Having trouble individuating creates a wide variety of problems. When you haven’t sufficiently individuated, it is often difficult to know what you want and need. If that is the case, finding satisfaction in life is not easy. You are stuck with questions such as: “What do I want?” “Do I like X?” “Should I be feeling this?” Marla* is an example of someone struggling with individuation.

Marla came to therapy at the age of 29. She was a young woman who could find little satisfaction in her life. Her job as a computer programmer in a small retail company offered little satisfaction. She had one or two people at work whom she felt some connection to, but had no relationships with either of them outside of work. She had never been in a relationship with a man for more than two months. At the time she came to see me, she was using an internet dating service, but rarely found a man she was interested in. Her perfectionism resulted in her ruling most potential matches out as either not educated enough, not good looking enough, not rich enough. Marla had two friends from college whom she was in some contact with. One, Fred, was in a committed relationship with Philip, his partner of 3 years. The other, Connie was single and also using the internet to find a relationship. However, Connie frequently found men to go out with and was not as available for socializing with Marla as she would like. Connie was also (according to Marla) very beautiful and this created a lot of envy for Marla.

Marla had always found reasons for keeping relationships at a distance. Like many people struggling with individuation, she worried a great deal about whether people liked her and found it intolerable to imagine that anyone would have any negative feelings toward her. To assure that only positive feelings existed between her and her friends, Marla was pleasing, sensitive to what the other needed and was inclined to go along. She was not individuated. She had only a vague sense that she was paying a price for giving up her own desires.

Marla had a very close relationship with her parents who lived nearby Marla’s apartment. She frequently went home for dinner or went out with them to a concert or movie. Marla’s older brother, Ted, had moved to another state where he lived with his wife and two daughters. He had little contact with the family. Marla was seen by her parents as the good child. She was the one who stayed close to home and kept in close touch.

When Marla confided her unhappiness to her parents they would get impatient with her. They wanted her to do something to make herself more satisfied and found it hard to tolerate her unhappiness. They would often press her to follow up on job ads they would find on the internet or bring her catalogs they had obtained about graduate programs. Marla would describe to me how from the time she was a young child, her parents always did everything for her. They chose her clothes, had strong opinions about her friends, helped her extensively with her homework. Later, they picked her college and decorated her apartment. They still helped choose her clothes. When Marla would express a preference, she typically was told her choices were not the best ones. Marla’s mother was obsessed with Marla’s looks and suggested at age 15, that Marla get a nose job. When Marla agreed, her mother’s anxiety about the surgery pushed Marla into a series of panic attacks.

Some children learn from a very young age to be what and who their parents need them to be. In ‘wanting the best’ for their children, some parents don’t understand that they are interfering with their child’s ability to experience life by trial and error. Children need to discover what they like and how they feel. They need to develop the capacity to tolerate their own feelings and the negative feelings expressed by others in their lives. This is all part of the process of self discovery. It leads to feelings of self confidence and is part of the individuation process.

As we talked in therapy, Marla began to consider that she relied too much on her parents. However, she was conflicted since she was less anxious when she went along with their choices rather than make her own decisions. As we talked, Marla also began to discover that she was not very clear about what she wanted and so was very afraid of making the wrong decisions. She expected that her father, a very critical man, would berate her for doing the wrong thing. Our talking also helped Marla to become aware of how much she liked being the good daughter. It seemed like not developing an independent self was a small price to pay for being seen as the good daughter. It had been worth it. But now, at the age of 29, being the good daughter was not enough. However, she was terrified to give that up. She did not know that there might be options between being a bad daughter or a good daughter. But it was going to take time to tolerate the grays. Being the good child can often conflict with being oneself. Giving up the rewards that come with such a favored designation can be very difficult. The choice to remain who the parents see you as and want you to be is not easily surrendered.

It wasn’t easy for Marla to keep talking and to begin to take small steps to get to know what she wanted. She was clear that she wanted a relationship. But she had not recognized that a major difficulty that kept her from pursuing a relationship was her worry that she would be taken over or criticized by the other. She had no sense she could have her own thoughts and feelings in a relationship and not be told she was wrong. How could she feel okay in a relationship if she was different from her partner?

Marla is finding more men of interest in her internet dating and has come to understand that she was using her perfectionism to avoid a relationship. She is beginning to consider that she can have her own opinion or needs in relation to someone she is dating and that it doesn’t have to mean she will be criticized or rejected. Marla has also been working on saying NO to her parents. She has told them that she doesn’t want them to be looking for a job for her. Her parents responded well to her request.

As the individuation process proceeds, the self becomes increasingly aware of what is satisfying. The individual is learning what I want and desire, rather than what I am supposed to wish for. An individuated person is able to make choices and tolerate the consequences. Whether expressing or receiving negative feelings, an individuated person has enough confidence that they, the other and the relationship can survive.

* Names and identifying information have been changed to protect client confidentiality *

©Copyright 2010 by Beverly Amsel, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

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