Differentiation and Individuation are terms used to describe a developmental process everyone needs to go through in their path toward maturity. My (probably oversimplified) understanding of these terms is that in differentiation, I learn that I’m not a you; in individuation, I learn that I am a me. So these are related processes and ideas. They happen together and each affects the other.
Much of both of these processes happens during early childhood. The child learns that they are not their mother and that their mother is not them. This happens as the child learns to explore their world in the presence of their mom or dad, but from the other side of the room. This happens when mom drops the child off in the nursery but then always comes back. The experience of separation is good and necessary, but it provokes fear and anxiety, so there’s this season of practicing distance and, through that, learning that connection is safe both when there’s distance and when there’s nearness.
This also develops through boundaries. Mom and dad say “no” and “yes” to the child. I don’t get to just do whatever I want because there are other people in the equation. I have to learn to adjust my life to the “yes” and “no” coming from other people. But I also get to practice my own “yes” and “no” and my parents teach me how to respond to boundaries by how they react to mine. Welcome to being a toddler.
Both in the context of distance and in boundaries, the fear of disconnection gets triggered. Good parenting will teach the young child that distance and boundaries don’t threaten connection. Connection is safe in relationships with limits and boundaries. I am a me and you are a you. We affect each other, yet we stay connected.
A narcissist has never completed this developmental process. They don’t think of you as being separate from them. They think of you as an extension of them. They haven’t learned that distance and boundaries don’t equal disconnection. So any attempt to set limits in the relationship triggers fear and a control response of some kind.
If you’re in a relationship with someone who struggles in this way, even an adult, one of the best things you can do is to begin to set boundaries and establish distance without closing your heart. Danny Silk coined the term “Keep Your Love On” and I think that fits well here. Set limits. Enforce boundaries. Manage you. But not from a place of anger or fear. Offering them a relational context where boundaries are practiced while connection is maintained does two things. First, it’s a healthy response from you and therefore good for you. But it’s also a healthy response from you toward them, and therefore good for them. Love is cultivated and shared between people who have learned to stay connected in the context of limits that reflect the differentiation and individuation belonging to each person in the relationship.
Most people in relationship with a narcissist do one or the other. They either maintain connection with no boundaries, or they establish boundaries and withdraw connection. Both of those responses are driven by fear. This “solution” to the problem only perpetuates the problem. The deficit is in a need to learn that boundaries, limits and connection are all designed to exist together. It’s safe.