The Individuation Project: a Jungian journey to self actualisation

The Individuation Project: a Jungian journey to self actualisation

imagesCA0QD6VJIndividuation is the act of becoming a distinct and integrated unity. It is the explicit realisation of what was previously implicit and latent. Once a rose individuates it is no longer just a flower or even just a rose; it is a rose of a definite and distinct type. Now naturally in the case of a rose this is just what it always was, it was always a rose of this type. However, this distinct type and its characteristic features, its colour, shape, size and smell may not have been apparent to the untrained eye prior to the rose blooming and revealing it’s individuated self. What may have been obvious to the botanist would be hidden from the laymen prior to the act of individuation. In this sense individuation is a natural process. When it comes to the human being however there are two important differences from the natural process of individuation that make the process more subtle and somewhat more complex.

These differences are:

Unlike the rose, the human being’s individuation process takes him or her beyond the characteristics of the genus, species, or type. Each person’s individuation is sufficiently distinct to constitute its own unique individuated form. Whilst each person is a member of a specific species (the species of human beings), race, culture, demographic etc. and as such shares the given characteristics of its genus, a human being has the capacity to individuate in a way that is not given to any other living thing in this world. A human being’s capacity for individuation goes beyond the natural into the cultural, social, psychological and spiritual domains; and this creates the possibility of uniqueness not open to purely natural things. Now not every human being individuates and realises this level of self actualisation, many (maybe most) do not. The point is that it is unique to the human being amongst all living creatures that is has this capacity.

The other significant distinction is that this individuation process is not given. Unlike the rose and every other purely natural thing, the individuation of a person is his or her own responsibility. This is why consciousness plays such an important role in the individuation process for Jung. It is incumbent for a human being to consciously choose his or her own path of individuation. In this sense consciousness intervenes in the natural order of things[1]. What previously unfolded as purely natural and unconscious process now is now shouldered by consciousness, the ego becomes a central player in the realisation of the entire person, conscious and unconscious, personal and transpersonal. Two giants of the 20th century, Rudolf Steiner and Sartre also recognised this unique aspect of the human being. Steiner expressed this by stating that “man must complete himself”[2]. Sartre’s idea is that “existence precedes essence”. Both of these capture this notion of radical freedom that implies that the human being is given the opportunity and obligation to fulfil their own individuation project.

Building on this concept of the unique nature of human individuation there are a few other characteristics about the individuation project worth noting.

  • Individuation is teleological; it is a movement toward a certain goal. It aims a fuller revelation of the authentic individuality of the person at a future time.

  • It is never exhausted. It is aspirational in nature, a moving towards, rather than a getting there. I suggest no one has ever depleted their individuation potential. I don’t think it is in the nature of human individuation to ever be exhausted in that sense. It will at some future time be complete, at the time of the person’s death, but as long as you are alive there is always more that can be done. Individuation is necessarily incomplete whilst one is alive.

  • To individuate or to embark on your individuation project (as I like to call it) is to move beyond the (purely) narcissistic state. Individuation involves a movement away from the ego in its current form. To take on the individuation project is to dedicate oneself to a project that, if successful, will take you beyond where and who you currently are. In the process of the individuation project the ego is fertilised by its intercourse with the world. The individuation project has a focus and a purpose and in striving to realise this purpose it is obliged to compromise, adapt, refine, reflect, assimilate, commit and recommit, to imagine and re-imagine. And, as one may expect, this process matures, refines and evolves the prior ego consciousness. Jung described this as the Self- ego dyad, a dialectical relationship that sees the ego commit itself to the realisation of the Self.

  • Individuation is necessarily authentic. If at its core it involves a form of artifice, pretence, the act of representing oneself as something other than what one is, then it is simply not individuation. To individuate is to become oneself in the most authentic manner possible. The idea is that a certain desire, passion or genius is present in one’s inner life or soul, and the individuation project is dedicated to this genius.[3]

  • The animation or drive of the individuation project by this animating spirit constitutes the transpersonal dimension and the personal dimension is the form and manner in which this spirit is concretised in the world, and this significantly, as already noted, is not given. In other word the desire is given its realisation is not, that is something we are called on to create in our lives, and in the world.

The shadow of individuation (some possible concerns)

Individuation is, as far as I can tell, largely marginalised in Jungian studies and in the practice of Jungian psychology. There are, I think, good reasons for this, particularly in clinical practice where the analyst is more often than not dealing with issues of woundedness and adaptation. The very idea of individuation is questionable in engendering a certain level of psychological health[4]. The problem with individuation in this sense is that it locates your happiness (the true life) beyond you. This can have the effect of keeping you in a constant state of striving and never one of realising. It may also suggest that you are not okay as you currently are, there is something left undone, something more you need to do, be, realise etc. Basically, in other words, this can give you an excuse for your current unhappiness, and an excuse that allows you never have to face your woundedness for what it is.  The other problem is locating the mythical individuated human being, what would such a person look like, be like etc. These are I think valid concerns and we should recognised them lest we are too enthusiastic and one sided in our embrace of the Jungian ideal of individuation.

Notwithstanding these concerns individuation is the central goal of Applied Jungian Studies and a focal point for the work we do. As such, the question of what exactly the individuation project may look like is one I have spent much time reflecting on. I want to share some of these thoughts with you. Some of what I now say, although heavily influenced by Jung, departs from the spirit of his approach in providing a formulaic type approach. Jung being a firm believer that any formula was to be disavowed and each had to find his own way. Nevertheless with that qualification in place let me proceed.

The individuation project

Individuation in this uniquely human sense is an act made possible only by a high degree of spiritual, cultural and psychological sophistication. It is an active state it involves taking action in the world. I emphasise this external nature of individuation because I think it constitutes an important contrast with much Jungian work that is inward looking. The individuation project is something that happens out there in the world and involves engagement with the environment and other living beings (typically, but not necessarily other people). It is a living process of engagement with something bigger than you. It is a project, a commitment, an expression of you in the external world.

If you consider your current situation I imagine that there is a good chance you are already conscious of your individuation project (although you may not have conceived of it in these terms). It is a project has some or all of the following qualities:

  • It is something you care about. It expresses in some externalised form a profound inner desire.

  • Something that you are either already invested in or will be when you start to work at it.

  • Something that excites or intrigues you. It is not mundane. You feel alive and passionate when pursing it, or even just fantasising about it.

  • It is something that you may have wanted to do for a long, long time, but for whatever reason, fear, apathy, lack of belief in yourself, have not acted on it.

  • It is quite possibly tangential to your profession, a way of expressing yourself in the world that may surprise those that know you. It may be in some significant contrast to your public persona. This is quite possibly an aspect of yourself you have yet to reveal to the world.

Some guidelines

What your individuation project is exactly, what it looks like , may be less than crystal clear, the ideas and images may be fuzzy or fantastical. Now although the act of consciousness is about bringing these into focus, the lack of focus or clarity is common and not inauspicious. From a Jungian perspective one is best adopting the symbolic attitude, which means approaching or relating to the project with a degree of epistemic modesty; in other words not being convinced you know what the outcome of the project will be when you begin on the journey, but rather allowing it to reveal itself to you.

Your individuation project is a reflection of who you are, what you bring, the unique admixture of qualities, vulnerabilities, talents and shortcomings, which combined is you. This of course is the single most important thing to get, what makes it an individuation project is that only you and no one else could live this truth into the world in the way that you can. And it is really important to understand that this uniqueness includes fallibility! In a profound sense it is just this fallibility, this incompleteness, that expresses that it is your individuation project, if it were perfect it would not be you. Your beauty and your humanity are captured in the contrast between your divine spirit, as it were, and your human capacities. It is in the striving, as much as the completing, that you reveal yourself.  Every initiative has an archetypal or transpersonal character. Archetypally speaking the old cliché that there is nothing new under the sun is true. That being acknowledged what makes this your individuation project is the way you bring this into the world in your own individual and idiosyncratic way. The favour of the project is necessarily not vanilla it is you, your way, your brand; it expresses an essential element that is you.

Paradoxically you need to get out of your own way. The unique aspect of your individuality that comes through in your individuation project is not narcissistic; it necessarily reaches beyond your narcissistic state. You give birth to it, but like giving birth to a child or a (sincere) work of art, it is not limited by you, it eclipses you. As Jung put it, the encounter with the big Self is a disaster for the little self. If you are not willing to give yourself over to your individuation project then you limit its possibility. So it is not without a degree of irony that in order to become most fully yourself you need to transcend yourself, at least as you currently are. It is as though you carry a blueprint, of an individuated version of yourself, that evolves in stages. And in order for next evolution to occur the current version has to be willing to let go, to surrender itself to the promise contained in the blueprint- a promise of something more, something of greater value, beauty and honesty. An original rather than a simulacrum.

I want to conclude by saying that although this may sound a little grand actually it has, like so many things, very humble origins. It begins with an initiative, however modest that initiative may appear. And an intention to act this initiative out in an authentic fashion, to be honest, to find your own way, to find the symbols that speak to you, to give yourself over to this project, not to hold back and not to be reduced by your fear of failure but to extend yourself beyond your current reach.

I really believe that it is worth making the effort, living up to the challenge, and dealing with the inevitable disappointments you are likely to encounter. The individuated person is a blessing, an act of grace and a celebration of the human condition. It is the individuated person that elevates the community and leads the way forward. Individuation is a celebration of our uniqueness, our personhood, our humanity and that which is most beautiful in us.

Until we speak again,



[1] “I do not know if it is desirable that consciousness should change the natural order of the universe, I only know that it does.” (C. G. Jung)

[2] Steiner, R.  The Philosophy of Freedom.

[3] “Genius” should not be understood in this context as having anything to do with intelligence or even capacity, it is used rather in the original sense of the word to refer to an inhabiting spirit or genie.

[4] Notwithstanding my earlier comments about its facilitation of growth and movement away from narcissism.

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Comments (6)

  • Lisa Steingold Reply

    Thank you, loved reading this!

    December 5, 2013 at 11:53 am
  • Ilona Reply

    For me really inspiring were your thoughts concerning the shadow of individuation. So vivid and convincing description of its main features to reflect upon.
    Then I wonder if your idea of individuation project as something actualized in the world in contrast to an ‘inward-looking’ Jungian stance may be ascribed to different typology (extraversion versus introversion).

    December 10, 2013 at 11:51 pm
  • Ali Reply

    Thank you! Individuating is hard but even though it brings up challenges, I feel like it is somehow supported by Life.

    December 16, 2015 at 1:33 am
  • Maureen Reply

    Thanks for this well written well explained article!

    March 17, 2018 at 6:58 am
  • Wizzard lately Reply

    Individuation or ‘the meaningful transition’ is the way of uniqueness, a striving for but never fully attained completeness.
    I feel that meaningful transition is upon me right now. Indeed I have had my sleep disrupted as I ponder the unknown future. Yet, it is a call to step forth with no guarantees- the ultimate exploration and Self discovery.
    Thank you for the article. I found it most illuminating.

    April 7, 2019 at 8:55 am
  • Ernesto E. Payret Reply

    Why does the mainstream of Personality Psychology still ignore Jung’s theory of individuation? This has led to the fact that most important explanation of human development is not taught in most universities.

    March 5, 2020 at 4:19 pm

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