“Growing up is hard to do” doesn’t begin to capture the real struggle that many young adults experience as they deal with the risks and benefits of becoming an adult. While there are many similarities as each individual goes through this transition, the separation/individuation process is unique for each person. 

In the process of individuation, you transition from the family’s ways of viewing the world and defining who you are as a person to becoming an individual with your own perspective and your own feelings and ideas.  This process takes place throughout one’s lifetime and results in the continual development of your own voice.  As adults, if you haven’t separated from your parents, you frequently repeat the same kind of dependent attachments with your adult love interests. This makes it hard to take your self seriously and trust your own views and feelings in intimate relationships. 

As a therapist, my job is to help you clarify what the risks and benefits are as you deal with the transition to adulthood and to help you tolerate the impact of engaging in this process of separation/individuation. As you go through the process, you should find that you feel more confident about yourself and your ability to know what you want and how to get it.  

First, it is important to understand how you think about what it means for you to become an adult. Frequently, ideas about adulthood are linked to concepts of independence and dependence.  When it feels like you have to choose between the two, it often seems like an impossible choice. But you really don’t have to choose because adulthood is not synonymous with one or the other.  Rather, you can learn to incorporate both independence and dependence into your relationships. 


If you ask yourself what your assumptions are about independence you might find that you think about it as something wonderful, scary or both. Thinking about yourself as an independent person may mean that you see yourself as a person of competence, with his/her own voice who can act autonomously in the world and consider the differing ideas and feelings of others.  But it may also bring up worries that asserting your own voice could lead to conflict and anxiety about how others are responding to you. You might associate independence with seriousness or the requirement to be totally self sufficient. You might think you will have to give up the carefree life of childhood and take on responsibilities that you may not feel prepared for.  


When you look at your assumptions about dependence, you might see that, as with independence, there are desirable and undesirable aspects to dependency. It is often soothing to believe that if you are dependent you will be taken care of in a variety of ways:  you can feel safe emotionally, loved, financially cared for. But, you may feel obligated to trade your right to express your own ideas and feelings for the rewards of dependency. Giving up that dependency may feel like an all or nothing choice:  be dependent and get your needs met or be independent and your needs will no longer be attended to by parents or partners or others. This either/or view leaves no middle ground where one can be in a relationship which includes dependence, independence and interdependence.  


To separate does not mean to give up the close attachment that you feel toward parents or in any relationship. It does not mean having to be geographically separate. Separation means that you recognize that you are not the same as your loved significant other and that you react differently and think differently. 

Individuation is the process that occurs after separation in which you grow your separate self, where you come to define who you are as an individual:  I am funny, sensitive, carefree, serious, tough, anxious, kind, etc. You can only grow your self and discover who you are after you separate.  This learning process involves success and failure and frustration.  It is trial and error.  It is research about who you are, what fits, what you like, don’t like, sometimes like, hate, sometimes hate.  It is what makes you laugh, cry, run away, come close. It is who you are and who you are becoming.  It is a lifelong process. 

What can make this individuation process difficult is that you have to deal with the consequences of becoming a separate individual in the world.  For example, there may be feelings from others (parents, partners) about your asserting your developing separate self. This is sometimes not easy to tolerate especially if there are negative or critical responses to your new voice. Frequently, it takes time and work to learn to tolerate all the new feelings that your changes evoke.  For example, you could become anxious or uncertain as you learn to rely on, believe in and trust your own experience when it differs from your significant others. 

Under these circumstances it is to be expected that you will have a wide range of emotions as you go through this process. There can be great joy and satisfaction as you discover and become confident about yourself.   There can also be ambivalence about separating or individuating. Sometimes a parent’s voice can predominate in your head as a critical voice that undermines your trust in yourself.  Even when the voice is not critical, knowing that a relied upon and loving other doesn’t agree with you may cause you to fall back on silencing yourself for fear of losing that love or of making a mistake.  When your thoughts about these criticisms or differing ideas interfere with your choosing for yourself, the development of your self confidence and self esteem can be affected.  Probably, if you weren’t supported in developing your own voice growing up, you have not had much experience making your own choices and making mistakes. You will not have had the opportunity to learn that it is okay to try and fail and try again. This means you were not helped to acquire a tolerance for frustration and a vicious cycle can be created where you don’t feel you have the emotional means to go out in the world on your own and tolerate the everyday successes and failures that are part of the human experience. 

Therapy can be supportive as you struggle and work through these conflicts and feelings on your journey to becoming your own person.  It is my job to help you separate from parents or significant others in a way that helps you to have a close and good attachment with them if you desire to and still have a strong sense of a self that is separate from them.   Our work in therapy will include learning to tolerate your own and others’ feelings when you assert your own voice in the world, learning who you are and what you want. You will then have the building blocks for a close and loving relationship between yourself as an adult and the significant others in your life and between your parents and you – a separate adult child.