Individuate

My son, daughter, and me, a few years ago.

Love = the feeling of freedom and independence that comes with the action of individuating from our parents/family/ group.

Fear = the feeling of being dependent on, and the inability to be independent from our parents/family/group. This fear is nearly always in the background from within this facet, and looks like bravado.

In this Individuate facet of consciousness, we are driven to separate ourselves from our parents and proclaim to ourselves and to our world that we are independent people. The ego emerges in our psyche and begins this individuation process, in small bursts at first. Think about a three-year-old child, proclaiming loudly: “I do it myself!” Even though the process of individuation occurs in every area of life throughout our lives, we often work especially hard at this when we’re teenagers.

During our teenage years, this work is fraught with potential danger because our prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed,[1] and that means we function primarily from the feeling part of the brain until we’re about twenty-five. The process of reasoning and the understanding that we could die is a function of the prefrontal cortex. We don’t realize that our actions could have life-threatening consequences for ourselves and for others. Is it any wonder that many of us look back at ourselves as teenagers with amazement that we actually lived through those years?

We can think of this facet of consciousness as describing all of the following:

  • It is a facet of human development that we continuously go through, in every aspect of life, throughout our lives; and because of that, it is also
  • A facet in which an aspect of ourselves can either participate or be stuck, while the dominant part of us lives from within a different facet of consciousness;
  • And can be the dominant facet of consciousness expressed by a group, while individual members may be functioning from within another.

As a facet of childhood development, our thinking is egocentric. We want what we want and we want it now!  We act on impulse rather than forethought, and are unable to conjure up what the consequences of our actions may be.  Because we’re unable to imagine what might happen as a result of our actions, punishment and threats don’t work to control or teach us. Any difficulties or failures we encounter are always someone else’s fault. We don’t have feelings of guilt or remorse because we don’t accept blame or responsibility for anything that goes wrong.

Here are some great examples of the Individuate facet of consciousness.

I came home from work one day when my son was thirteen years old and found him sitting outside on the front porch swing. His boom box was blaring Heavy Metal music as loud as the setting would go. He was having his kind of fun, with no regard for anyone else at all. I’m sure the neighbors were glad when I returned home and turned the music down. I remember doing the same thing when I was that age. I just used different equipment and different music—a record player and a vinyl 45 of “The Duke of Earl” blasted to the max when I was babysitting for my nieces.

Many of us experience this facet of consciousness in more subtle ways. I remember beginning the process of individuating at school first. I rebelled against the interminable boredom of repetitive worksheets on which we were supposed to practice math concepts. I would write any number that came into my head as an answer, turn the worksheet in to the teacher in minutes, and move on to the more interesting business of doing art. I already knew how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, and saw no reason to actually practice the skill by doing the problems. It was a small rebellious act, but it infuriated and frustrated my poor teachers. I always passed to the next grade, but no one was ever happy with the work I did. I also rebelled on the coloring worksheets. I never followed the directions; never stayed inside the lines—they were boring too. Instead, I used the brightest colors in the crayon box, and made my own design. No one was ever happy with that either.

At home, I rebelled by lying to my parents. I felt that I couldn’t tell the whole truth and be able to do what I wanted to do. Once I told Mom and Dad that a friend’s parent would bring us home from the Roller Dome at the end of the evening, when in truth, I was going by myself and no one was lined up to bring me home. I had an extra dollar, above what I needed for entrance and skate rental, so my plan was to call a taxi and have the taxi take me as close to home as a dollar would go. I planned to walk the rest of the way.

Mom dropped me off at the Roller Dome, (because lie number two was that my friend was going to meet me there). I loved to roller skate! And I loved to dance! Most of my lying rebellion was done to enable me to do one or the other. At the end of that particular lying-event-evening, I called a taxi. When I got in the cab, I told the taxi driver that I had one dollar, told him where I lived, and asked him to take me as close to the address as he could, and I would walk the rest of the way home. The Roller Dome was about four miles from my house and it was around midnight. (Can’t you hear him swearing under his breath?) I was just a skinny little eleven-year-old, who had never taken a taxi before and had no idea how it worked. He took me to within four blocks of my house, and I walked the rest of the way home. I am grateful for his generosity to this day. In case you’re wondering, I did get caught once in a while, and then would be grounded for weeks, sometimes months!  I definitely deserved it.

My daughter’s individuation process was very subtle. When she was growing up, we lived in northern Indiana, and the winters there can be very cold. When she left the house to walk to school, I would make sure that she was all bundled up. The minute after she walked out the door, she would unzip, unbutton, remove her hat and mittens and stuff them into coat pockets, and sometimes remove her coat entirely. She would claim that she was too hot, but I think there was rebellion in that gesture. It’s the only example that I could think of in which she completely rejected what I wanted her to do.

My daughter believes that her individuation process happened most profoundly when she chose to study marine biology after high school. It meant that we had to move her from the Midwest to one of the only available programs, thousands of miles away on the coast of California. Away from her parents, she created life in the way that she wanted to live it and flourished.

I’ve talked to friends about this individuation process and asked them to share their stories with me. One friend told me that when she was growing up, she never, ever rebelled against the wishes of her parents or teachers. She is the oldest child in the family and was continuously told by her parents that she must set a good example for her younger siblings. My friend said she never rebelled in school either. Her desire was to be perfect—for her parents, her teachers, and herself. The domestication process[2] was so thorough and intense for her that she remained identified with the family group, moving from her parent’s house to her husband’s house without ever having rebelled against or about anything. That didn’t happen until she was forty years old. She undomesticated herself, individuated, divorced, and began living life in the way she preferred.

The work of individuating happens throughout life, in large and small ways. It isn’t a process that is locked in to the hormone pounding teenage years.

We can recognize an aspect of ourselves that might be stuck in this facet of consciousness, by examining where we want instant gratification. The behavior might be expressed in shopping or gambling, even though the credit card balances are already high. We might buy that new diet pill that promises huge weight loss in short time periods.

Another cue we can use to recognize whether we might be stuck in Individuate is when we blame someone else for something that goes wrong. We can’t correct a problem if we don’t take responsibility for our part in having created it.

One Action to Take Today to Explore Consciousness:

Are there any times that you want instant gratification and act on that? Think about one of those times and decide to make a conscious choice to put planning into the circumstance and extend gratification to a later date. Think about any experience in which you’ve placed blame on someone else. Give power back to yourself by identifying your part in what happened. Notice what your body feels like when you blame. Notice what your body feels like when you take responsibility for your part.


[1] There is a multitude of research available in neuroscience to support this claim. If you would like to learn more about this, a cursory web search on prefrontal cortex development will give you as much information as you would like.

[2] To learn more about the “domestication process” that we all undergo in varying degrees when we’re children, read The Mastery of Love, by Don Miguel Ruiz. “Domestication” is also a concept employed by Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a term he uses to describe a systematic societal process of teaching oppressed people to internalize their inferiority in order to maintain social control in a hierarchy.


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