Individuation: The Quest for Self

Individuation: The Quest for Self

“Know Thyself” was inscribed above the Oracle of Delphi in Ancient Greece and the search for the true nature of oneself was important to Ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato (Sheets-Johnstone, 2008). Two-thousand years later, is humanity closer to knowing the nature of their true selves and achieving psychological maturity? Can one attain complete knowledge and acceptance of one’s true Self in a life-time? Dr. Carl Gustav Jung believed that this was possible, but it would take a lot of inner-work to make it so. Jung theorized that a person’s personality is made up of many aspects that, when integrated into the conscious, become the Self, the true centre of being (Feist & Feist, 2006). He called this process “Individuation” or “Self-Realization” and provided criteria that would have to be met in order for this to be achieved (Jung, 1968). In this paper, the process of fulfilling those criteria is examined as well as its practical therapeutic applications.


The word individuation is taken from the Latin possessive term of principium individuationis, or ‘principle of individuation’, which was used by several notable philosophers in history to explain the emergence of individual aspects into being, including Aristotle, Kant and Nietzsche (Beebe, 2008). Individuation was simply defined by Jung (1968) as being “the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘in-dividual’, that is, a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole’” (pg. 275). Jung theorized that if there were unconscious processes occurring, then they should be part of the total person, but these are often ignored (Jung, 1968). Therefore, there is no whole if either the conscious or unconscious is suppressed (Jung, 1964). A more detailed definition of individuation is “the process of strengthening, differentiation and assimilation (integration) into consciousness of the various non-egoic parts of the psyche…” (Fiumara, 1989, pg. 178). These ‘non-egoic parts of the psyche’ include the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious which are represented by various symbols or archetypes.

The Structure of Personality

In order to truly appreciate the process of individuation, the structure of personality must be examined. Jung (1964) noted that human psychology “basically depends on balanced opposites…” (pg. 59), and he found that people were either introverted or extraverted in their attitudes. The determination of the extraverted or introverted attitude depended on how one directed their vital interest (Assagioli, 1974). Introversion is marked by introspection, self-knowledge (Jung, 1964) and the direction of vital energy inward, toward oneself (Assagioli, 1974). Extraversion is marked by the direction of vital interest out toward society (Assagioli, 1974) and the subscription to the majority view when making decisions and evaluating situations (Jung, 1964).

Added to these two attitudes are the four functions of thinking, sensing, feeling and intuition (Feist & Feist, 2006). Like extraversion and introversion, these four functions are also balanced opposites of being either rational or irrational (Jung, 1964). Thinking is the opposite of feeling, and sensing is the opposite of intuition (Jung, 1964). People strong in the function of thinking, a rational function, adapt themselves to the world around them by using their intellect and thinking things through (Jung, 1964). With regard to the function of feeling, Jung emphasized that his definition of ‘feeling’ centered upon the placing of logical value (evaluation)  on something, not by experiencing emotions (Jung, 1964). Sensing is an irrational function, which involves the use of the four senses to perceive stimuli (Feist & Feist, 2006). Intuition is also an irrational function which involves using ‘hunches’ that depend on internal or external influences rather than rational judgment (Jung, 1964). Jung did not intend for these terms to be dogmatic and saw them as only being four viewpoints of the types of human behaviour alongside things like imagination, free will, etc. (Jung, 1964). However, Jung did find these terms especially when describing a person to others as well as understanding one’s own perspectives on matters (Jung, 1964).

The Structure of the Unconscious

The unconscious consists of two aspects: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious (Jacobi, 1973). Aspects of the unconscious are often brought to the conscious through the avenues of dreams or the creative process (Jacobi, 1973). The personal unconscious contains repressed memories, personal symbolism, forgotten thoughts and events, and other thoughts that have not made it into the conscious (Jacobi, 1973). According to Jung, the collective unconscious contains “the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution born anew in the brain structure of every individual” (Jacobi, 1973, pg. 35). Jung was able to separate the aspects of the collective unconscious into what he originally called (Jacobi, 1973) “‘primordial images’ or ‘dominants of the collective unconscious’” (pg. 39), which he later named ‘archetypes’ (Jacobi, 1973). Some of these archetypes include:

  • The Shadow – This is the part of a person that is known as the ‘dark brother’ or ‘the other side’ and is also the invisible side of oneself (Jacobi, 1973). It is the (Henderson, 1964) “shadow cast by the conscious mind of the individual” (pg. 118) and it contains aspects of the personality which are repressed or hidden (Henderson, 1964). These aspects may be denied, but the individual may be quick to point these aspects out in other people (Von Franz, 1964). Many confuse this archetype with being completely dark or evil in nature, but the Shadow also contains qualities of good such as creativity or normal responses (Henderson, 1964). Jung proposed that there were two levels to the Shadow: the personal shadow which contains all of a person’s own repressed psychic features, and a collective shadow which is a negative aspect of the Wise Old Man or the Self (Jacobi, 1973).
  • The ‘Magna Mater’ or Great Mother – According to Jung’s studies (1968) of Sankhya philosophy, this archetype consists of the three aspects of “goodness, passion and darkness” (pg. 82). Goodness encompasses the Mother’s nurturing and kind love, passion represents her deep emotions and darkness reminds us of the Mother’s destructive nature as well as the depths of the Mother that we do not know (Jung, 1968).
  • The Hero – Almost every society in history, including modern Western society, features some sort of hero figure in its collective mythology (Henderson, 1964). The hero archetype often has a similar life pattern across cultures and time, which includes a miraculous birth, a show of superhuman strength in childhood, a quick rise in societal status, a triumph over an evil force, suffering the consequences of succumbing to pride and a sacrifice or fall through betrayal that results in his often young death (Henderson, 1964). Heroes may seem immortal, but often have some sort of flaw or weakness that usually is the cause of death (Feist & Feist, 2006).
  • The Wise Old Man – The wise old man is the archetype that represents the spirit (Jung, 1968), but has also been speculated to represent the Self (von Franz, 1964). This archetype often shows up in dreams or symbolism as a teacher, a prophet or some other elderly sage and is neither good nor evil in nature (Jacobi, 1973). For women, the wise old man often shows up as a wise old woman or even as the Great Mother, but has the same meaning (von Franz, 1964).
  • The Anima/Animus – This is the part of the psyche that represents the opposite gender of the individual (Jacobi, 1973). The Anima is defined by Von Franz (1964) as the “feminine aspect of the male psyche” (pg. 177) while the Animus is the male aspect of the female psyche. Men often see the Anima personified as a witch or sexual temptress while women seethe Animus as a strong male figure in either a positive or negative sense (Von Franz, 1964). The Anima or Animus can also take on the form of an animal such as a cow for men or an eagle for women if it has not been realized enough to take on a human form and is still perceived in an instinctual manner (Jacobi, 1973).
  •  The Self – The Self is both the guiding factor and the goal in individuation (Von Franz, 1964). Its guidance is not something that is made conscious but is often made apparent through dreams (Von Franz, 1964), or in some cases, creative pursuits such as art (Jung, 1964).

The Process of Individuation

Jung (1968) stated that the process of individuation “is an irrational life-process which expresses itself in definite symbols” (pg. 289). It is a natural process that is present in all people, but many are unaware of it and therefore do not fully achieve it (Jacobi, 1973). While the process differs for each person, there are common sign-posts or tasks that must be completed before one can truly achieve individuation (Jacobi, 1973). Von Franz (1964) proposed that the process of individuation “generally begins with a wounding of the personality” (pg. 166) which acts as a sort of call to action. This call may be in the form of an event or even an extreme case of boredom which makes life seem empty or devoid of meaning (von Franz, 1964). Because of this wounding or call, the ego experiences frustration because its will has been thwarted in some way (Von Franz, 1964).  This is the first contact with the Self and it can be symbolized by a dark shadow in one’s life or even as an ‘inner friend’ who comes to kill the struggling ego in its trap (Von Franz, 1964). The process can be also initiated through psychotherapy or even a conscious effort on one’s own part to achieve individuation (Jacobi, 1973). Prior to embarking on the journey, one must make a conscious connection with the process and also be aware of the risks. According to Von Franz, one must be aware that “the process of individuation is real only if the individual is aware of it and consciously makes a living connection with it” (pg. 162). Jacobi (1973) warns that this process is something that is best undertaken with assistance from a partner or therapist because “any attempt to travel it alone is extremely dangerous” (pg. 107).

Once the process has been initiated, the individual is ready to begin realizing the aspects of the unconscious and assimilating them into the conscious. The first aspect that must be realized is the Shadow or the unknown or denied aspects of the individual (Jacobi, 1973). The personal Shadow often makes itself known through dreams where the individual meets oneself and does not like the ‘other self’ (Von Franz, 1964). This ‘other self’ usually possesses qualities that the dreamer dislikes but can also possess qualities that the dreamer would like to have (Von Franz, 1964). The reason for this is that the shadow develops at the same time as the ego and is made up of all of the characteristics that the ego has discarded (Jacobi, 1973). The collective Shadow often appears in the form of a trickster-like figure, such as Loki or Mephistopheles (Jacobi, 1973). The key is to make friends with and value the Shadow because it is only hostile when it is ignored or misunderstood (Von Franz, 1964). This is done when an individual faces up to the inner truths and accepts all of the aspects of one’s personality, including the negative ones and enters into a genuine friendship with the ‘dark brother’.

After the realization of the Shadow, the individual then encounters and must become acquainted with the ‘soul image’ that represents the opposite gender: the Anima for men and the Animus for women (Jacobi, 1973). For men, the Anima often shows up as a single female figure in either a positive or negative sense (Von Franz, 1964), while for women, the Animus may appear as more than one man due to the monogamous sexual nature of women (Jacobi, 1973). However, the Animus often takes on a non-sexual role (Jacobi, 1973; Von Franz, 1964). The temperament of the Anima or Animus often depends on the relationship between an individual and the parent or caregiver of the opposite sex (Von Franz, 1964). The goal in this step is to make the relationship with the Anima or Animus a good one (Von Franz, 1964). The result of this friendship, according to Jacobi (1973) is “an extraordinary enrichment of the contents of consciousness and a great broadening of our personality” (pg. 124).

Once the aspects of the Shadow and the Anima/Animus have been reconciled into the conscious, the individual is ready for the emergence of the Self (Jacobi, 1973) or the “Great Man” (Von Franz, 1964). This aspect often shows up as the Wise Old Man or the Great Mother, which helps the individual to see the primordial and spiritual aspects of the Self (Jacobi, 1973). According to Jacobi (1973), the goal is for men to achieve liberation from the Father and for women to become liberated from the Mother and find their true individuality. This stage also comes with the risk of self-glorification which could develop into delusions of being a god or possessing of all knowledge if the Dark Self is encountered and not properly assimilated (Jacobi, 1973; Von Franz, 1964).  Jacobi (1973) used the example of “Nietzsche, who fully identified himself with the figure of Zarathustra” (pg. 126).

The final stage, if one can properly reconcile the Dark Self, is the actual encounter with the Self (Jacobi, 1973). This is not an easy stage and the individual may be plagued with unconscious urges that cannot be repressed or fled from because that would defeat the entire purpose of achieving individuation (Jacobi, 1973). Thus starts the tension-filled process of unifying the unconscious with the conscious, which means that this inner turmoil must not interfere with the individual’s daily life or work because the soul must become accustomed to this new way of being (Jacobi, 1973). Individuation does not mean that one is free from the suffering of worry or conflict in life, for part of the process is the transformation of inauthentic suffering, which can lead to neuroses, into authentic suffering which can lead to spiritual enrichment and fulfillment of one’s future goals (Jacobi, 1973). As Jacobi (1973) states, that achieving individuation “does not mean that the thunderstorm is robbed of its reality; it means that, instead of being in it, one is now above it” (pg. 135). The reward given by the process of individuation is not limited to curing neuroses and mental illnesses, but spiritual enlightenment, and the discovery of meaning and fulfillment in one’s life (Jacobi, 1973).  Jung chose to symbolize individuation with the mandala, which is the Sanskrit word for ‘circle’ because it represents order, symmetry, the union of opposites into one, the streaming inward of life’s essence and the Earth’s reception of the creative power of heaven into itself (Jung, 1968).

Challenges and Practical Applications

Jung gathered knowledge from a number of sources and examined concepts such as mystical experiences, mythology and the religious symbolism of many traditions, which made it very difficult for mainstream ‘scientific psychology’ to take his theories seriously (Richards, 2008). In the mid-1930’s especially, three important factors counted against Jung: his break with Freud cast him as an apostate, suspicions of dealing with the Nazis and the fact that Jung seemed to be more focused on the individual than with social interest (Richards, 2008). It has been argued that the process of individuation is unattainable because of the fact that so much of the Self remains forever unknown, which then causes suspension between the opposites of the known and unknown (Schlamm, 2007). Do these contradictions give reason to discredit the process of individuation completely?

This process, according to Jung, “may well be the goal of any psychotherapy that claims to be more than a mere cure of symptoms” (pg. 289). Despite the question of whether it is even attainable, or even Jung’s sources of information, the process of individuation has proven to be an excellent exercise in certain types of group analysis (Fiumara, 1989), palliative care (Bakhtiar, 1980; Moraglia, 2004), and in assisting middle-aged adults find a healthy way to work through mid-life crises (Weaver, 2009).

Those who are dying can find comfort and purpose in the process of individuation, even if they do not believe in an afterlife (Moraglia, 2004). The process shows that the path to self realization is the destination, rather than another existence after death, which can produce a sense of accomplishment (Moraglia, 2004). This exploration of the unconscious can be quite therapeutic in that it provides the dying patient with a positive outlook on death: dying becomes a transformative process rather than just a hopeless road to the end of life (Bakhtiar, 1980). It is generally believed that the process of individuation should start at mid-life (Hewison, 2003; Moraglia, 2004; Weaver, 2009). Jung had suggested that individuation takes place in the latter half of life since the first half of life is spent building only one half of the self: the external self which has made a place in society and succeeded in the eyes of others (Weaver, 2009). The ‘midlife crisis’ that many experience between the ages of 35 and 50 may involve personal disenchantment with extraverted goals such as societal success, and the need to find some deeper meaning to life that is not apparent (Weaver, 2009). Some have questioned whether this process absolutely must occur in midlife or if it can occur earlier (Beebe, 2008). Michael Fordham, a post-Jungian, has argued that individuation is a lifelong process that starts as early as infancy when an infant opens up to experience and then brings that experience inside (Hewison, 2003). Whether this is true remains to be discovered.


Two thousand years after the inscription of the words “Know Thyself” at the Oracle of Delphi, mankind still faces this challenge. People enter this world, strangers to themselves and others, each with the capability of embarking on the unique quest to discover the hidden Self. The process of individuation, if one is prepared to meet the challenge, is a way for an individual to accept that quest, discover the Self and enjoy the benefits of wholeness and enlightenment.


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