Monday, October 25, 2010

Healthy Relationships: Differentiation of Self

Did you know the better you are able to differentiate yourself from what is going on about you by thinking logically rather than emotionally, the healthier your relationships are with other people? Are you asking what the heck does differentiation of self mean, and why should I bother reading about it? Are you getting frustrated by reading magazine articles where you hear about failed relationships and it is either the person's opinion or anecdote from their life experience, and you can only live vicariously through whatever they are writing about during the act of reading, but you have no clue how to actually go about making the change yourself? Learning what differentiation of self is will help you to actively begin changing how you interact with others--so that you have more satisfying relationships. By reading about this you are taking an active skill-based approach to improving your relationships. Did you know that when you become aware of and decide that what you are doing is not working for you, AND you actively learn a new definition or a new skill, then you will put a plan into action enabling you to change how you interact with others!

Differentiation of self is a term Murray Bowen coined when he created the Bowen family systems theory. This theory is used by people as a guide to help them understand either their own or others family dynamics. After all none of us are born into or live our lives in a bubble. Everybody comes from some type of a family. All of us have some form of dysfunction in our families of origin. READ: There are no truly 100& functional families out there. The beauty of picking apart your family dynamics with your family of origin (the one you grew up in) is that you learn to see how you grew up in an objective (or non-emotional) way. This allows you to make a rational thought-out choice as to how you would like to interact in your future family (if you're not married or partnered yet) or the one you now find yourself in with your spouse/partner. Even if you are or were adopted or fostered understanding the eight concepts of the Bowen theory may help you figure out the family dynamics the family you grew up in (and if you're in a new one now) and how this affects how you interact with others.

Hopefully you've read a few of my previous posts about making your relationships healthier so this is just one more tool for your tool kit. Maybe you have even perused the more specific pages on my blog about your current relationship status (single, marrieds, GLBT partnerships...even teens and tweens) or about communication, brain differences between men and women, shared decision making, healthy conflict/anger management, intimacy issues, and even the differences between falling in love and mature love. If not, then please check it out! This post is the beginning of a series of posts that will be discussing how to better understand your family dynamics so you can have healthier relationships. And, if you're looking, then please become a follower, leave comments, send me an email with a question, or subscribe to my feed & share with your friends and family!

The easiest way I explain self differentiation is how well an individual is able to separate the way she/he thinks and feels from that of her/his family's point of view. People tend to function both intellectually and emotionally on a scale. When talking about this concept we tend to lump someone either into having a low/poor "self" differentiation or high/well "self" differentiation. Those with low differentiation tend to become entangled with the group think mentality of their family's emotions. In other words, these type of people depend on others for approval and acceptance. People with low differentiation will either conform to what others want them to do/be in order to please them, or they will attempt to force others to conform to their way of thinking/feeling. By attempting to morph into another person's way of doing/thinking/feeling OR controlling how another person acts/thinks/feels, these type of people tend to be more vulnerable to stress and it is harder for them to adjust to life changes.

Before you reject that you may fall in this camp, please note that NOBODY is able to perfectly conform to the ideal of having a well-differentiated "self." Why? We all grow up in family systems or belong to groups where there is a groupthink mentality of some form or another. We are all influenced to some degree by the way others think, feel, and act. That is what it is to have a relationship. However, when people have a higher (remember the continuum or sliding scale that people function on--you change how you function based on any given situation) differentiation of self, then they recognize they need others, but they tend to depend less on other people's acceptance and approval. This means that they are able to put their feelings on hold before they make a decision about important family and social issues (in other words they don't morph or take on the attitude and beliefs of those around them without first thinking through them). When people have a higher level of self differentiation, then they are more able to stay calm, level-headed, unemotional when they are in a conflict, rejected or criticized. When they find themselves in a conflict, rejected, or criticized they are able to act in the best interest for themselves or a group by staying calm so they can think through a situation based on facts rather than emotions. Whatever they decide matches both what they say and do.

On the scale of self differentiation then--people that are able to think through a situation, and not just react based on their emotions or the emotions of a group would be the ones with a higher differentiation of self.

Not to confuse matters....your level of self differentiation changes based on the situation. Everyone has two types of self differentiation: basic and functional. Your basic differentiation of self level is based solely on the level of your family of origin. Your functional differentiation of self level is based on skills you have learned to better cope under stress.

For example, if your parents have say a level of 40 on a 100 point scale (by the way--there are no actual scales that any professional measures you on when talking about this concept), then you will have a level of a 40. The only way your basic level EVER changes is through hard work re-learning family dynamics and actually putting in cognitive and behavioral changes into place. The more you are able to logically think through and react to a situation, the better you will be able to handle ANY situation or relationship.

In fact in order to have healthier relationships this is how you go about making your first changes, because now you will be able to control your emotions so you are able to be proactive and not reactive. In other words you go from a victim or bully mentality to one of empowerment. And this change is after years of work at re-patterning neural pathways in your brain. It is possible, but not probable that your basic level will change. HOWEVER, we all have another blessed level of differentiation of self and that is functional.

Your functional level is the one that you tend to operate at in your job and with friends when you are under "NO" stress. Meaning, if you get a deadline at work, or you have a tiff with a friend/neighbor/colleague...., then you tend to revert back to your basic level of differentiation of self. If you wonder why you do so well at work, but then your personal relationships suffer it is because you have two different ways of interacting with others. Becoming aware that your basic level of self differentiation is lower on the scale is the first step toward being able to operate consistently at your higher functional self differentiation level.

I will leave you with one last thing to think about...we just went over what differentiation of self means, and you probably put yourself on a sliding scale between having a poor or well differentiation of self. You've found out that most people (you included) have a higher functional level of self differentiation that they tend to operate at on a daily basis at work and with friends, but when subject to stress (conflict, criticism, rejection) they will find themselves reverting back to their basic level--the same level that their family of origin gave them. Our functional level is raised by learning coping skills so we are able to rationally think through things before making a decision, rather than letting our emotions dictate what we say and do. regards to relationships, and if you are trying to find the love of your life. Guess what? You attract and mate with people of the same BASIC level of self differentiation. You may also read that you attract a mate with the same level of maturity. This is often why basic levels stay the same in families. The only way you attract someone with a higher basic level is if you have done the hard work with yourself of raising your functional level (through learning and putting coping skills into practice on a daily basis EVEN when you are not under stress), and you are able to be mindful and rational with your decision-making. This is one of the reasons why in co-dependent relationships where there is substance abuse or mental health issues....if only one person either the one with the problem or the unaffected partner decides to make an active change and operate at their functional level even when in conflict--the relationship falls apart.

Therefore, if you are in a relationship or looking for one we go back to the same basic point. The only way you have healthier relationships is if you are aware: (1) the only person or thing you control is yourself and your feelings, thoughts, actions, and (2) the only way you change this is through learning and putting these coping skills into practice! Pretty cool! You can and will have the relationships you desire if you're able to understand and implement these changes in your life!

I'd love to have you as a follower (I just found this out--good blogging etiquette--if you read a post, then you should post a comment). Ask questions! Leave comments! What is so great about learning these new things is that you are able to put words to whatever it is you are feeling and desiring to make better in your relationships. These terms give you a vehicle to rationally go about making changes.

Friday, October 22, 2010

New Format!

Let me know if you like the new format! I'm trying to figure out how best to present the information so that it is fun to read, and easy to navigate.

I've also updated the GLBT page, so check it out!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Kicking toxic relationships to the curb!

My housing development just sent me a reminder via email that on Friday there is a bulk trash pick-up. I just laid my toddler down for his nap...and I've been distractedly cleaning and organizing the house all day long trying to figure out what the heck we need to keep, what we can do without, and when I can start doing marriage education in our new city! This multi-tasking momma is wondering where super woman is when she needs her! I received the first reminder yesterday of the bulk trash pick-up. As I logged on to my blog a new reminder pinged in my inbox reminding me to clean out our house, again. Isn't that what I've been trying to do all day? We are still moving in to our house so items that worked in our other house don't necessarily belong here. So you may be able to see what I can't from my perspective simply because you are not attached to what looks like junk piles, but for me are trinkets attached to memories. What should stay, and what should go? There are piles of discard items, there are boxes of old clothes and trinkets, and there are cabinets I've just filled with stuph that is really better off purged out of our lives. Can I scoop these items up in less than an hour and a half and dump them for good? I have the sweet memories, so can't I just rid myself of the unneccessary clutter once and for all? So what am I able to get done in this precious hour and a half before the little one is up and begging to go play baseball outside in the lovely fall weather?

I absolutely love moving and new beginnings. There are so many opportunities to get it right this time--with setting up the house, enjoying new friendships with our neighbors, and figuring out where our new balance is for our family in terms of creating a stable family environment.

How come we continue to hang on to things that are no longer necessary? What I'm talking about here is no longer getting items ready for a bulk trash pick-up. What I'm talking about are the absurd relationships we sometimes have with others where we take on their garbage instead of giving them the space and encouragement to clean it up themselves. The negative self-talk that insinuates itself into our best conversations with our girlfriends or loved ones. Why do we expect someone else to clean up our mess? Why don't we just get a trash bag and put the yuck messes in there and move on? Where did that put-down come from? After living as long as we have, and knowing better than to dwell on the negative, why are we morbidly fascinated by it? In others lives, and our own? Why can't we just kick these thoughts and feelings to the curb once and for all?

Well, even if we are not moving in to a new home, or doing a fall cleaning before we hunker down for winter, we can still kick bad habits out for good.

How? By choosing to set a boundary around yourself where you only allow the good to penetrate how you decide to feel, think, and act in any given situation. It is that easy. We all find ourselves in toxic relationships where somehow we allow another person's "meanies" to get the best of us. The way they talk to us trying to manipulate our feelings and thoughts. Or, it could be a stranger just brushing by you and interacting in a rude way. We do have the choice to choose to react negatively or positively.

Did you know that when you notice your feelings first you can then choose how to react? If you notice that someone rubs you the wrong way, and it causes a plethora of negative emotions--you can notice these reactionary emotions, and then choose what you are going to do about it. You could either give in to the negative emotion(s) and act nasty back, or you can decide to be compassionate instead and act how you'd like to be calmed down in that situation. When you can identify a negative emotion in yourself, and then choose to think and act positively despite the yuck feeling you feel, then you can kick that toxic interaction to the curb. In other words, you are choosing to allow only what is good and helpful to you inside your nut shell.

We all find ourselves in toxic relationships, whether it is long term with people we know or short term with an acquaintance or stranger. We get to choose right in the moment to determine our outcome. After all the only thing we can control is ourselves in any given situation. Each time you choose to act from a positive stance, instead of giving in to a negative counter-reaction you create a barrier between yourself and the outside world where you choose to let the toxicity just roll away from you. There is no reason to feel stuck in toxic relationships once you know how to build up a barrier around yourself where you do not allow others negative feelings, thoughts, or actions penetrate the boundary between yourself and others. In fact, if you just let the other person be with their emotions, then you are practicing what I wrote about earlier--unconditional love. You grant them peace to feel and think what they want to feel without judgment. You love them whatever way they are presenting themselves to you. In this way, even if you're in a long term toxic relationship, you cannot be victimized or sucked in to this person's own misery. They may be saying mean and hurtful things to or about you. However, you've chosen to not let this affect your inner light. How amazing is this? When you can look and see a negative interaction for what it is, a hurting person intent on inflicting their negative self-talk onto someone else, then you become aware that the crap directed at you is NOT about YOU. It is ALL about THEM! And, you can either react negatively back, and get sucked into their hell hole, or you can choose to stay out and away from their garbage. Hmm.

I wish it were that easy with cleaning out your house for a bulk trash pick-up one day from now. All this thinking and feeling and writing about how to help others kick toxic relationships to the curb in the hopes this blog helps just one person deal with why someone is acting in such a mean way to them...happy dumping! I better get back to work!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Unconditional love. What is it?

We all want to be loved, but what does that mean? Contrary to popular belief, we cannot control how or what another person feels or thinks about us. So isn't the better question, how may I love others better?

Our primal need is to feel love. When you can never be too sure what anyone else is thinking, let alone feeling about you--what about focusing on what you can control. You. Your emotions, your thoughts, and your behaviors.

In fact, when we think we are "in love" or "falling in love," the only thing we are really sure of are the surge of emotions in our body. And, when we are in the act of being loved, do we know the difference between accepting this nebulous thing called love with or without conditions?

You see, unconditional love, it is something much bigger than love. Unconditional love means exactly what it states, love without conditions. Meaning, giving love to others without requiring anything in return. Often we do this with babies and pets. We think we know what this unconditional love thing requires. However, it seems like the minute a recipient is able to mutter a syllable, we begin heaping requirements on them about how they need to fulfill our needs.

In healthy relationships, learning to love unconditionally is of utmost importance. Often, we're able to do this with babies, little children, pets, even our best friends, but sometimes we run into snags when it comes to other family, friends, neighbors, or co-workers when whatever they are saying or doing doesn't jive with our own outlook on life.

Instead of choosing how we think and act, based on what our internal barometer (i.e. our emotions) is telling us--we often find ourselves reacting to situations. If you understand how to identify fear-based thoughts and actions..., then you are able to be in control of the one thing you can control--yourself. If you can just pause to identify if your feeling is fear or love based, then you are able to get out of the cycle of reacting to situations, and into a pattern of making mindful decisions. Anything you think or do, first came on to your radar through an emotion. When you are able to identify and really name the emotions you are feeling, then you can get to the more important question of why you are feeling said emotion, and then you can decide what you'd like to do about it. If you identify a fear-based emotion such as anger (by the way anger is ALWAYS a secondary emotion with another emotion lying underneath), fear, rage, guilt, apathy, remorse, sorrow..., then you are able to switch out of this downward-spiral. In fact, if you are to give unconditional love, it requires that you snap out of the funk, and choose a love-based emotion to feel instead.

You see with unconditional love, in order to give and receive it freely, the more your emotions, thoughts, and actions are coming from a place of love, the more you are able to do both--giving and receiving of unconditional love. It really is as simple as figuring out whether what you are feeling, thinking, and doing is fear or love-based. If you want the love that has conditions, guess what? It is fear-based. The only way you can flip to unconditional love, is if you are able to come at life from a love-based perspective. It is the only way you are able to empower yourself to grow into the person you are meant to be, and to allow others to do the same. If not, then you run the risk of putting conditions on people on what they have to do to earn or buy your love, approval, etc.

Where we get trapped is our penchant to slip into self-preservation mode. I will do this, if only you....notice me, like me, take care of me, don't say mean things, thank me for what I do for you, help me, love me back. That's a lot of conditions isn't it? If you go back to that experience of loving a baby or a pet--and you think about where your feelings were, what you thought during, and what you did while you were loving that innocent baby or pet...that is what you can have with not just one other person in your life, not just two, but with everyone you are able to let go of controlling, as you let them be themselves.

When you give unconditional love, you do just that. You relinquish the demands that the other person loves or gives you something back. It is a different way of interacting once you learn how to do this with all your relations. When you give love freely, you become empowered. You no longer will be attached to the anger, victim, fearful attachments of abandonment or worrying about being noticed or useful. In fact, if you understand this concept of unconditional love, then you will be able to build better boundaries about yourself so you are not misused by ANYONE. Including, your partner, your family, your children, your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors, and (yup) strangers.

I thanked my mom a few days ago. I knew I knew what "it" was, and that I practice "it" daily with my husband, my son and my best friend. I know how to flip it, so when I'm interacting with strangers, and they are upset or fearful about something, I can help re-direct them..., but what I thanked my mom for was the gift she gave me of giving me unconditional love so I could grow and become me. And that was the key for me to help write about how you can simply understand unconditional love. Once you have been a recipient of this type of pure, higher, empowering, freeing love. You have the key--you know how to give it as well. It takes a leap of faith away from the self-centered feeling of being hurt by exposing yourself. But the rewards on the other Joy against all odds.

Unconditional love, loving without conditions.

How do you love unconditionally, and how did you learn it? How is it different from the kind of love that is the rage right now in our society that is resulting in divorces, single family homes, fatherless children?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Effective Listening

Check out the communication page. Did you know that listening is the single most important skill you can use to make your relationships better? In fact, if you practice how to be a better listener, then you will see your relationship improve right away. Your partner most likely will notice that he or she is being heard, and as a result your conversations may be less heated and your intimacy together may increase. As time goes on, the other person in your relationship may in turn start mirroring the listening skills you've been practicing. I've just added a new game about effective listening. It discusses important skills such as digesting aloud and listening to learn. Hopefully, you'll enjoy learning what and how to become a more effective listener.

I've also moved the skill-builder of the week: Active Listening--Digestive vs. Rejective Listening to the communication page as well. The new skill-builder at the bottom of the blog home page this week is about the latest research on how marriage impacts family life. Check it out to see if you are aware of the most recent statistics about the differences between married couples and single, divorced, or co-habitating couples.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Connecting, Better than Communicating?

As I sat typing up an addition to the "communication" page and posting on BlogHer..., I got the call you never want to get. One of my husband's dearly loved ones passed away. He is on his way home in a few minutes, and I will be here for him. What will be difficult is setting aside all of the daily chores, the fact his father will be arriving from town later this afternoon and the house has yet to finish cleaning itself, and just focus on being here with him in the moment. So, I will definitely be using what I was just writing about--the importance of connecting. We will have much to communicate to prepare for the funeral, take time off from work, etc., for now the most important thing and throughout this life event is to stay connected and do whatever I can to support him during this grief. I will be putting the money where my mouth is you could say. I always do. I would never post anything on this blog that I do not already do in my relationships. However, I sometimes fret that my readers wonder if I'm just writing how to put theories into practice, and I am not following these practices or skills myself. Well, I am and I do. And, this is why I am so passionate about sharing these skills and ideas with others. If you know what is working, and how to help others make their relationships more enjoyable, then to me it feels like a crime not to share. And, no, I don't know all the answers, but I keep looking and trying until I find them. We all will be different people tomorrow, each day brings with it a whole new set of challenges, and it is how we grow and change with them that is the true testament to the lives we are living, and whether at the end of the day or the end of our lifespan--whether all we went through was worthwhile and of benefit to others.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

#1 Predictor of Divorce

We've settled in to our new home, and I'm back up and running with posts!

Did you know that the number one predictor of divorce is habitually avoiding conflict?

When we first get married, we often are still in the passionate/infatuation love stage. Later on--whether it be months or years--we find out that we don't always see eye-to-eye with our partner. What we forget is that THIS IS NORMAL! In fact, the happiest married couples often have at least ten areas of "disagreement" or incompatibility. They are successful in their marriage, because somewhere along the way they have been able to communicate openly about touchy or disagreeable topics, and they have been able to decide to disagree. That, and they also choose to not let these disagreements leech into other aspects of their relationship. To me, this means especially not the intimate and romantic side of the relationship.

As an aside...did you know if you did get divorced, in your "newer" relationship ten more areas of incompatibility/disagreement will crop up there too. Now add children from a previous marriage in to the mix...might their upbringing be one of those ten areas of disagreement in the new marriage? In ANY RELATIONSHIP, we are going to have areas where there is incompatibility or disagreement. Success in ANY relationship then means with our partner we learn skills/ways in which we can respect the difference in opinion, and choose to love and carry on in the relationship any way. Novel idea?

One of the most cited and proven ways to confront conflict is on neutral ground. This could mean a couple of different things. For example:
(1) As an issue arises, choosing a point in the near future to discuss ____.
How you would set this up goes something like this, "Honey, on Saturday after we've both fit our workouts in, and we've eaten lunch as a family, while Junior is playing ball outside, can we sit on the back steps and talk about ____?"
Here--you identify there is a problem that needs to be discussed, and you are choosing to discuss it when you're stress levels are low (i.e. you've worked out, you're fed, and your child is occupied), and you can address the situation more rationally than emotionally.
(2) Setting a regular time to discuss personal, family, financial, job, etc. matters.
How this would be set up is by setting a set day and time to discuss potential conflicts. For example, every second Friday, or every Sunday, or the first day of the month, or the third weekend of the month, or two days before payday....etc. The point here is to have a set time and place where you both know in advance you can bring up any topics.
Both of these examples allow partners to come to the table open-handed and hopefully, open-minded. After all--the best way to keep your marriage or relationship healthy is to address issues before they become problems, fights, or major issues.

You may be wondering, okay, so I need to identify potential situations that may escalate before they happen? What?! Well, if you are listening to your self-talk, and have a feeling that your partner may disagree or become upset, then that's an indicator NOT to bring the topic up in the heat of the moment, when he/she walks in from work/errands/etc. How do I stop myself from engaging and rearing up for a heated conversation while I'm asking my partner for "date" to discuss issue B?
(1) Listen to your inner dialogue. If you have any type of uneasy feeling about your partner's reaction, or if you know you feel strongly YOURSELF about the topic....
(a) breathe
(b) decide to choose a date/time/place in the future to discuss topic
(c) ask your partner if you two can sit down (or if walking, kicking a soccer ball, etc. helps you engage--do that too!) and discuss said topic
(d) think through the situation--identify your feelings, what you'd like the outcome to be, and how you see yourself and partner coming to a compromise or decision to respectfully disagree
(e) sit down and discuss the situation
(f) if you are unable to resolve it or come to an agreement, then choose how you will compromise or decide on another time to come back and discuss the same topic
(g) remember to HUG or HOLD HANDS while discussing! WHY? This issue is exactly that--an issue--and in no way affects the rest of your complex relationship. You've chosen to love eachother through thick and thin.
(2) If you are already ready to blow your top--your muscles are tense, you are swearing under your breath/out loud, you're snapping at other people, you want to scream (or are screaming...)--choose 1 of 2 things:
(a) Buzz word. Could be as simple as "Relax" "Chill out" "Love" "Humbleness" "Grace" "Help!" "1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi." Basically, you want to recite something in your head, better yet if no one is around say it out loud...repeatedly until you're in control of your emotions. Note--it is okay to use the same word or phrase or poem repeatedly, HOWEVER what we know of brain neuroscience is that it is better to switch it up. Read more about your second option if you're ready to burst...
(b) Do something mathematical. Wait, what did she say? Yup, do some kind of a math problem.
Huh? Right in the heat of the moment if you are ready to pop--you are NOT in the decision-making area of your brain. You are in the reptilian part. In order to get to the higher executive functions, you have to engage your frontal lobe. How? By doing some kind of math or logic problem. This takes you from the emotional area of your brain straight to your rational area.
Guess what? Those are 2 things you can do to bring yourself back to neutral ground. However, you and your spouse can also decide on a "buzz word" or yell "time out!/math time!" and challenge each other with some kind of a wacky word or math problem to get your tempers back down to neutral. Then--from there agree on a future date/time/place to discuss whatever was heating you up!

Click on the link to see what types of courses are out there that you can take to learn some of these communication skills:

The Basic Ways We Change

There are three ways in which we can actively monitor ourselves so that we may change how we interact with our surroundings:

(1) Thoughts (cognitions)
(2) Feelings (emotions)
(3) Actions (behaviors)

When you are in traditional counseling sessions--the counselor uses a variety of theories that typically focus on one of these areas to help you make changes in your life. In the best case scenario the theory that the counselor is using is based on their training background/when they received their masters degree, as well as what the current trend is based upon research on the effectiveness of the theories in actual practice. However, we won't delve too deeply into theories and understanding methodology, because this site is educational and for you to understand more of how you work.

The activities that are posted and linked on this blog are to help give you immediate tools to begin actively reorganizing how you interact with your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

People that are aware that they can use their feelings and thoughts to influence their actions are able to control what happens to them. Novel idea? This is because they recognize that they can influence their outcomes based on identifying the emotions they are feeling, then choosing what thoughts they would like to focus on, and then putting it in to action.

Latest Research on the Impact of Marriage on Family Life

This week check out your skills on how much you know about how marriage impacts family life.

Learning Center & Blog Archive