Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: May 2011
Whether you are on your own, without a religion or practice, or else fully engaged in one, I think that knowing yourself is part of any spiritual path towards more moral behavior and to the divine at your core. One way to think about self-knowledge is Carl Jung’s idea of individuation. He used that term for the process of becoming as aware as possible of every aspect of yourself and learning to live increasingly in alignment with that awareness. Individuation is highly relevant to HSPs because an inevitable part of it is being aware of and fulfilling your genetic blueprint, of accepting and living in the way you were “wired.” Further, becoming more aware is, in a sense, the very essence of the function of that wiring.
Eastern religions teach a spiritual path of shedding the ego, getting over ourselves, and identifying with the larger Self, which is beyond thoughts, perceptions, or feelings. Jung, however, thought Westerners needed a different path, one that involves knowing their self better rather than shedding it. I am not sure he was correct about either East or West. It seems to me that all of us need both. But when he was living, the West was having inordinate influence on the world, some of which was not good, such as the two world wars he lived through. He seemed to think that if Westerners got to their core, they would behave better, and also find the same larger Self. In my experience, individuation by itself does not take you to the Unbounded, and Eastern meditation by itself does not open you to knowledge of your own shadow or to all the subtle levels of the unconscious at the edge of the unbounded, the world of archetypal knowledge. We need both to come closer to being whole spiritually.
It’s Not Just Growing Up or Even Growing Wiser
Individuation is not the same as simply maturing or even growing wiser in the practical sense. (It is also not the same as individualism, because part of it is discovering and shouldering the task left you by your own ancestors or required of you today in the place you are.) Maturing is automatic. Individuation is not. It means specifically becoming more aware of what is unconscious, and the ego doesn’t bother or even resists it unless directed otherwise. Some of that unconscious material is repressed–memories or emotions that distress us too much to think about–but much of it is simply what is being processed parallel to our conscious minds. Psychology is finding that many of our decisions and experiences are going on at a preconscious level, based on memories and thoughts we may never be aware of. It’s “the rest of the story.” For example, did you know that you are dreaming all day, just as you dream at night, but this is not conscious? Yet just as dreams give us glimpses of those internal processes, there are other hints of it as well that we can pay attention to, as I will come to.
A large part of our unconscious is made up of what Jung called the “collective unconscious,” the “archetypal” knowledge (instinctual knowledge, often conveyed in symbols or myths) that we all carry. Although we are never fully conscious of any of this, we can become more so, much more so. At times it is crucial that we do, or we can do great harm to ourselves and others. Many times humans operate collectively in an unconscious way, as when we fall into our primitive in-group-out-group instincts and project evil onto others without noticing any in our own group. Other times, we identify with an archetype, such as not just acting like a hero or a mother, but “getting carried away,” thinking we really are the Hero, really are the Great Mother.
Henry, a Sensitive Man Forced to Individuate
Sensitive people, I believe, have a thinner boundary between their conscious and unconscious mental processes. For example, they have more vivid dreams, stronger intuition, and a better sense of what is going on in others (meaning they probably process unconsciously certain subtle cues). Therefore we individuate more easily than others, and also need to more if we are not going to be ruled by our unconscious.
At midlife, Henry’s conscious mind, so sensitive, lost some of its control. He was not a very happy man. Not realizing he was highly sensitive, he was full of strong feelings and subtle abilities that were going unfulfilled in his career as a scientist specializing in finding the right statistical method for any research problem (something he was very good at as an HSP). His sensitivity also left him open to wounding from academic politics and unfeeling students.
Finally, he retired early, but at that time he had been mentoring a young postdoctoral student. She had enormous personal problems, including involvement with a man whom Henry saw as abusive, and my friend became quite involved in helping her in that area as well.
Eventually she returned to her home country, and she and Henry began an email correspondence that took up most of his new free time and that was increasingly personal rather than professional. She saw him as the good father she had never had. He was glad to have any role in her life. Almost without realizing it and against his will, he had fallen intensely in love with her.
However, Henry was married and his wife was increasingly unhappy with Henry’s preoccupation with this young woman. She tried to tell him so, nicely, not wanting to accuse him wrongly or provoke a show down. It was just email. Surely he would get over this. But Henry showed no signs of that. He shrugged off all hints from her and ignored the warning signs that she was getting angry.
Naturally this came to a head, and when my opinion was sought (I hope I am remembering correctly that I did not meddle), I told Henry that I thought he had projected his anima on to her. Anima means soul in Greek, but Jung used the term for a man’s feminine nature, which he saw as much more than that. The anima leads a man inward to his Self, both the center of his personality and its entirety, its wholeness. When a man is unconscious of the archetypal dimension of his relationships with women and projects his anima onto a mere mortal, he will become obsessed with her, of course. She has everything he needs.
Henry, sensitive and intelligent man that he is, wanted to know more about the anima. He really did not want to ruin his marriage, but he could see that this woman had become more important to him than anything else whatsoever. I am sure sensitive people experience these intense passions more. So, painful as it was to consider finding out anything that would help him to end this affair, he knew he finally had to look closely at how this could happen to a perfectly sane, rational man and loving husband. He started reading Jungian literature, and in the end he was able to give her up and enter into something ultimately much more compelling, his own individuation process, with his anima experience as the first step inward.
Wake Up Calls and Slow Melt Downs
Other times the wakeup call comes when we inexplicably do or say something unkind to someone we care about, or have an accident or illness that is spookily symbolic of our situation. But HSPs are probably drawn to individuate throughout their lives, I think often because they are just seeking something more, something deeper, until they can’t stand it any more. Jung said it mainly occurs in the second half of life, after we have fulfilled our “biological and societal purpose,” thinking this might even be why we live twice as long as we need to in order to simply reproduce. That may be truer of non-HSPs, however. Jung himself, highly sensitive, embarked on his own individuation before midlife, after his falling out with Freud over Freud’s reduction of everything to sexuality. Jung held out for spirituality. Most Jungians today would say individuation can occur at any time, but it is usually pushed on us, as it was for Jung, who began having strange visions.
Most Jungians would also say that it is difficult to individuate outside of a Jungian “analysis” or Jungian oriented psychotherapy, because only those skilled in deciphering the unconscious (and having “analyzed” their own thoroughly) can help another person see what is so unseen. Henry did it on his own, and while he no doubt has missed many things about himself, I don’t see why others cannot at least get started that way. (Henry tried analysis, but the jerk he saw treated him badly, probably because he misunderstood Henry’s deep sensitivity as weakness, even demeaning him by answering phone calls during their sessions.) So he read, followed his dreams, and faced himself very honestly and objectively–as well as writing a great deal of poetry. Artistic expression is an excellent way to uncover unconscious material.
What might you do?
- Read some Jungian books. You can read books by Jung, of course, although he can be deliberately obscure (wanting you to more or less riff on his material rather than get it in a linear, conscious way), especially in his collected works. But there are good readers, anthologies, and single books that he wrote for the public, such as his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and The Undiscovered Self. I also like Robert Johnson’s books and the writings of James Hollis and Ann Ulanov. Women gain from Women Who Run with the Wolves. There are hundreds to choose from.
- Pay attention to your dreams. There are many good books on dreams, but I especially like Robert Johnson’s Inner Work and my own “quick course in dreams” in The Undervalued Self. Some of that was in the last issue (February, 2011), in the second half of the piece on Joseph the Dreamer.
- Practice active imagination, a very effective, interesting way to converse with parts of the unconscious. Robert John’s Inner Work describes this well, as well as The Undervalued Self and Comfort Zone, Vol 3, Issue 1.
- The Highly Sensitive Person Workbook is definitely a good place for HSPs to work on individuation, given the Jungian psychologist who wrote it!
- Get to know your complexes or emotional schemas. These are the building blocks of your personality and central to individuation. Again, this is covered in the Workbook, The Undervalued Self, and the last Comfort Zone issue, on Joseph the Dreamer. Pay special attention to when you do something “not like me”–not like the rational you. It can help to ask “who did that?” There are many parts to ourselves, some familiar and some hardly at all.
- Engage in art, music, or creative writing–not with the purpose of doing something beautiful, but rather to let anything come up and be known by you. The unconscious speaks in the language of images and metaphors, used symbols of what is happening inside of you. Drawing scenes from dreams, for example, can show you new elements in them.
- Form a small group, even just you and one other, to do some of this together. That way you will notice things in each other’s process that would be missed if you worked only on your material yourself.
- Try going to seminars on Jungian ideas. Get onto the mailing list of your closest Jung institute. Often these seminars relate only tangentially to your own process, but they can stir up interesting things in yourself.
Past and Future
Individuation is partly about dealing with the past. If your parents were immigrants, then you must take on the often wrenching task of remaining faithful to two worlds. If your parents neglected or abused you, your task is to become aware of it, find out how that affected you, heal it as much as you can through mutually caring relationships, and try not to repeat your parents’ mistakes, which means recognizing when you have inevitably done just that. If your family has been plagued by addictions, individuation requires you to face all of that in yourself, including the archetypal knowledge in the collective unconscious about addictions.
In short, individuating has the potential to be intensely difficult at times, and more so for HSPs, given that we have stronger emotions than the other 80%. On the other hand, difficulties from your past are often what finally force us onto a path of individuating.
What is especially good about individuation, however, is that it is more about the future, the meaning and purpose of your life, your path from the past to where you hope to be before you die. Your path will be anything but linear–it may zigzag and even reverse itself at times. In fact, Jung said it is more like “circumambulating” a Self that seems to keep changing as we see it from an infinite number of different viewpoints and times. Imagine making it your goal to know the Pacific Ocean. Even trying a little would teach you a great deal. Even if you made it your life’s work, however, when you died that vast, deep ocean would still remain largely a mystery.
Strong arguments will always be made against the idea of anyone’s life having a purpose or that there is any “true self” to become more aware of. Who would this “self” be except the product of genes, physical place of birth, nutrition, culture, social learning, and etcetera? The sensation of “free will” is created in certain brain areas because it has some survival value, but is only an illusion. Blah, blah, blah. It’s puzzling the lengths some people go to convince us that it’s all illusion. Most HSPs, I think, get it. After all, if Individuation is about becoming your unique self, a minority of one so to speak, as HSPs we are already in the minority, so perhaps it is easier for us to understand. Further, as I said at the outset, becoming more aware is the essence of what we were built to do.
Priestly Advisors: Part III:
The Lens of Personal Experience