We each come to this earth to realize our fullest potential, giving ourselves to this world in the unique and special way that only we can. We are inimitable. Yet most of us only ever express merely a sliver of our full selves.
Because of social conditioning, wounds, traumas, and life experiences, we have each traded away or lost parts of ourselves, slowly slipping from full color into monochrome. To get along, avoid conflict, be liked, or be included, we cast off the parts of us that might draw negative attention.
For example, at one time or another, we might have:
Given away bodily sovereignty in exchange for approval or safety
Dialed down our convictions in exchange for power or money
Toned down our uniqueness in order to be accepted in a group
Kept our opinions to ourselves in the interest of keeping the peace
Not advocated for someone in need to avoid becoming a target
Let go of a hobby, interest, or talent because others didn’t see the value
Pretended to like something because everyone else did
Followed a life path for the wrong reasons (simplicity, money, expectations)
Oftentimes, we don’t notice that we’re losing our full color because it’s rarely done in full consciousness. Instead, we soften our power and forget our values in gradual, nearly imperceptible ways until suddenly, often deep into midlife, we look back and remember all the things we used to love and believe in that we no longer invest in.
At some point, this loss of ourselves (often called “soul loss”) leads to depression, anxiety, and physical pain—all signs that it’s time to call ourselves home.
What is Individuation?
To our modern ears, “individuation” can sound like the practice of becoming independent, or a movement toward separation and isolation. But actually, individuation, a term which Carl Jung coined in 1921, is the process of becoming more whole, leading to a life of greater authenticity and connection with others.
Individuation is not about trying on one personality after the next until one fits right. It’s not about looking to the culture for validation or suggestions, either. Individuation is the process of releasing all the false wrappings we’ve adopted in order to please others, keep ourselves safe from judgment, or ward off suspicion about who we really are. It is a practice of radical acceptance of who we are and the aspects of ourselves that make us original.
Individuation is a process of recollection (or, we could say re-collection) and becoming a whole, unique individual once again.
The Two Phases of Individuation
There are two main steps to the practice of individuation, which can be repeated again and again throughout our lifetimes. As with any consciousness-raising practice, there is no end to this journey, but merely a deepening into it. So, think of these steps as two halves of a circle that feed and support each other.
The First Phase: Undoing Ourselves
The first half of the individuation phase is the separation phase. This part of the process requires us to separate from the many identities, labels, roles, and ideas we have about who we are.
As we grow up, we try on many different types of personalities. We’re discovering who we are by saying "I am this, I am that.”
By the time we’re adults, we are a synthesis of this patchwork personality that, for better or worse, has gotten us this far. Some of the pieces are original to us. Some are borrowed, mimicked, or learned behaviors. But we can’t know for sure until we separate them from ourselves and from each other and investigate more fully.
This first step is to separate and sort out what part of our personality belongs to us uniquely and what does not. Now is the time to dis-identify with the roles, labels, titles, or attributes we’ve collected by saying, “I am not this; I am not that.”
In this step, we break everything down, put it all in a pile, and begin the sorting process. To be clear, this part of the process is not about sorting good from bad, nor is it about letting our egos pick and choose from among the available options. Rather, we’re sorting truth from untruth, genuineness from pretense, and us from others. To undergo this work properly, we must ask difficult questions of ourselves, because as we’ve likely fooled others over the years, we’ve fooled ourselves, too.
As an example: You might initially believe that your “life-of-the-party” personality is really who you are at your core. Only with deep inquiry might you discover that you picked up that behavior because it rewarded you with attention. Just because something seems to come naturally doesn’t mean it’s natural to us. We humans are very good at acting, pretending, and mimicking one another, and we might very well have difficulty remembering (or accepting) that these behaviors do not really belong to us.
Or, we might be just as eager to denounce the parts of ourselves we don’t like so much—perhaps a sharp-tongue or a tendency toward gossip—when actually, these are parts of our shadow that we need to claim in order to tame.
By the end of this stage, we will get as close to “nothing” as we possibly can—a state alchemists call prima materia, or “first matter.” Think of it like this: You’re becoming the primordial soup that a caterpillar melts into before beginning to reform into a butterfly.
The Second Phase: Becoming Ourselves
So, you obviously can’t go about living your life if you remain primordial soup. At some point, you have to start putting the pieces of yourself back together into something new.
Not only will you pick up the pieces you’ve discovered are truly you from the previous stage, but you will begin searching for neglected or suppressed parts of your personality or identity that have been long forgotten and need to be retrieved—a process which is often called soul retrieval. These parts might come through as archetypes that appear to you in dreams, or they will present as people you encounter or characters you deeply connect with in movies or books.
For example: Maybe you meet someone who is a natural, charismatic leader. It might be easy to say to yourself that you don’t have that capacity. But in truth, the fact that you noticed it in another signals that you have it within yourself. Now is the time to call it home, nurture it, and see what happens. The more pieces of ourselves we retrieve, the more whole we become.
It is time to reenter the world while staying as true to your new self as possible while resisting the urge to fall back into old habits. Yes, you are that new butterfly, but your wings are still wet. Take your time.
Individuation is a cyclical process that never ends. At some point, you will come to feel that it’s time to go through the breakdown and inquiry stage again. This is not a failure, but rather the natural cycle of being human. Each time you awaken, you do so with more consciousness, more awareness, more connection, and more joy.
Explore more about the process of "finding yourself."