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Psychotherapy and the struggle to individualize

Having trouble individualizing creates a wide variety of problems. When you haven’t individualized yourself enough, it’s often hard to know what you want and need. If that’s the case, finding fulfillment in life isn’t easy. You are stuck with questions like: “What do I want?” “Do I like X?” “Should I be feeling this?” Marla* is an example of someone who struggles 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 at a small retail company offered little satisfaction. She had one or two people at work that she felt some connection to, but she had no relationship with any 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 she rarely found a man she was interested in. Her perfectionism resulted in her writing off most potential mates as not educated enough, not attractive enough, or not wealthy enough. Marla had two friends from college that she was in contact with. One, Fred, was in a committed relationship with Philip, her partner of 3 years. The other, Connie, was single and also used the Internet to find a relationship. However, Connie frequently found men to date and she was not as available to socialize with Marla as she would like. Connie was also (according to Marla) very beautiful and this made Marla very envious.

Marla had always found reasons to keep relationships at a distance. Like many people who struggle with individuation, she was very concerned about whether people appreciated her and found it intolerable to imagine anyone having negative feelings towards her. To ensure that only positive feelings existed between her and her friends, Marla was accommodating, sensitive to what the other needed, and inclined to play along. She was not singled out. She only had a vague feeling that she was paying a price for giving up her own wishes.

Marla was very close to her parents who lived near Marla’s apartment. She would often go home for dinner or go out with them to a concert or to the movies. Marla’s older brother, Ted, had moved to another state where he lived with his wife and his two daughters. He had little contact with the family. Marla was seen by her parents as the good girl. She was the one who stayed close to home and kept in close contact.

When Marla confided her unhappiness to her parents, they grew impatient with her. They wanted her to do something to feel more satisfied, and they found it difficult to tolerate her unhappiness. They often pressured her to follow up on job postings they found on the Internet or bring her catalogs they had obtained about graduate programs. Marla would describe to me how ever since she was a little girl, her parents always did everything for her. They chose her clothes for her, had strong opinions about her friends, helped her a lot with her homework. Later, they chose her university and decorated her apartment. They still helped choose her clothes. When Marla expressed a preference, she was usually told that her choices were not the best. Marla’s mother was obsessed with Marla’s appearance 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 their parents need them to be. By ‘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 find out what they like and how they feel. They need to develop the ability to tolerate their own feelings and the negative feelings expressed by others in their lives. This is all part of the self-discovery process. It leads to feelings of self-confidence and is part of the individuation process.

As we talked in therapy, Marla began to feel that she was trusting her parents too much. However, she was conflicted as she was less anxious when she accepted her choices instead of making her own decisions. As we talked, Marla also began to discover that she was not very clear about what she wanted and because of this she was very afraid of making the wrong decisions. She expected her father, a very judgmental man, to scold her for doing something wrong. Our conversations also helped Marla realize how much she liked being her good daughter. It seemed to her that not developing an independent self was a small price to pay for being seen as a good daughter. She has been worth it. But now, at 29, being the good daughter wasn’t enough. However, she was terrified to give it up. She didn’t know that there could be a choice between being a bad daughter or a good daughter. But it was going to take time for her to tolerate the grays. Being the good kid can often conflict with being yourself. Giving up the rewards that come with such a favored designation can be very difficult. The choice to remain as parents see you and want you to be is not easy to give up.

It wasn’t easy for Marla to keep talking and start taking baby steps to get to know what she wanted. She was clear that she wanted a relationship. But she hadn’t recognized that one of the main difficulties preventing her from entering into a relationship was her concern that the other would dominate or criticize her. It didn’t make sense that she could have her own thoughts and feelings about her in a relationship and not be told that she was wrong. How could she feel good in a relationship if she was different from her partner?

Marla is finding more men of interest through Internet dating and has come to understand that she was using her perfectionism to avoid a relationship. She begins to consider that she may have her own opinion or needs in relation to someone she is dating and that this does not mean that she will be criticized or rejected. Marla has also been working on saying NO to her parents. She has told them that she does not want them to find a job for her. Her parents responded well to her request.

As the individuation process progresses, the self becomes increasingly aware of what is satisfying. The individual is learning what I want and want, rather than what I’m supposed to want. An individualized person is able to make decisions and tolerate the consequences. Whether expressing or receiving negative feelings, an individualized 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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