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.


  1. Regarding:
    "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."
    I don't think this is always true, at least in cases of substance abuse. Sometimes when the non-abuser begins to operate on a functional level there is less tension in the relationship in general. The relationship is no longer fueled by anger & recrimination. If the abuser ever reaches her/his bottom & seeks help it is much more likely that the relationship can survive.

  2. Yup, I totally agree with what you're saying...and there is such a thing as borrowing another person's functional "points." Thank you so much for continuing this conversation. It is hard to tackle all the exceptions. and I think my posts are already too long as they are--thank you! However, this kind of relationship will not work long term without the non-abuser becoming worn out--manifesting itself in physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion/distress. This also gets in to co-dependency, and the non-abuser enabling the other person to continue his or her destructive behavior. It is more likely like you said that the relationship can survive "if the abuser ever reaches her/his bottom & seeks help." Exactly. When the non-abuser allows the other to hit bottom. and chooses to let the other take responsibility for her/his actions....then yes the repair work begins. This relationship may be turned around and go in a healthier, balanced direction by the substance abuser deciding to stop the destructive behavior AND learn skills to replace the old way he or she was coping with stress (alcohol, drugs, eating...etc.). The only way the relationship will survive, and both partners continue to grow as individuals and a couple is if both learn new ways to deal with their life stressors in a way that will be beneficial to both. Great discussion!


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.

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