-Realization

Posted on 2016-11-24 By Joanna

One of the core concepts in Jungian psychology is the process of individuation. Jung contributed to our understanding of the unconscious processes and how they influence our personality, behaviour and relationship with the world. The individuation in its simplest terms is the process in which the unconscious material becomes integrated into our conscious mind and thus, is realized by the enrichement our personality and the manifestation of our potential.

Although originally Jung has proposed that this process accumulates until the so called mid-life crisis and then completes in the second half of our life, it is not to assume that nothing really happens prior to approaching the mid-life crisis. He suggested that the first half of our life is mostly about developing our ego and its functions which help us to mediate with the reality and in turn, support us in finding our place in the world, such as sorting out our career, relationships and becoming fully functional, independent individuals. The second half of our life is about evaluating our life prior to this point and developing any remaining personality traits in order to make us ‘whole’. Therefore, the individuation is an ongoing process from the day we are born till the end of our life.

Core concepts

The ego is thought to be the centre of our conscious mind - not the centre of our personality or the totality of the self. Although often the ego is thought to be something negative that could make the person selfish or narcissistic, it possesses many important functions to help us navigate through the reality, such as making decisions and taking action. It is thus neither good nor bad.

Whatever the ego doesn’t accept about itself, such as personality traits which we don’t wish to have (and yet still have them), it pushes it down to the unconscious. This material then contributes towards the development of our shadow - the centre of our personal unconscious. The shadow could be perhaps thought of as an alter ego, for it contains nearly everything that is in a direct opposition to the ego’s goals and if ignored, might even become an independent ‘entity’ in our mind. The more rigid or insecure the ego, the more powerful the shadow will be. A rather anecdotal example of this situation in which the shadow is nearly as powerful as the ego would be to experience certain ‘accidents’ - such as, we might be having an important meeting next week, but deeply inside we really don’t want to go. We might try to repress this feeling, forget about it, ractionalize it and yet, a day before the meeting we ‘suddenly’ get a flu. Surely you might say - unfortunate coincidence, but you might also consider the possibility of the shadow (a repressed wish to not participate in this meeting) leading you into circumstances in which you will catch the flu and never go to that meeting.

When it comes to the individuation, one of the goals is to avoid such ‘coincidences’ or ‘accidents’. One must be willing to get to know one’s shadow and accept it for what it is. And again, it is in the power of our ego to face wherever unpleasant traits, wishes, desires, feelings etc., we might be having. It is not an easy task because usually the ego wants to keep its territory - comfortable, free from contradictory information, free from anything that might undermine its goals and plans. And so we often become angry and defensive when we get criticised or when the current circumstances point to the truth uncomfortable for the ego to handle. We might think about ourselves as being noble and just but while we are not looking, or rather when our ego is not looking, we tyrannise those around us restricting their free will and expression. Because such behaviour is inconsistent with what the ego thinks of itself, the possibility of behaving unjustly will be easily dismissed.

However, since neither part of our mind is truly good or bad, same applies to our shadow. Apart of the negative traits it might be having, the shadow allows us to consider alternative perspectives and can help us to do things we might be feared of doing. Such is the potential of the shadow - to do the opposite of what the ego can or want to do.

In order to integrate the shadow, we need to be willing to go outside our comfort zone. This would include facing our anxiety about uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Regardless of what knowledge there is to gain about ourselves, it is always the anxiety with which the ego reacts to anything that can undermine its ‘omnipotence’. Thus the path is straight into whatever we are scared of.

The bridge

Just underneath the shadow, or perhaps alongside it, there is another ‘entity’ that we should befriend in order to successfully facilitate the process of individuation. The anima (feminine principle) in men, and the animus (masculine principle) in women is precisely the opposite of who we think we are. It is not to be mistaken with the shadow, since it doesn’t contain such personified traits as the shadow could be having, but it is more about the energy or motivation. Or in other words, in comparison to the shadow which our consciousness casts, the anima/animus stands just outside the consciousness and the shadow itself, and yet closely enough for our personality and consciousness to be influenced by it.

This archetype stands on the border between the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious - for it is both personal and collective. Personal, because it's very much related to our life, and collective because it would not develop without having a relation to the society.

The role of the anima/animus is to complement our ego and our personality with behaviours or traits that our conscious mind needs. For instance, it is a stereotype to assume that men should demonstrate certain traits which are thought to be masculine, such as strength or discipline - his anima thus, will provide him with all other traits which society ‘demands’ him to repress - such as being sensitive and emotional. The same mechanism is present in women and provide them with 'masculine' traits such as taking action or 'cold' judgment to supplement their sensitivity and empathy.

However, the stereotypes change, the society changes and thus our anima and animus change. Regardless of what society believes to be representative of the masculine and feminine, the anima/animus will be always something to be in a direct opposition to what we believe we are, we should do, and what society demands from us. For instance, a woman might be a housewife, often unable to make decisions for herself or perhaps never willing to pursue any career, hobby, or passion for herself because maybe she lacks confidence, maybe she prefers to take care of her house, or maybe there is some other reason that limits her potential. Her animus will possess all the traits needed for her to take a step and actualise her dreams - it will give her the strength to follow plans and take actions when necessary. But only if she is willing to integrate all personality traits associated with it into her personality - such as appropriate expression of anger, not allowing her emotions/conscience to throw her entirely out of balance or knowing when to take an action and when to stay still.

The neglected animus/anima will become destructive if entirely ignored. This often manifest itself in the mid-life crisis during which we get a last chance to properly integrate it into our unconscious. And thus what happens is that women who all their lives were passive and placed a higher value on caring about people about her while ignoring herself, suddenly pursues a path of a businesswoman, opens a company, neglect most of her relationships and spends most of her time in the office. Or there might be a man, successful CEO of some company who suddenly sells all his belongings and go for a trip around the world with his friends. Ignored anima/animus will lead you astray if your ego ‘cracks’ under their pressure - in both, a positive and a negative sense.

The integration of the anima/animus is not as easy as of the shadow, for it lies way, way deeper inside our unconscious. It requires our willingness to go against what we might think is required from us, or what’s appropriate for our age and gender. However - it is not there to take control over your mind. If we do allow these forces to take control over our conscious mind, we will then speak of something called ‘anima/animus possession’. Even if we never allow them to surface, try to cheat ourselves, and think that we don't possess any contradictory traits, these masculine/feminine principles will manifest themselves in our behaviour - hence the term 'possession' which points to doing things without a deeper realization of why or how we do them. Whatever we are not willing to acknowledge or understand will manifest itself in our behaviour and external circumstances, regardless whether we want it or not. It thus depends on the skills of our ego to remain centered and yet, open to alternatives.

The collective unconscious

The last step involves separating or distinguishing ourselves from the collective unconscious. By accustoming ourselves with the forces of anima/animus, we should be already familiar with the meaning of going against the current, abolishing outdated social stereotypes about gender roles, and freeing ourselves from the social pressure of ‘what should be’. To fully individuate, we must find out what beliefs or ideas or opinions truly belong to us and which have been implanted through the process of socialisation.

In short - we must stop following the herd and start being comfortable on our own as separated individuals. We must develop the courage to say ‘no’ when situation demands, and the courage to say ‘yes’ if our action or attention is needed.

The reason that this process is not so straightforward is because when we do something that either seems ‘wrong’ or ‘stupid’ or ‘weird’ to others, it will also, most likely, seem ‘ridiculous’ or ’strange’ to us. For some, the public opinion will be something to detach one’s self from. For others, it would be tons of own beliefs and assumptions that contribute to the cluster called ‘conscience’ or ‘anxiety’. For the individuation to be successful, one needs to pass this barrier and understand that his or her reaction (e.g. anxiety when feeling ostracised or shame when we realise that we have done something ‘weird’ etc.) are quite out of place and don’t reflect the actual reality - they happen just in their head.

Following the accumulated social norms, beliefs, stereotypes or opinions places a huge limit onto our personality development. That is not to say that society is wrong, that we should start acting wildly or become anti-social. Quite the contrary - once you develop a courage to see, you will notice that it is the society that breeds anti-social behaviours, for there is not many people to question what’s going on.

Lastly, separating or individuating from the collective unconscious does not equal the social isolation or a one-sided development of one's individuality. Quite contrary, Jung pointed out that only once this separation is achieved, one can connect to other people in the healthiest way - by approaching and perceving others in their own, total uniqueness, rather than as a projection of our expectations and fears.

The path

The path that leads to individuation is always through the unknown, through the darkness and anxiety. It might as well be about following this little spark in you, little voice that gives you impulses to understand things in a different way and which might provoke you to do things that you wouldn’t dare to do.

It is not about breaking rules, becoming selfish or narcissistic. Neither about separating one’s self from the world entirely. But rather, it’s about developing a healthy relationship with what’s around you. Just like in a healthy partnership, it is not about accusing one another or blaming them for offending us, neither about trying to ‘cut ourselves into squares’ in order to make other people like us. The quest is that of authenticity, emotional ownership and the ability to look at the world not just through the lenses of our ego and its comforts and desires, nor through the lenses of society and its “do-s and don’t-s”, but through the eyes of our true soul.