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Individuation: with much help from James Hollis

This discussion of Jung's foundational concept of Individuation focusses on how our relationship with ourselves effects and affects our relationship with others.

I will also be talking about guilt, betrayal, loneliness, depression, and anxiety in relation to Individuation.

Much of my inspiration for this discussion comes from James Hollis and his book, Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal places. When I quote directly from him, I have provided page numbers. This book, as well as other equally brilliant texts by James Hollis, are available from Inner City Books in Toronto.

All of us have, to some degree or other, the impulse towards individuation. Individuation was the core of Jung’s work. Yet individuation has nothing to do with Jung specifically. What I mean is that we find the notion of individuation portrayed in multiple areas.

For instance, if you read the Gospel of Thomas you will be reading about Individuation. If you watch the Wizard of Oz you will be going through Dorothy’s process of Individuation. “Somewhere over the rainbow” turns out to be in her own home, in her own home town, within the particular circumstances of her life. It is an inner realization, not dependent upon outer circumstances. If you watch the series "Judge John Deed", you will see the portray of a person who is, for the most part, individuating

The Hero’s Journey, whether the hero be Luke Skywalker or the Knights of the Round Table, is an archetype of Individuation. The hero’s quest is the cultural paradigm for the growth of society, through the making of meaning by individuals. The hero’s quest has three dynamics; leaving home, maybe being cast out of society, and thus departing the old ego-concept; being alone and enduring the personal enlargement of consciousness though suffering; achieving a new place, a new home, a new kingdom even, from which one also eventually departs.

Individuation requires a heroism, which cannot be seen from the outside. Remember, however, that a triumphant return is also part of the story. Patience, perseverance, devotion, self-sacrifice: these are demands of individuation which, if not fulfilled, are the cause of neurosis. Put another way, neurosis is an indication that we are resisting the Individuation process.

If we have a very smooth passage through life, and find an easy place within the culture, and accept the collective myths, then we will be very unlikely to Individuate. Most individuators suffer at least one terrible wounding in life, which opens them up to a larger potential, which is not available in the Collective values - there is no legitimised place within collective values. Sometimes these wounds are suffered in childhood, sometimes later in life, or, of course, both.

If we adhere to collective values, and this includes any agreed-upon values in culture, religion, medicine, psychology, the law, then we are adhering to credo or belief and the weight of the culture. Merely changing one set of beliefs for another, even more enlightened set of beliefs, is still a credo pursuit, and is not about individuation. If we are Individuating, then we are forced to follow what Jung called libido or life-energy, which is the impulse to life and opening up to something else. Libido is in effect one’s God. Libido brings with it courage to stand against tradition and against the monolithic system. In this territory one’s own experience is not only valid, but introduces the possibility of living one’s own life authentically with high spiritual and creative potentialities.

Often people who individuate are confronted with a fate that they cannot change. This predicament becomes the food for individuation, and provides the work of the individual to find meaning and purpose within circumstances, which the collective culture may judge as being deficient, or risky in some way. It is easy for those who are enmeshed in the culture to look down on the travails of individuating persons, and judge them by credo standards. Sometimes individuating is a messy business. It is usually invisible to others, because it is an inner rather than outer process. It is about living an authentic life. It is about making decisions based on your own assessment of a situation, not based on social pressure or historical precedent.

When does individuation begin? Some children or very young people are already individuating, but most of us come to the process in mid-life, when we have already established a career, a family, and a place in the world. An outwardly stable life, with adequate financial support and a place in the culture, is a great foundation for the arduous work of individuation. Some people are so enthralled by their journey through their dreams or analytical work, that they are tempted to give up their jobs or do something that will give them more time to focus on their inner work. Almost always this would be a mistake.

I have had very elderly clients who came to me as a result of their urgent need to put their inner life in order, to do the transformational work. They have been wonderful to work with because they know they are at the 11th hour, and have no time to waste to subject themselves to an honest scrutiny. And indeed we need our wits about us, we need good-enough health, to do the transformational work. If we ask the serious questions early we can enter death naturally. The ultimate test is, “What will serve us in the hour of our death?” Dr Barbara Davies was the personal assistant of Marie-Louise von Franz in Zurich for 12 years. Dr Davies says she learned many things from von Franz, but she learned most from the manner of her death, through the absolute embodying of individuation, which shone through every moment of von Franz’s long dying process. What Dr Davies learned most from von Franz’s Individuation was not dependent upon the nod of approval from the father, ie Zurich, or even directly the work of Jung. It was not dependent on the big organization where power and other complexes confuse the work and the workers, but grew from her own inner process. Some of the best Jungians that I know have not been trained in Zurich, and they retain a freshness that hasn’t become a dogma.

In Jungian terms, individuation is very simple: it is the movement from the ego to the Self. To be oriented to the Self, rather than driven by the ego. Most of us only truly grow when our ego’s haughty power has been brought down. What is the Self? The Self is the entirety of the psyche, including what we could call the unconscious and the divine aspects or higher consciousness. The Self gives a more comprehensive view of life, sees things from all sides.

By nature most of us learn to adapt to situations and to other people. But individuation is against all adaptation to others. So individuation is accompanied by what Jung calls “a tragic guilt”! Because we are no longer adapting to others and pleasing them! Jung says the way the guilt of Individuation can be expiated is through service to humanity. This is very different to servitude to another human being, or the culture at large?

Jung, in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, says, “The person who cannot create individually won values has to consciously embrace collective values. Only to the extent that a man creates values can he and may he individuate. Every further step in individuation creates new guilt and necessitates new expiation. Hence individuation is possible only so long as substitute, or personal values, are produced. Individuation is exclusive adaptation to inner reality. And what is offered up in expiation for the guilt of not adhering to the collective values, is contribution to the outer world or the collective.(page 451)

James Hollis gives us more clues about this guilt, when he says that a person who individuates can never claim innocence, either personally or collectively. So, part of the development of the individual is the appropriate acknowledgement of guilt, which is to say the acceptance of responsibility for the consequences of one’s choices, however unconscious one was at the time. (Swamplands, p 24). As part of the human race, we also bear a collective guilt, for the collective decisions. We are part of the society that created the Holocaust, that treats refugees in a certain way, or is responsible for the stolen generations. As a child, perhaps about 7 years old, I was puzzled by my deep sense of guilt and shame around the attitudes of my family and church to the people at the aboriginal missions of Yalata and Koonibba in South Australia. Though the attitude expressed was presumed to be benevolent, to me it was condescending and felt wrong. As I was writing this, I checked that history and memory matched and went to the website for these missions, and once again felt a deep sense of guilt and shame at what was done at that time, early 1950’s. Each era has a quickened consciousness around certain issues, and what felt right to my parent’s generation did not feel right to me. This small example indicates to me how early the seeds of individuation were growing in me, and it was painful to me at the time that I was not safely enclosed within the collective view. I wonder too, about the children of today, and their sensibilities and quickening of conscience around issues that might escape us as the older generations preoccupied with our own zeitgeist.

I don’t know which is easier to bear - collective guilt, or the personal guilt of acknowledging and accepting that we have made some very poor choices, and suffer the consequences, and worse still, others have to suffer the consequences as well. But both forms of guilt are part of individuation. James Hollis says that it is inevitable that we have these guilts - they are part of the human condition – and an essential movement of individuation is that we practice self-forgiveness. He says, ”learning to forgive oneself is critical but most difficult. The forgiven self is freer to move forward, armed with the enhancement of consciousness, which makes life so much richer. But such forgiveness of self, with sincere contrition, symbolic recompense and then release, is rare. How difficult, but how necessary, it is to internalize Paul Tillich’s definition of grace: ‘Accept that you are accepted, despite the fact that you are unacceptable’. Such amazing grace, such release of soul to move deeper into the world”. (Swamplands, p33)

What about the guilt of having to break promises and commitments, because the individuating self requires we leave behind even things of great value? As James Hollis puts it, “many have stayed in the most abusive relationships because of what they call guilt, unable to understand that they, too, have a calling to their own separate journey. Such a person is obliged to live out this calling even while bearing the burden of the consequences of guilt. The conscientious objector is another example. History may forgive the transgressor, says James Hollis, but society seldom does, and often the individual cannot either.” (Swamplands, 34) I think of whistle blowers here, as well.

James Hollis takes up many of the dark experiences of life as movements towards Individuation. Another example is betrayal - how can betrayal lead us towards the depths of individuation? “To be in relationship, to invest in it trustfully, is to presuppose the capacity for betrayal as well. If we do not invest at this risk-laden depth, then genuine intimacy is precluded. The paradox of the trust/betrayal dyad, then, is that each is presupposed by the other. Without trust, no depth; without depth, no true betrayal. (Swamplands, p48)

“Betrayal stings us towards individuation. If the betrayal is of our existential naivete, we are driven towards the embrace of a greater wisdom of the universe whose dialectic seems to be attachment and loss; if the betrayal is our dependency, we are driven to face where we long to remain infantile; if the betrayal is one of conscious being towards another, we are driven to suffer and embrace the polarities which are found not only in the betrayer, but in ourselves as well. In every case, if we do not remain behind, stuck in recriminations, we are enlarged, more complex, more conscious”. (Swamplands, 50). More individuated.

“The most bitter pill in betrayal, then, may be our grudging recognition, often years later, that we ourselves were part of the collusive ballet which led in time to betrayal. If we can swallow such a bitter pill, we will have a much larger sense of our shadow. We will not always like what we are summoned to acknowledge. As Jung said, ‘the experience of the Self is often a defeat for the ego.’(C.G.Jung Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, par.778). In describing his own descent into his unconscious in the second decade of last century, Jung tells us how he was forced repeatedly to say, ‘Here is another thing you did not know about yourself.’ (C.G.Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p183). But from such a bitter herb does much consciousness evolve”. (Swamplands, p50).

James Hollis goes on to say, “Jung’s concept of individuation, the idea that the purpose of life is to serve the mystery through becoming an individual, is a profound contribution to our time”. Individuation obliges an ongoing dialogue between ego and the Self. Out of their exchange the splits of the sundered psyche may partially heal. A functional definition of the Self, then, would be the archetype of order within us. That is to say, the Self is an activity of psyche whose function is to further the development of the individual. The Self is both purpose and container. Psyche or soul, then, is simply our word for the mysterious process through which we experience the movement towards meaning.” (Swamplands, p12)

Individuation mostly comes to us through processes that make us feel insecure, because the ego is no longer in command. It is in the swamplands of the soul, where we least want to sojourn, that we discover depth.

James Hollis speaks about the loneliness of individuation. He says “the more we are enmeshed with others, the less differentiated, the less individuated we are; the less individuated, the less we serve the greater purpose of the cosmos for which we were so mysteriously generated. To regress, to seek togetherness, to abstain from the journey towards one’s fuller self, is not only soul-crime, it is denial of the universe itself”. (Swamplands, p60) These are strong words! To not engage in the individuation process is soul-crime! And denial of the universe itself! Perhaps we get some sense of the nobility and necessity of the journey. For Jung the process of individuation was solitary, and lonely. He said: “The consequence of my resolve (to follow the inner images) and my involvement with things which neither I nor anyone else could understand, was an extreme loneliness”. (C.G.Jung Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Page 194.)

The Shadow and the opposites are fuel for Individuation. In regard to the opposites it is human nature in an unrefined or undeveloped form, to take sides. This is played out in football team allegiances, political parties, and styles of psychological inquiry! Fundamentalisms of every kind espouse one view at the expense of another. Nietzsche escaped the collision of the opposites by going mad. Taking the high moral ground is an example of how we escape our own personal opposites. By taking sides we have a lopsided, unbalanced attitude, and the psyche does not tolerate one-sidedness. All of the psychological functions are represented in our approach to individuation, that is feeling, thinking, sensate and intuition. This is one of the requirements of individuation itself, that we not be one sided, that we develop the inferior function(s).

The truth is always more complex than one view. Our dreams often inform us of the side (or function) we have rejected, or ignored. We often feel more comfortable when we project certain values, which we abhor, onto others. Jung said that the first step towards individuation is to withdraw our projections, and claim these unwanted values back. The unwanted values, or rejected aspects of self, constitute the Shadow.

Individuation begins with awareness of one’s own shadow. The shadow is that which does not fit in with the laws and regulations of conscious life. The shadow contains the inferior or fourth function, which acts autonomously towards consciousness and cannot be harnessed by the conscious mind. One has to admit to tendencies, which are in the shadow and allow them some measure of realization, of living them out. One then goes against the conscious persona, and self-loathing may well result. But without self-reliance, individuation is unthinkable.

If all goes well, Individuation is harmonious, but it cannot tolerate self-deception. Much dream and analytic work is about self-deception. In Individuation, the Self becomes that which we are oriented towards or answerable to, rather than the ego, the collective, our professional body, or any outer authority. The Self requires that we establish our own ethics, and the ready-made ones, no matter where we get them from, are not sufficient.

The dictum of the Delphic oracle, “know thyself,” is the key. By raising the personal unconscious to consciousness, the Individuation process makes the subject aware of things of which he is generally aware of in others, but never himself. In this sense one joins the human race, by discovering that one really is like others, and not exempt in some way. Mostly, however, knowing one’s self entails a process of differentiation - from other, the world, the collective, into an awareness of being an essentially unique individual. One also allows the other this uniqueness. Withdrawal of projections, expectations, attributions and judgments is a result. Measuring others by collective mores is no longer possible. We want to know them for themselves. We cannot seek for validation from the collective, because we will no longer find it. Or if we do, we are in danger of “loss of soul”. Neither can we allow ourselves to merely imitate others. This is why the creative arts of all kinds, from gardening to cooking, to painting to writing, become essential accompaniments to individuation.

Individuation is not a process of the intellect. Jung realized the conflict between his professorship, and the world of the intellect, and his own inner imperatives, and when he was required by his own process to follow the inner, he had to leave the outer, and at this point he left his work at the university. Often we have to make a conscious decision to follow the inner, and reject the outer involvements which are too expensive for us. If the individuation process has been delayed, or is very strong, and if we have not made the conscious choice to follow the inner, the psyche, via the unconscious, might even impose a period of inwardness upon us, through, for instance serious illness or accident This is what Jung meant when he said that when we do not make peace with the requirement of our life, Fate intervenes. The so-called midlife crisis is often, if not always, a call to Individuation, if we can recognize it.

The archetypes of religion are some of the strongest influences upon our conscious and unconscious minds, regardless of which country we live in. We project upon religion, whether we are or have been “true believers” or are “lapsed” or atheists. It is useful for us to know what we are projecting and why. Jung suggested that we have to be humble enough to go into the religions of our culture to make this inquiry.

There are some factors within any religious tradition, which assist the individuation process, and some which mitigate against the individuation process and we need to know the difference. Religion catches our instinct toward the sacred, the Grail myth, and can represent effectually or misrepresent disastrously what we are working towards, that is the direct relationship with the Self in a personal way. We can examine the Christian religion in such a way that we understand the psychology behind it - we can even say it was the psychology of previous times. What we once took literally as metaphysical truth, we can now apply symbolically. Indeed, that which we were once enslaved by when we took it literally, as symbol can set us free.

The loss of gnosis, that is the direct knowledge of ultimate things, weighs more heavily than is generally admitted. Gnosis refers to the sense of absolute certainty of knowing something of great value as a result of experience, and of being unshakeable in this confidence; Heidegger refers to this as “taking to mind and heart and keeping at heart.” Such knowing might not be expressed in logical, discursive terms.

Individuation requires an engagement with the unconscious, and this mostly comes to us through our dreams. The unconscious is a “stream of lava, and the heat of its fires reshaped my life,” according to Jung. (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p199). Barbara Davies, in a recent letter to me said “One thing nobody can take away from you is your dreams and their messages. My experience in difficult times is, that the unconscious is the real support we need.”

Much analytic work centres about achieving a reasonable dialogue with the unconscious. The process of dealing with the unconscious in an ethical sense is one of dealing with either a minority or majority that has equal rights, equal value. Analytic work is a microcosm of Iife, or the crucible in which individuation is conducted. At first the analysand adapts to the personality of the analyst, that is through the importance of the relationship itself. Ultimately Individuation is not adaptive, because “the demand for individuation is against all adaptation to others” (CW 18, para. 1091-1094). Put another way, conformity must be broken with, and thus guilt arises.

Values are won by the conquest of inner realities. Stepping into solitude, into the cloister of the inner self. Whoever cannot do this must re-establish collective conformity with a group of his own choice. What society demands is a conscious identification, a treading of accepted, authorized paths. Only by accomplishing an equivalent is one exempted from this. (ibid 1095-1099)

James Hollis reminds us that the daily life of an individuator is often spent between depression and anxiety. If we are caught in regressive behaviours, or sabotage our individuation in any number of ways, we will suffer depression. We are betraying ourselves. If we overthrow our psychic lethargy and go forth bravely into the world, refusing to please others, and follow our inner voice, we will experience anxiety. It feels very risky to leave behind safe but toxic circumstances. Keeping anxiety within a manageable range is part of our task.

To quote James Hollis again, “there is an essential difference between normal anxiety and anxiety that is neurotically crippling. To live fully in the world is to frequently suffer the bouts of anxiety that are our lot as a sentient species. We should never deride ourselves for such anxiety. It becomes a psychological problem only when we are prevented by that anxiety from living our lives as fully as possible. And it becomes a moral problem when our own chosen strategies impair and impede us. So we are anxious? we are still obliged to live as fully as possible.

Anxiety is the price of a ticket on the journey of life; no ticket - no journey; no journey – no life. Just as Freud noted that the task of therapy is to move one from neurotic miseries to the normal miseries of life, so we are impelled to face what we cannot face, bear what we cannot bear, name the un-nameable that haunts us.

Again, we are daily forced to choose between depression and anxiety. Depression results from the wounding of the individuation imperative; anxiety results from moving forward into the unknown. The path of anxiety is necessary because therein lies the hope of the person to more nearly become and individual. My analyst once said to me, ‘You must make your fears your agenda.’ When we do take on that agenda, for all the anxiety engendered, we feel better because we know we are living in bonne foi with ourselves.

Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the perception that some things are more important to us than fear. The individuation task, for example, is more important than whatever regressively blocks us. Interestingly enough, we make a great move toward personal liberation when we can acknowledge the existential angst directly, know ourselves to be fragile beings clinging to a spinning planet hurtling through space, and at the same time grateful for such a grand ride. We gain when we are able to move from the anxiety, which, like fog, obscures the forward path. When, in that could, we can identify specific fears, we will often find them groundless to us as adults, though they were once overwhelming as a child. If, for example, one has an inordinate fear of conflict, and avoids speaking at meetings, one needs to find the discrete fear in the cloud of paralysing anxiety. Generally, such an anxious thought will translate into an early fear, such as ‘They won’t approve’, ‘They won’t love me.’

These primal fears were real for the child, but the adult we have become can have a different experience. What I can make conscious, face directly and deal with as an adult, frees me from unconscious bondage to the past. We truly perceive that something is more important than what we fear. And there is. We are more important than what we fear. This is what is meant by courage.” (Swamplands, pp115-116)

How much of your individuation impulse is projected onto your partner in relationships? Maybe you expect the other to be doing the work that you could be doing? You might expect them to be accountable, when you are not subjecting yourself to the self-scrutiny that accountability requires. 

You find discussion on relationships at

Jung on Loneliness

As a child I felt myself to be alone, and I am still, because I know things and must hint at things which others apparently know nothing of, and for the most part do not want to know. Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible. (Carl Jung; Memories Dreams and Reflections; Page 356.)

Jung on anxiety

When Freud coined the phrase that the ego was “the true seat of anxiety,” he was giving voice to a very true and profound intuition. ~Carl Jung, Psychological, CW 11, Page 849.

Jung on the hero's journey

The hero myth is an unconscious drama seen only in projection, like the happenings in Plato’s parable of the cave.[“The Dual Mother,” CW 5, par. 612.]

The hero symbolizes a man’s unconscious self, and this manifests itself empirically as the sum total of all archetypes and therefore includes the archetype of the father and of the wise old man. To that extent the hero is his own father and his own begetter [Ibid., par. 516.]

Mythologically, the hero’s goal is to find the treasure, the princess, the ring, the golden egg, elixir of life, etc. Psychologically these are metaphors for one’s true feelings and unique potential. In the process of individuation, the heroic task is to assimilate unconscious contents as opposed to being overwhelmed by them. The potential result is the release of energy that has been tied up with unconscious complexes.

In myths the hero is the one who conquers the dragon, not the one who is devoured by it. And yet both have to deal with the same dragon. Also, he is no hero who never met the dragon, or who, if he once saw it, declared afterwards that he saw nothing. Equally, only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the “treasure hard to attain.” He alone has a genuine claim to self-confidence, for he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby has gained himself. . . . He has acquired the right to believe that he will be able to overcome all future threats by the same means.[“The Conjunction,” CW 14, par. 756.]

Jung on the guilt of consciousness.

Genesis represents the act of becoming conscious as a taboo infringement, as though knowledge meant that a sacrosanct barrier had been impiously overstepped. I think that Genesis is right in so far as every step towards greater consciousness is a kind of Promethean guilt: through knowledge, the gods are as it were robbed of their fire, that is, something that was the property of the unconscious powers is torn out of its natural context and subordinated to the whims of the conscious mind. The man who has usurped the new knowledge suffers, however, a transformation or enlargement of consciousness, which no longer resembles that of his fellow men. He has raised himself above the human level of his age (“ye shall become like unto God”), but in so doing has alienated himself from humanity. The pain of this loneliness is the vengeance of the gods, for never again can he return to mankind. He is, as the myth says, chained to the lonely cliffs of the Caucasus, forsaken of God and man.~Carl Jung

“The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious” (1953) CW 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. P. 243

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