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Individuation is the development of the person gradually leading a greater knowledge and sense of the whole being. It is a concept that was made famous by the late Carl Gustav Jung, who is credited with creating a very different psychological method of viewing the psyche than did Sigmund Freud. Jung had a very different outlook on how people progressed through life and how they might arrive at better satisfaction with themselves through inward examination of the psyche. At the heart of it was this process of individuation, where people brought forth hidden aspects of themselves and integrated these aspects into the personality.
The idea of individuation is a complex one, and it’s often best seen as it relates to Jungian interpretation of literature. As the hero moves through a journey, he encounters specific archetypes that he must learn from and integrate. Unlike works of myth and fiction, though, individuation in a person is seldom so linear. People can again and again wrest with the same problems until they “get it,” or recognize and make use of the full self.
There are a few concepts that help clarify individuation. The first of these is the personal unconscious, or all those unintegrated aspects of the person that are hard to reach and may not be easy to access. Within this unconscious lies archetypal figures, like the shadow or most repressed aspects of self, and the anima/animus or masculine/feminine side of the person, whichever is opposite to actual gender.
People also have a persona, according to Jung, and this is the outward face they wear to the world and or their social face. The outward center of the self is the ego, but in the non-individuated person, the ego may not differ much from the persona, and is the ruler of an unknown land (shadow, anima, etc) or ruled by it.
From a therapeutic standpoint, a therapist would assist an analysand or patient in beginning to understand persona and then in digging deeper to start to meet the shadow and anima or animus. This could be extensive work, and it might require many years to lay the unconscious bare, and many more to actually make use of the unconscious matter found. Individuation is not just discovering what is hidden, but incorporating it into personality. There are many ways to achieve this sort of work, and these could include talking, hypnosis, dream work, art or music therapy, sandtray expressions and other things.
In fictional work, heroes or heroines often achieve individuation within the length of a text. For the non-fictional individual, this work can be terrifying, exhilarating, and alternately slow and fast going. People confront and process some of their worst fears and also those things about themselves they least wish a persona to show. As the work continues, and it can take a lifetime, where even then full individuation may never be reached, people may find themselves more fully in touch with an authentic and whole self. In Jungian theory the true self may be the most hidden thing of all, only revealed when shadow work and anima or animus have been considered and integrated.