Reading through a bit of Carl Jung recently I was struck by his distinction between the concepts of individualism and individuation. These notions also complement other ideas I’ve been thinking about lately. Specifically, to recognize that through the process of our personal becoming, independence includes a healthy appreciation for interdependence.
In Jung’s book Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (trans. by R.F.C. Hull, 1953), he discusses the function of the unconscious and the concept of individuation. This, he writes, means:
…becoming an “in-dividual,” and, in so far as “individuality” embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self.
Individuation, Jung suggests, could also be thought of as a “coming to selfhood” or “self-realization.” These terms, especially the latter, are so common today that we often take for granted how (and when) they were introduced. It wasn’t long ago that concepts such as self-realization did not exist, except perhaps in the collective unconscious, waiting to be borne out by thinkers such as Jung.
Self-realization “seems to stand in opposition to self-alienation,” Jung writes. Self-alienation would involve the mistaken belief that we get through this world alone and that our individual efforts are worthy of self-centered rewards.
We often grow up to become not our true selves but the self of a persona, of social acceptability, of otherness that gives in to external pressures, roles, or imagined meanings. We wear the mask. We do what is expected rather than what we know to be authentic. In doing so, we fail to truly live our own life.
Individuation, Jung suggests, is the ultimate goal in life. When I hear people ask “What is the meaning of life?” it is this concept that answers such a question. The goal in life is to find the courage to Be Who You Are. Individuation is this process. It is an ongoing “psychological development that fulfills the individual qualities given…, a process by which a [person] becomes the definite, unique being” that they indeed are.
Individualism, on the other hand, shows a selfishness, a self-centeredness, that stresses how one is different than everybody else rather than how one is related to other beings. The aim of individuation is to “divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona” on the one hand, says Jung, and of the “suggestive power” of the collective unconscious on the other.
Individualism pretends that we are the lone protagonist of our own epic story — the hero who succeeds without assistance from others. Ask any real hero, however, and they will no doubt start listing off the people who helped them along the way.
A version of this post was originally published on my blog The Topophilian, now on hiatus.