Many years ago, the great Murray Bowen (a leader in the family therapy movement) coined the term “individuation.” At it’s simplest, this term refers to the ability to be a separate adult human in the company of our parents and other family members. With the holidays virtually upon us, this takes on added importance as we look to spend time with people who can make us feel 15 again, or guilt trip us about not going to church/being married yet/having kids, or just look askance at the fact that we’re vegetarian. No matter where your family falls on the spectrum from super rigid and rejecting to super flexible and inclusive, being individuated will improve your relationships with them. So how do you get there?
To drill down a little further, individuation really requires a radical level of acceptance of yourself, and then of everyone else. We often fall into the trap of either wanting to change them so that they will accept who we are, or change ourselves to be more acceptable to them. Individuation requires that we accept our family members for who they are: Dad’s need to always be right, Aunt Mimi needing to be dramatic, Uncle Bob being your political counter opposite, etc. And in accepting them, we choose to love them for what we can love about them: Dad’s pretty darn knowledgeable, Aunt Mimi can be pretty funny at times, and Uncle Bob is nonetheless a killer card player. We focus on what we can love, and accept what we wish was different.
We then do the same with ourselves; here are all the things I like about me, here’s what I’m not so crazy about and working on, and it all adds up to the genuine and authentic me. And then that’s who you bring to the gathering; the authentic you. It’s okay if Uncle Bob doesn’t get why you don’t eat meat, or Dad gets annoyed when you set a limit on the mansplaining. You stop trying to change them, and you stop owning their feelings about who you are. You love yourself, you love them in the ways you can, and you accept that everyone is who they are, including you.
If this sounds daunting, or light-years away from where you are, therapy is an excellent place to start. This is all a skill set, and with practice, any skill set can become easier to use. Imagine the joy of a holiday where you feel comfortable and calm, no matter who shows up or what they have to say. It’s possible, once you become an individuated human. Happy Holidays!!!