You may be familiar with Henry David Thoreau’s saying, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Thoreau metaphorically advises one to ‘be your self.’ However, what does it really mean to step to one’s own music?
Psychologist Abraham Maslov used the term self-actualization to describe the final level of psychological development. At this stage, the full personal potential of the individual takes place. Carl Jung offered the concept of individuation as a psychological process that makes one truly an individual – a unique, genuine and passionate being.
Author Murray Stein explained individuation as “the inner union of pieces of the psyche that were divided and split off by earlier developmental demands and processes.” By demands and processes, Stein means childhood wounding in which parts of who we truly are were repressed into the unconscious. During individuation, our outward persona of who we think we are is introduced to our repressed shadow material. The task is to meet, take ownership and reintegrate these ‘bad’ or undervalued parts into our being.
Individuation involves separating one self from conformity and from the collective. Thoreau stated, “Let everyone mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.” Indeed, individuation promotes choosing from an internal reference point rather than relying upon the collective norms of what one ‘should,’ ‘has to’ or ‘must’ do. As one detaches from mother, father, family and society there is a loss of dependency which results in personal suffering.
Jung suggested one “must offer a ransom in place of himself, that is, he must bring forth values which are an equivalent substitute for his absence in the collective personal sphere.” The price is painfully feeling and accepting that one is truly alone. The reward is moving towards living a life larger than one’s ego or the collective norms. We end up living a life more in tune with who we truly are. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu stated, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
This becoming who we truly are meant to be is living according to your true potential. Jung pondered, “What is it, in the end, that induces a man to go his own way and to rise out of unconscious identity with the mass as out of a swathing mist?” His answer was vocation: “an irrational factor that destines a man to emancipate himself from the herd and from its well-worn paths.” As writer Ralph Waldo Emerson advised, “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”.
Often people think individuation is self-absorbing, ego gratifying and selfish. However, it is about becoming a mature adult, responsible for your actions. As we break free from family and societal beliefs that once bound us, we are able to offer to others and community our genuine self. As Jung stated, “Individuation does not shut one out from the world, but gathers the world to itself.”
Next week we’ll take a closer look at vocation.