CREATING A SPACE FOR INDIVIDUATION AND THE NEED FOR PSYCHOLOGICAL HELP Previous item Zamejstvo in matica pred... Next item La mente in guerra


I will speak about how humans seem to develop out of an almost total immersion and identification with the environment, with their group and its culture, into ever freer individualities. In my assumption, the process of individuation is closely connected also with an increasing need for psychological help, with the birth of psychoanalysis hundred years ago and with the enormous development of psychotherapy practice in the last decades all over the world.

I present some thoughts on fragments, which I have collected in various fields, in which I am not an expert (group-analysis, history, anthropology etc.).

A background fantasy of this thinking may be that humans, terrorized by their powerlessness, invented a system with an omnipotent god, where they were able to influence him, to make use of his omnipotence in some way. Copernicus displaced humans from their powerful position at the centre of the universe – of their god’s attention. So part of this powerlessness, projected in the environment, should have been re-introjected. Then Darwin compelled people to re-introject their animal-instinctual part, previously projected into animals, slaves, women, barbarians etc. Still, Freud imposed the re-integration of repressed unconscious contents into the conscious self. Perhaps, after having painfully re-introjected so much, humans have a realer representation of themselves and therefore, in the end, could be less omnipotent in fantasy, but stronger in reality. Perhaps only now we may take the risk to interact more deeply with others in a global dimension, without losing too much of our individuality and look for a different way of compensating for our intrinsic powerlessness.

From another point of view, we may think that, through group interaction, from a primitive massive symbiotic fusion (we could also say narcissistic or “ambiguous”, following Bleger), humans are developing toward a certain individuation (let us say closer to the “depressive position”, as in the “paranoid-schizoid position” the borders of the self are weaker), where more subtle, flexible, agile and non-massive fusion relationships (something similar to subtle fusionchannel establishing empathy) are necessary to benefit from a large network of contacts. 

The connection group-individual

Freud in 1921 in “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” was aware that (p.123):
“We must conclude that the psychology of groups is the oldest human psychology; what we have isolated as individual psychology, by neglecting all traces of the group, has only since come into prominence out of the old group psychology, by a gradual process which may still, perhaps, be described as incomplete.”

And, a few pages later (p.129):

“Each individual is a component part of numerous groups, he is bound by ties of identification in many directions, and he has built up his ego ideal upon the most various models. Each individual therefore has a share in numerous group minds — those of his race, of his class, of his creed, of his nationality, etc — and he can also raise himself above them to the extent of having a scrap of independence and originality.” (my italics)

Forty years later Bion wrote in “Experiences in Groups And Other Papers” (1961, p.132): 

“The point that I would make is that no individual, however isolated in time and space, can be regarded as outside a group or lacking in active manifestations of group psychology.” 

And in the next page he stresses that (p.133):

“There are characteristics in the individual whose real significance cannot be understood unless it is realized that they are part of his equipment as a herd animal and their operation cannot be seen unless it is looked for in the intelligible field of study—which in this instance is the group.”

But neither Freud nor Bion seemed to sufficiently consider those extraordinary intuitions in their further work, as if both were then too engaged in exploring the individual part of the mind. 

By the way, we must acknowledge that in “War and Peace” Leo Tolstoj had already written some similar, shrewd thoughts when Freud was just 3 years old.

The group psychoanalyst Ferdinando Vanni (1982), distinguished mental areas involved in group activity from mental areas of individual psychism. All areas function with a certain independence, but at the same time there is an indispensable osmosis, interdependence and integration among them. 

We may presume among them a partial border, a somewhat selectively permeable membrane, which keeps certain contents separate and thus allows the individuality – up to a certain degree – to be separated from its groups. But, at the same time, other contents may freely circulate through this membrane-border, keeping us partially merged-undifferentiated with our groups. 

All these areas seem to be in a constant dialectic relationship with one another. This allows us to feel both: part of groups, as well as separated individuals at the same time. Just as the human mind is simultaneously active on a great number of different levels, which, more or less, integrate themselves. But they may also be in conflict among themselves, or remain relatively split. 

I would also recall Jose Bleger (1967) and his revolutionary concepts, to better represent some developments in human history. He has reversed the traditional view, in which the baby is born out of the womb in narcissistic isolation and only later, through his or her family, establishes relationships with groups.  

Bleger’s view, which is less descriptive, looks at the subjective experience of the link with the social container. From the beginning of life there is a feeling of symbiotic non-discrimination with the surrounding environment. Everything and the opposite of everything, me and non-me, co-exist in a non-conflicting way. There are no borders of the Self. Soon begins a lifelong process of discrimination-differentiation with the immediate human context, through which the Ego is formed and differentiated, while a non-differentiated “meta-Ego” remains present, important and active, bound to the surrounding context although split and mute, throughout the entirety of the subject’s existence. The muter it is (non-mentalized), the more powerful it becomes. 

Group culture pressure on individuality

A massive fusion in group life is therefore a starting point, from which elements  of  individuality strive to emerge.

In this sense, if we compare the relationships group-individual and mother-child, both: the not yet enough emancipated baby or individual are partially merged with what surrounds them (parents or group), though they have also already developed some ego-functions, which allow them to differentiate some elements of the surrounding world. But a large part of their feeling and thinking remains still not differentiated from their environment. As if they would wait for life – or historical -circumstances, in which they may enlarge their awareness of themselves and proceed toward further individuation. 

Loewald (1979) considers strive for emancipation and individuation like a human drive parallel to sexual and aggressive ones. But at the same time he emphasizes that: “With reference to the problem of individuation and the status and valuation of the individual, psychoanalysis appears to be in an awkward position. On the one hand, it seems to stand and fall with the proposition that the emergence of a relatively autonomous individual is the culmination of human development. On the other hand, owing in part to analytic research, there is a growing awareness of the force and validity of another striving, that for unity, symbiosis, fusion, merging, identification—whatever name we wish to give to this sense of and longing for non separateness and undifferentiation.”

Also Kaes (2007) is stressing that “The subjectivation process cannot happen … if not in an intersubjective set, to whom is at the beginning tributary, but from which cannot free radically.” 

It becomes clear that there is an intrinsic human need to be in part individuated and in part merged with other humans, with a system of groups. The problem is not to get rid of one of these two sides, but to harmonize these parts.

As if individuals should “breathe” and “feed“ their psychic metabolism also through their parts, which are merged with the exterior. This happens – mainly unconsciously – interacting also with the enormous sediment of myths, codes, experiences, proto-knowledges and proto-memories, that constitute the base of any group culture and of the whole humankind. In this primitive ocean, which we have formed as “sapiens” since prehistory, we swim, absorb and use its contents, so as we input our experience. Interacting we modify it in positive and in negative. It is mainly by fusion channels that we are connected to this “i-Cloud”, in which our culture has been gathered since thousands of years. The main part of this has happened unconsciously and seems located in the non-repressed unconscious. (Fonda, 2015)

From the outset, through their parents, children are a part of many groups and of their cultures. Only later, by thinking and discriminating, may they differentiate themselves from the obvious symbiotic world (where obvious may mean: known, but not thought, or true, but not verified). Only in this way may the human being, to use Freud’s words, “raise himself […] to the extent of having a scrap of independence and originality”. Only by this can individuality, in its unique originality, be born and develop. 

But this does not always happen, as we may remain almost completely merged with our environment, just unaware actors of a role assigned us by the group. The symbiotic “obvious” has a tremendous power in keeping minds tied to mental schemas shared by the group.

We may imagine group thinking and group culture as a semi-solid mass, with a high degree of viscosity, that envelops us and nestles us, offering anchoring, belonging, safety, continuity, stability, reference points, answers to all the main problems of life and fears, a precise role in the group etc.

A few fragments, just to illustrate this:

  • A meaningful metaphoric picture of the emerging of individuals from group psychism, from the culture of “obvious and not thought” that envelops them, may be represented by the “Terra cotta army” in China, where warriors, thanks to archaeologists, slowly appear out of the earth from which they were placed since many centuries.
  • In a book on good manners, printed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there are more than thirty chapters with detailed rules on how to behave relating to parents, relatives, widows, priests, post-officers, army officers, up to the emperor. Everything is codified, no freedom of choice nor need to invent anything. 
  • In the Fifties James Davis, an American soldier married a girl from a Slovene village near Trieste. Later, becoming a professor of history in the USA, he wrote a book on his wife’s family, which had lived 500 years in that very village. It appears how the community of this small village was like a tough and rigid organism, imposing on its members for centuries how to think, behave, give birth, grow old and die.
  • Henry James, in his short story “The Private Life”, grotesquelydescribes the character Lord Mellifont as a perfect actor, always speaking and behaving as others would expect. But every time he is alone and has no listeners, who may reflect upon and confirm his existence from the outside, Lord Mellifont disappears and cannot be seen, because in his private personal dimension, he doesn’t exist. He exists only in his stereotyped social interactions, only with his group identity, being completely empty on the inside, void of individuality. 

“Norms of conduct, behaviour, convention, thought, of what is rational, realistic, and ‘ego-syntonic’, are interdependent with the stability of a civilization. This stability does not only include the general acceptance of ethical or religious precepts or of the valuation of scientific rationality, but also the comparative lack of change of living conditions within a given cultural area and of life on this planet.” (Loewald, 1979)

Symbiotic fusion, although it guarantees survival, safety and continuity, impedes individual thinking and restrains development. But changes in survival conditions force groups to modify their culture and this shakes parts of the immobile social »meta-ego«. Threatening cracks appear in it and from them originate anxieties that need mentalization and containment. 

When safe social niches disappear, individuals fall out of them and become, to a larger extent, subjects of their decisions, bearing the responsibility for their lives on their own shoulders. This overloads their egos and spreads anxieties, which fosters the need for psychological help.

Joints, after being immobilized in plaster casts over a long period of time, become especially vulnerable to all sorts of accidents caused by motion. The same is true for minds emerging from being immobilized in traditional cultures, fanatic religions or totalitarian ideologies.

Stable institutions keep much distressing contents petrified and inactive on a social level. This happens very concretely (prisons, psychiatric hospitals) or on a representative level (religion, ideology). Their weakening or disappearing frees up significant amounts of anxiety that must be dealt with by individuals. It has become especially evident in Western Europe since 1968, as well as in Eastern Europe after 1990.

Birth and development of individuality and the need for psychotherapy

As long as a life that is not sufficiently differentiated from the group persists and prevails, there is no space for introspection and individuality, because everything corresponds and is merged with the “obvious”, with the self-evidence of the group culture. Thinking is delegated mainly to charismatic leaders-authorities, though they are exposed to strong pressures by the group unconscious to formulate and represent mainly collective contents, need and fears.

Emancipation from group thinking develops, up to a different degree, in different historical periods and in different cultures, while in others such emancipation may still be practically absent.

Actually it was in ancient Greece, more than 2500 years ago, that for the first time in Europe appeared a significantly diffused individual independent thinking and feeling, which characterized that time society and culture. We may see it clearly also in that time cultural, art and scientific production. Then, in the first centuries AD, we may follow this in the Romans. Let us just give a look to how it appears in paintings. These Roman portraits of 79 AD are from Pompei and Fayum in Egypt in the same period, show how artists (but also those who commissioned them these portraits) considered personal details, that characterize individuals. 

Pompei portraits.

A Fayum portrait.

On the contrary, in paintings that in Europe predominated for almost 1000 years after the end of the Roman empire, during early Middle Age, there was no care for individuality, but just symbolic representing mainly stylized roles like kings, saints or sacred figures. Neither did painters care to sign their own paintings, as if they as individuals were not relevant, feeling themselves just an expression of their group.

Poreč-Parenzo (Croatia), mosaic The Holy Mother with Jesus, Basilica of st.Euphrasia, 6. Century AD.

Christ Majesty, 1123, fresco detached from the cupola of San Clemente a Tahul. Barcellona

The Russian historian Aron Jakovlevič Gurevič, in his book »The Birth of the Individual in Medieval Europe« (1996), analyzing European literature from the 10th to 14th century, underlines how, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, there was almost no space for individuality. Writers didn’t represent themselves at all, or other people, with their own individual feelings and thoughts, but only facts, roles, how they reflected God’s image in themselves etc. Similarly to other historians, he believes that only with Humanism has the birth of the individual begun to emerge again (if we consider also the Greek-Roman antiquity) and to push the center of gravity of culture, slowly and with great difficulty, from collective psychology toward the individual.

Just with Giotto in the 13th Century appears again the emphasis on individuality, which will then develop up to nowadays. In Giotto’s painting, so as in Dante’s poetry, appears a deep attention and a completely new sensitivity to feelings, passion, emotions, affects and a scenic expression of acts through the prism of the subjective look of the witness-observer-author. He characterizes individually gestures and expressions on faces, as the art historian Pavla Volkova excellently describes in her lesson on Giotto’s Kiss of Judas. 

Giotto – The Kiss of Judas, 1305 in Padova (Cappella degli Scrovegni).

In his fascinating booklet »I barbari. Saggio sulla mutazione« (2006) Alessandro Baricco reminds us how individuality has further developed following the French Revolution, during Romanticism, though it was limited mainly to the bourgeoisie.

All of this prepared the conditions, in which an instrument should be invented that would look after the aspects of individuality that were being released more and more. And Freud invented psychoanalysis. He was a product of his era, which was moving toward individualization. Freud, as any other great mind, succeeded exactly because in that historical moment his intuitions were needed by the group culture to deal with certain growing problems.

The rather peaceful revolutions in 1968 in Western Europe, as well as in America, have substantially weakened the authority of group institutions, and further extended the individual space and freedom from the bourgeoisie to the rest of population.

Just an enlightening fact. In a small and calm city, as Trieste is, in 1968 there were no psychotherapists nor clinical psychologists, not one. Even neuro-psychiatrists where mainly neurologists. It seemed that the city felt no need whatsoever for any profession with a “psy” in front of it. Almost 50 years later there are more than 100 psychotherapists, and already a few thousand people have undergone psychotherapy or an analysis, in spite of a permanently strong opposition to any psychotherapy on the part of local institutions like the Mental Health Service and the University. 

In 1990 we thought that in Eastern Europe, after half a century of brainwashing on psychoanalysis as a “bourgeois deformation”, it should be hard to find people interested in psychoanalysis. In fact, we found that in every Eastern city groups of professionals interested in psychoanalysis and the number of people eager to be helped by them had soon grown significantly. Later China has followed suit as a further surprise, and now Iran and the Islamic world too. 

There has never been such a widespread freedom of choice in so many individual lives like we have today. This is rapidly extending all over the world. The space for individuality is widening on a global dimension and, at the same time, the need for psychotherapy is inevitably growing.

Nowadays, the astonishing picture of extremely destructive fundamentalisms seems to contradict what I am saying. But I think that it might also be viewed as an extreme, and futile, attempt to preserve old cultures, which are inevitably dying (if they will not bear a substantial renewal). This could be felt in the ever more dominating death instinct manifestations, like the “kamikaze” self-destructions, which express: everything should be destroyed, as there is no hope for any acceptable future. The same scenario was seen in the last years of WW2, when it became clear that Nazism had no future and Hitler prolonged the war, to destroy also the German nation, and the Wehrmacht was transformed into millions of hopeless kamikazes. 

Nowadays we live in a world of vivid, advancing creativity and innovation, where conditions continuously and rapidly change. Let us just consider that in 1900 there were on the world 8000 scientists, while hundred years later they were 5 millions!

Every invention-innovation and cultural acquisition changes not only the external world, but also how individuals perceive themselves in their external and internal world relations. There is a continuous pressure toward changes in individuals, families and social structures, sometimes culminating in bloody revolutions.

Just as in a baby “optimal frustrations” create a potential mental space, so we may hypothesize that social “frustrations”, connected with changes, may do the same. Group members need to think and find many individual solutions to new problems of survival. 

The expansion of the mental space, in which individuals may better represent and elaborate their own mental contents (and also those of others), fosters the development of individuality. 

The increase of anxieties, as well as of thinking and representing, also fosters the need for a more and more sophisticated servicing for these functions. So we see, how – in parallel with culture and individuality – magic, religion, philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy have developed through human history. 

Of course, each of these tools may have also been used for its opposite: to repress the development of individuality. But this is another story.

There is an increasingly widespread need for mentalization. Mental contents push to be represented – thought – elaborated. Consequently, there is a global worldwide need for psychological help. 

In contrast with this, there is still a widespread split and denial of mental life in psychiatry (strongly subsidized by pharmacological companies), with a magic omnipotent faith in psychopharmacology. But the need for mental elaboration can no longer be ignored, denied or substituted by only concrete tools, because representation-thinking-elaboration is now indispensable for survival more than in any other time. Because of this, we see how is psychiatry in last decades weakening its role in research and treatment of a large part of psychic disease, left to psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and psychologists.  

Continuous restructuring and adapting of one’s Self is urgently needed: “solid”, non-thought (beta) elements must be transformed into flexible, plastic, “liquid” elements (alpha). 

It is necessary to discriminate, symbolize, “alphabetize”, “liquefy”, what was “solid”, concrete and inactive within the “un-thought obvious”. 

On a social level discrimination and symbolization happen mainly by cultural elaboration: science and art. Psychoanalysis, as a science, contributes to general cultural development, providing knowledge of the human psyche. While clinically psychoanalysis and psychotherapy help individuals who “stumble” in today’s race, and cannot adapt to such pressing development. Still, acting on a large number of individuals, psychoanalysis also contributes to widening the group mental space, allowing representing and thinking. 

In the 19th century individuality enlarged its space mainly in the upper classes, while later, especially after 1968, this development has also included large parts of the lower classes. In much the same way, psychoanalysis was first adapted for cultivated upper classes and just half a century later started to be extended to culturally less equipped lower ones. 

Such recent rapid spread of need for psychotherapy to large numbers of people in the population, who do not have deep cultural backgrounds, may explain why many scientifically questionable or sometimes clearly magic-based or manipulative approaches and techniques are so successful today. This happens also because the general fight against any kind of authority, which could limit individual choices, has weakened also the authority of science and scientific methods. Scientists’ opinions are sometimes hardly considered. 

In the last decades psychoanalysis has begun its worldwide circulation to very different cultures too, which appears connected with a general trend toward the emancipation of individuals on a global dimension. 

Anyhow, there is not just a linear development toward individuation, but there are oscillations in different historical periods. As mentioned, 2000 years ago there was reached a relatively high degree of individuation within the Mediterranean cultures, what later almost disappeared. Nevertheless, we may think that there could be, for any historical and cultural environment, an optimal balance between the level of individuation and the part of the psychic activity merged in the group. Perhaps in some areas, like maybe in nowadays Europe, the level of individuation could be so high that this creates a threat of fragmentation. It seems more and more difficult to find a sufficient group cohesion also on issues and plans that could be even necessary for the survival of larger groups. The threat of fragmentation or disintegration of large groups, like nations are, may arise catastrophic anxieties, which could provoke regressions to rigid Paranoid-Schizoid positions, where merging in a common ideology or faith may provide cohesion and force. An excess of diffuse individuation may provoke as a reaction a regressive paranoid merging?

What is happening nowadays?

Baricco (2006) suggests that perhaps «new barbarians» are approaching problems in a different non-conventional way. Instead of pointing to a limited subject matter and investigating that in depth, they favour what is less concrete, rapidly changing, suited to a wide variety of connections. Surfing instead of diving. But this doesn’t necessarily mean being superficial. The challenge could be how multiple connections may substitute (or complete or integrate) depth.

For example, a psychoanalyst today, more than ever, finds it difficult to work in isolation. It used to be that one could read a significant part of the literature without needing much to share that reading, that task, that elaboration with others. This is no more. Continuous interaction between individual and group evaluation appears indispensable. Only in this way might we arrive at a depth that would be unreachable by the single person.

We are witness to something like this: more individualities, but more connected to one another and so new forms of group functioning? It could be worthwhile to think about it.

The world is changing radically and psychotherapy, just as psychoanalysis, must change too. 

But let’s be careful: the present is no worse than the past, nor is it sure that it is better, but for sure it is different. Let’s not stagnate in fossilized past schemas, but let’s try to understand what is changing. 

What we are living today is far from being a transitional economic crisis. We are living a deep transition to a new era as a result of fundamental scientific, technical, social, cultural and political changes. Nothing will be as it was. 

Psychoanalysis has never had such a large space and such favorable conditions for further growth, but only if we do not lose contact with the times in which we are living.



Baricco, A. (2006). I barbari. Saggio sulla mutazione. Milano, Feltrinelli. 2008.

Bion, W.R. (1961). Experiences in Groups And Other Papers. London. Tavistock Edition. 1961.

Bleger, J. (1967). Symbiose et Ambiguitè. Paris, P.U.F. 1981.

Davis, C.J. (1988). Rise From Want. Philadelphia.University Pennsylvania Press. 1988.

Fonda, P. (2015). Notes on the Pathophysiology of Fusion.Paper presented at the 3rd National Meeting of the Italian Psychoanalytic Society on analytic work with children, adolescents and parents. Caserta, 27 November 2015.

Freud, S. (1921). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. The Standard Edition, Vol.XVIII.

Gurevič, J.A. (1994). La nascita dell’individuo nell’Europa medievale. Roma-Bari. Ed.Laterza.

James, H. The Private Life. In: Stories of the Supernatural. New York. Taplinger Publishing Company, 1970.  

Kaes, R. (2007). Un singulier pluriel. Paris. Dunod, 2007.

Tolstoj, L. (1865-1869). Guerra e pace. Milano. Ed.Lucchi, 1963.

Vanni, F. (1984). Modelli mentali di gruppo. Milano. Ed.Cortina.

Volkova, P. МОСТ НАД БЕЗДНОЙ-Джотто Поцелуй Иуды(1 серия)