Separation-individuation is an important aspect of becoming who you really are. In developmental psychology, it is considered key to fully becoming an adult. This post will discuss what it is and why it is important and how being involved with a narcissist makes this key to mental health more difficult.
Psychological literature explains separation-individuation as defining a sense of self and as differentiation. Every person must undertake individuation from the family of origin to grow up fully. Psychological separation is an internal process and has nothing to do with geographically separating from your family or another narcissist in your life. According to family therapist Murray Bowen, “An adult can regard him or herself to be further along with the individuation process the more they (1) are less emotional reactive to the family or relationship dynamics, (2) become more objective in observing the family or relationship dynamics, (3) become aware of the myths, images, distortions, and triangles they have been blind to.” (Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 1978)
I often describe it to my clients in this way: Imagine you are sitting in a theatre watching your family or narcissist on stage playing out the crazy-making dynamics that you are accustomed to being smack in the middle of. Now imagine you are sitting in the audience and objectively observing what is going on, but are no longer sucked into the web of it. You feel this internal shift of being separate from it and you can hang onto your authentic sense of self. I also call this being “a part of and apart from” at the same time while not losing yourself.
Separation-individuation is a normal part of growing up. In healthy families, it starts when we are young and continues throughout our twenties. But if you were raised by a narcissistic parent or found yourself in a narcissistic relationship, the individuation process gets stunted. It is not encouraged because you are taught to orbit around the narcissist and you and your needs, wishes, desires, and feelings do not matter. You are there to serve the narcissist. Nanette Gartrell wrote in her blurb for my book about narcissistic mothers, “Narcissistic mothers are always there when they need you.” This is obviously backward from healthy parenting where we should be there to take care of our children, not the other way around.
My client Gracie, 35, remembers her struggles to individuate with painful clarity. “It took me a long time to feel like a separate person from my narcissistic mother. She merged into me and then it was all about her—no distance.”
Marianne told me she wants to be close to her family but needs to maintain her hard-won sense of self. “I seem to do really well with my established sense of self until I get around my family and then it’s like I get sucked back into the old roles we all used to play. I want so badly to just be me even when I am around all of them.”
Mark told me just this week that although he is almost 30, he has no clothes in his closet that his mother did not buy for him. He was excited that he bought his own pair of pants and wore them all week with pride.
Edward asked me why, when he has video conferences with his father, dad still tells him to get a haircut. Edward is almost 40 and is just now realizing how much this bothers him. This is a vivid example of stunted individuation.
When in a relationship with a narcissist, you may be dealing with either engulfing behavior or ignoring behavior. The engulfing narcissist tells you how to think, feel, look, what to believe, what to do, and how to be…not encouraging a sense of self. The engulfed person tends to either not develop a solid sense of self if growing up with this or begins to lose sense of self if in an adult relationship with a narcissist.
If the narcissist is ignoring, the person ignored is constantly working hard to gain love, approval, acceptance, and attention from the narcissist and is using all their emotional energy on that mission instead of building their own sense of self.
Although these two presentations of narcissism seem to be polar opposites, the “impact of the opposite is the same.” The involved partner or child is not encouraged to work on their own development of self. In healthy relationships, we should be able to be ourselves and allow the other person to be themselves. Sometimes the narcissist does both engulfing and ignoring which makes for even more crazy-making for the person impacted by this behavior.
I often talk about the emotional outcome of “crippling self-doubt.” This is a common symptom if raised by a narcissistic parent or from being in a love relationship with a narcissist. It is very difficult to overcome. You can see how this happens because narcissists are about themselves and do not validate you or your feelings. Your feelings matter when they align with the narcissist but otherwise are insignificant and not tuned into or acknowledged. Your voice is either not heard or is judged and criticized.
Whether you are recovering from narcissistic abuse from your family of origin or a narcissistic love relationship, these dynamics will apply, and you will need to work on your own separation-individuation to find your authentic self. The narcissist lives in their own distorted reality, and you can get pulled into their web of distortion. You will usually walk away feeling “not good enough” because you were manipulated into believing their negative messages. This recovery is not easy to achieve, but it's so worth it to find your happiness and personal peace. Remember: It’s an inside job. We won’t change the narcissist or dysfunctional family.
If this is you, join the amazing movement of recovery from narcissistic abuse.
(Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (New York: Jason Aronson, 1978, 539)