The Separation-Individuation Process: Being Too Other-Directed Leads to Anxiety and Depression

Blog 2 in a 3 Part Series on the Developmental Roots of Anxiety and Depression: Linking Separation-Individuation to Depression and Anxiety

We all need to find our own “voice” and develop our own authentic identity! In this blog post, find out how anxiety and depression can arise when we are too directed by ‘others’ in our self-development.

When we are unsure of what we honestly think, feel, need, and desire, or are driven too much by what others think and feel, we can become disconnected, “unanchored,” and “decentred” from our authentic and true self. This uncertainty can lead to poor mental health outcomes, including anxiety and depression.

Margaret Mahler, the mother of separation-individuation theory, used empirical research to create a developmental model explaining how we develop a separate sense of our self and identity from our parents as we grow up. To develop a healthy sense of our self, we need to be able to become our own psychological beings – our own selves – separate from our parents. We need to develop our personal self boundary, which can grow and change over time from childhood to adulthood. Our parents, friends, and partners can facilitate and support us to develop our own “voice” and self-definition. They can do this by acknowledging, attuning to, and accepting our individual authentic self-expression (i.e., our personal reactions, thoughts, opinions, feelings, desires, and needs). Eventually, we also then need to tolerate that others will have their own self boundary and self definition and may validate who we are, but not necessarily think, feel, need, or desire the exact same things we do. We need to learn how to develop our own self boundary and respect others’ boundaries.

Sometimes parents can struggle with allowing their child to develop a separate sense of self. A lot of pressure can be exerted on the child to conform to the parent’s self and personality. Some parents leave their child with a sense of guilt, shame, or fear when the child is expressing his or her true authentic self or “voice.” Parents can also put significant pressure on children by being overly harsh and critical to ensure conformity to the parents’ wishes. We can lose confidence in our self and become self-critical to meet our parents’ expectations. Later on, we might then lack the confidence to express our true self to others or perhaps feel unsafe expressing our self-doubts and uncertainties. This high self-criticism and low self-confidence can lead to anxiety and depression.

Throughout our lives, we face many different developmental stages that require us to define and redefine our self boundary and self-identity on an ongoing basis. We need to figure out for ourselves who we are, what we like and do not like, what education and training we are going to pursue, what types of relationships or family we want to create, and what work we will do to become a productive member of society. If we let other people’s thoughts, feelings, preferences, desires, and needs define these aspects of our self for us, we can lose our selves and become “unanchored” and “decentred.”

Clinicians at CFIR support you to develop your own authentic “voice” so that your life’s choices and decisions are rooted in your genuine thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs. We can help you to find your own self boundary and self-definition. We can support you in learning how to direct your life from within. Developing a life that is more rooted in your own authentic and true self creates more certainty and confidence, allowing you to pursue a life that is purposeful, meaningful, and fulfilling.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.