Psychotherapy and the struggle for individuality

Difficulty in customization creates a multitude of problems. If you haven’t individualized yourself enough, it’s often difficult to know what you want and need. If that’s the case, finding satisfaction in life isn’t easy. You are faced with questions like: “What do I want?” “Do I like X?” “Should I feel that?” Marla* is an example of someone struggling with individuation.

Marla came to therapy when she was 29 years old. She was a young woman who could find little satisfaction in her life. Her job as a computer programmer in a small retail business was not very satisfying. She had one or two people at work that she felt connected to, but never had a relationship with any of them outside of work. She has never been in a relationship with a man for more than two months. At the time she visited me, she was using an internet dating service but rarely found a man she was interested in. Her perfectionism led her to decide most potential partners as either not educated enough, not good looking enough, or not rich enough. Marla had two friends from college that she kept in touch with. One, Fred, had been in a committed relationship with Philip, his partner, for 3 years. The other, Connie, was single and also used the internet to find a relationship. However, Connie found men to date frequently and was not as available to socialize with Marla as she would like. Connie was also very beautiful (according to Marla) and this aroused a lot of envy from Marla.

Marla had always found reasons to keep relationships at a distance. Like many people struggling with individuation, she worried deeply about people liking her and found it unbearable to imagine anyone harboring negative feelings toward her. To ensure that only positive feelings existed between her and her friends, Marla was agreeable, sensitive to one another’s needs, and inclined to get involved. She wasn’t individualized. She only had a vague feeling that she was paying a price for giving up her own desires.

Marla had a very close relationship with her parents who lived near Marla’s home. She often went home for dinner or took them to a concert or to the movies. Marla’s older brother, Ted, had moved out of state where he lived with his wife and two daughters. He had little contact with family. Marla was considered the good kid by her parents. She was the one who stayed close to home and kept in close contact.

When Marla confided in her parents about her dissatisfaction, they grew impatient with her. They wanted her to do something to make her happier and found her dissatisfaction hard to bear. They often urged her to follow job advertisements they found on the Internet or bring her catalogs obtained through graduate programs. Marla would describe to me how her parents have always done everything for her since she was a child. They chose her clothes, had strong opinions of her friends, and helped her extensively with her homework. They later chose their college and decorated their apartment. They still helped choose her clothes. When Marla expressed a preference, she was usually told that her choice wasn’t the best. Marla’s mother was obsessed with Marla’s looks and at the age of 15 suggested Marla get a nose job. When Marla agreed, her mother’s fear of the surgery drove Marla into a series of panic attacks.

Some children learn from an early age to be what and who their parents expect them to be. When they “want the best for their children,” some parents fail to understand that they are interfering with their child’s ability to experience life through trial and error. Children need to find out what they like and how they feel. They must develop the ability to tolerate their own feelings and the negative feelings of others in their lives. This is all part of the process of self-discovery. It leads to self-confidence and is part of the individuation process.

As we chatted in therapy, Marla began to worry that she was overly relying on her parents. However, she was conflicted as she felt less concerned about agreeing with her choices rather than making her own choices. As we chatted, Marla also discovered that she wasn’t entirely clear about what she wanted and was therefore very afraid of making the wrong decisions. She expected her father, a very critical man, to scold her for doing the wrong thing. Our conversation also helped Marla realize how much she loved being the good daughter. It seemed that not developing an independent self was a small price to pay for being considered a good daughter. It was worth it. But now, at the age of 29, being the good daughter wasn’t enough. However, she was afraid to give that up. Little did she know there could be ways to be a bad daughter or a good daughter. But it would take time to tolerate the Grays. Being the good kid can often be at odds with being yourself. It can be very difficult to give up the rewards that come with such a favored designation. The choice to remain the way your parents see you and want you is not something that can be given up easily.

It wasn’t easy for Marla to keep talking and taking baby steps to know what she wanted. She knew she wanted a relationship. But she hadn’t realized that a major obstacle preventing her from being in a relationship was her fear of being taken over or criticized by the other. She didn’t feel like she could have her own thoughts and feelings in a relationship without being told she was wrong. How could she feel okay in a relationship when she was different from her partner?

Marla finds more interesting men through her internet dating and has understood that she is using her perfectionism to avoid a relationship. She starts to think that she can have her own opinions or needs about someone she is dating and that doesn’t have to mean that she will be criticized or rejected. Marla has also worked on saying NO to her parents. She has told them that she doesn’t want them to look for a job for her. Her parents responded well to her request.

As the process of individuation progresses, the self becomes increasingly aware of what is satisfying. The individual learns what I want and desire, not what I should desire. An individualized person is able to make decisions and tolerate the consequences. Whether expressing or receiving negative feelings, an individualized person has enough self-confidence that they, the other, and the relationship can survive.

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

©Copyright 2010 by Beverly Amsel, Ph.D. All rights reserved

Thanks to Beverly Amsel | #Psychotherapy #struggle #individuality

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