In Jungian Psychology, the word Individuation refers to a process of development or change that takes place within the mind of a patient. It is in fact the main goal of psychoanalytical therapy and the purpose of every technique, theory and idea used by C.G. Jung to help his patients achieve their goals in therapy. The main idea underlying the process of individuation is that, from time to time, and under certain conditions, we are likely to lose grip of our self-understanding. When this happens, it is often the case that we simultaneously lose touch with the roots of our motivations.
Throughout essays, writings and work, Jung gives highly detailed descriptions of the dynamic structure and theory of Individuation. For the purposes of this paper, I am interested only in pointing out a few key points made by Jung about the area of analytical psychology. Instead of discussing Jung’s ideas in a strictly reductive or constructive manner, I have undertaken to explain them differently, in my own words with appropriate references included.
All of our meaningful experiences in life are psychological in nature. We all develop complexes based on the associations we make between external objects and ourselves or between our ego-consciousness and our perceptions of things that are unconscious (or only semi-conscious).
The individuation process is concerned first with separating and understanding the motivations of an individual from their neurotic or psychotic manifestations; the intrusion of unconscious material into an individual’s conscious attention, when these intrusions are troublesome, paralyzing, or expressed in an excessively negative manner, must be addressed and dealt with.
The second goal of Individuation is the integration of new or improved self-knowledge with everyday life.
As Jung states in a lecture first published roughly 100 years ago, “Analytical treatment could be described as a readjustment of psychological attitude achieved with the help of a doctor."[i] The obvious implication of this idea is that psychoanalytical therapy functions as a partnership between doctor and patient which purpose is the liberation of the individual from a state of self-imposed, if inescapable, psychological dysfunction.
The concept of Individuation deserves our respect because it demands that we respect ourselves. We all face challenges in life that present themselves in a variety of ways. We associate to these challenges differently based on our personalities, life experiences, personal histories, present states of mind, etc. Each of us goes through a highly individualized mental process in meeting with these challenges, and collectively we deal with them in ways that are specific to us as individual human beings.
Jung expands on this idea by outlining some basic concepts about attitude and personality in relation to the individual and society:
There are, of course, extremely durable collective attitudes which permit the solution of typical conflicts. A collective attitude allows the individual to fit into society without friction… but the patient’s difficulty consists precisely in the fact that his individuation problem cannot be fitted into a collective norm.[ii]
Because we are humans and share collectively in a common store of potential experiences and ideas, the way we end up dealing with the challenges we face as individuals are often similar in not identical to each other. However, this does not disprove the fact that individuals do not experience these challenges uniquely. The mental/psychological processes that we first go through in meeting the challenges must also be experienced in ways that are specific to who we are as individuals. This one of the main premises of Individuation theory: in order for our personalities to develop, we must, before attempting anything else, learn to tell the difference between what belongs to us personally (values, beliefs, attitudes, conceptions, etc.), what belongs to our environment, (social pressures, societal institutions, the motivations and behaviors or friends or family members, etc.) Once this has occurred, an individual, or patient of psychoanalytical psychotherapy, will most likely be able to see more clearly the relationship he has to the influences of his personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious as well.
When we encounter challenges of a specific nature, (for instance, the contents of our unconscious psyches, archetypes, new experiences with the collective unconscious, the process of personal development, dreams, symbols, etc.) we react to them through an infinitely complex and yet nearly effortless task of information processing and redistribution. However, if we subscribe to Jung’s view that the archetype called self includes both inner and outer worlds (subjective and objective realities).[iii] Whether these forms are of a concrete, scientific in nature or more in the realm of psychic realities and personal truths is beside the point.
What may begin in the mind as an “empty and purely formal [or static] structure, nothing but a facultas praeformandi,”[iv] takes on a perceivable form when it enters into the light of conscious attention. This happens to be the same manner in which non-psychological events present themselves to us, thereby becoming experience and becoming psychological in nature. If a sudden event takes place in an otherwise normal environment under normal conditions, we have no more control over the fact that it has happened than we would over troublesome unconscious contents that have affected our ego-consciousness. We have no more means or chance of preventing an unpredictable event than we have at being able to control the contents of the personal or collective unconscious. We must simply react to what has happened, whether this event has taken place in our minds, in the street, a warzone, a prison, or any other imaginable place.
The process by which unconscious psychological contents achieve their perceivable forms is itself unconscious, and although theories exist to validly explain it, they seem at best to be inconclusive. It could be argued that our knowledge of the unconscious aspects of the human psyche is comparable to our knowledge of such things as space exploration, astronomy, theoretical mathematics, or physics. We can, up to a certain point, make definite statements based on our observances about these subjects. Our understanding of them, however, is far from complete. Jung’s theory of archetypes, a collective unconscious, and the personal unconscious point to a fact that is somewhat staggering when we take notice of its implications; we know only a small portion about the mechanisms driving forms and structures that allow our minds (and ourselves as living organisms) to function.
Yet, paradoxically, our conscious attention and ego would usually suggest the opposite: that we are very much in control, at least of our own minds, and we generally understand the world and our environments well enough to survive in them without too much difficulty. To a certain this is true; a lizard, for instance, needs nothing more than a keen survival instinct (comparable to ego-consciousness in humans) to be successful at what it does. However, with the evolution of human intelligence came human psychology, which for any number of reasons adopted a form so complex that, under most circumstances, only a small part of it would be needed in order to address the issues of survival and social functioning.
I would like now to refer back to a statement I made at the start of this article. That Jung’s theories have the potential to be applied in contexts and to subjects other than psychotherapy. It seems clear that the experiences we have within the privacy of our own minds (witnessing archetypes, recognizing symbols, dreaming) insofar as they involve the task of sense-based information processing and perception, are very similar to the experiences we have in relation to external events, other individuals, and the great forces of society and culture. If a person were to dream that he came face to face with a ferocious beast in the wilderness, his psychological state would likely—though not necessarily—share more than a few characteristics with the experience of the same event if it were to take place in a person’s “objective” reality (aka the “real world”). If it came upon someone to dive into treacherous ocean waters to save a shipmate from drowning, the rescuer might well experience some or all aspects of the individuation process when he has had an adequate chance to reflect on his actions.
At this point, I would like to add some background information about the unconscious and collective unconscious (objective psyche) in general. Both concepts, both things, are integrally related to the process of Individuation. The process by which unconscious contents achieve their perceivable forms is itself unknown, or at best known in theory. For instance, in dreams it is only in rare instances that we are lucid enough to conjure the specific images and situations we wish to perceive. Therefore, we are often taken aback or possessed by the contents that rise up from the depths our unconscious psyches when these disrupt the flow of conscious processes that we had previously taken for granted as our worldviews.
Challenges of this nature may come to us when we least expect it, or we may simply be fascinated enough to go on seeking them out on our own through practices like meditation or active imagination. In other cases, me may repress some or all aspects of these challenges to our reality-based egocentric worldview and refuse them, and consequently refuse ourselves the opportunity for development and growth.
When this occurs, more often than not, repressed contents will remain persistent in their strivings for expression and attention from the conscious mind. Even if an individual succeeds in developing a non-regressive means of dealing with bothersome unconscious contents, the task is more or less pointless if he does so only to avoid working harder to repress them; that is, if he does not, in any way, endeavor to understand the content’s meaning for him as an individual.
The individuation process dictates that when unconscious contents come demanding conscious recognition, the must be taken seriously, and they must be addressed. Furthermore, we must attempt to understand them, or at the very least, in some form or fashion, we must integrate all or some of these contents into our ego-consciousness, and into our overall personal awareness in order to effectively deal with the challenges we face, grow and develop as individuals.
[i] Transcendent Function, 46
[ii] Transcendent Function, 46
[iii] Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9, I, pp79f.
[iv] Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 393.