Differentiation of Self

Differentiation of Self

Differentiation of Self

Concepts of Murray Bowen

Differentiation of self refers to your ability to separate your own intellectual and emotional functioning (for example, your reactions) from that of others. Individuals with “low differentiation” are more likely to become fused with predominant family emotions and expectations, and subsequently, have difficulty separating their thoughts and feelings from others. Those with “low differentiation” excessively depend on others for approval and acceptance, as well as fear rejection or disagreement with others. They either conform themselves to others in order to please them (and avoid conflict), or they attempt to force or persuade others to conform to their wishes. Persons of low differentiation are thus more vulnerable to stress as they struggle more in their relationships and to adjust to life’s changes.

To have a “well-differentiated self” is an ideal no one realizes perfectly. While we need others, we depend less on other’s acceptance and approval. We do not merely adopt the attitude of those around us but acquire our own principles thoughtfully, reflectively, and autonomously. These help us decide important family and social issues, and help us resist the “feelings of the moment” or the passions of the crowd. Thus, despite conflict, criticism, and rejection we can stay calm and clear headed enough to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotion and the manipulation/control of others. What we decide and say matches what we do (genuineness). When we act in the best interests of others, we choose thoughtfully, not because we are caving in to relationship pressures. Confident in our own thinking, we can either support another’s view without becoming wishy-washy or reject another’s view without becoming hostile or controlling.

A highly differentiated person therefore has a clear sense of boundaries – they know where they leave off and another begins. They are freer of fear – fear of rejection or the fear that attempts to control others. A highly differentiated person carries their boundaries with them – they can maintain a sense of confidence and safety across a variety of settings and situations. They are at peace with themselves and, therefore, do not try to constantly prove themselves. They do not confuse “being needed” with “being loved” (caretaker personalities), nor confuse “being taken care of” as “being loved” (dependent personalities). The identity of a highly differentiated personality radiates “inside – out”, and does not excessively come by confirmation “outside – in.” A highly differentiated person is responsible, chooses more often, and negotiates more easily.

Emotional cutoff is an ineffective defense people use to reduce anxiety from their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, co-workers, neighbors and others. To avoid sensitive issues, they either move away (escape) from their families and rarely go home; or, if they remain in physical contact, to avoid sensitive issues, they use silence, withdraw, or divert conversations to avoid conflict. Superficiality characterizes a person who uses emotional cutoff. Though emotional cutoff may diminish our immediate anxiety, these unresolved problems can contaminate other relationships, such as future parent-child and marital relationships, especially when those relationships are under stress.

The opposite of emotional cut-off is an open relationship. Open relationships are able to confront issues directly without triangulating others into conflicts or seeking to build coalitions with others to counterbalance a perceived loss of power. Open relationships are adaptable to changes and use negotiation, rather than control and rebellion, to express and meet needs for autonomy and differentiation. Highly differentiated persons are able to speak for themselves without the need to punish, control, or argue with others; in other words, they have adult to adult conversations rather than parent-child lectures or scoldings. They speak for themselves clearly and succinctly, making their needs known in ways more easily heard by others, without feeling an excessive need to take care of others nor control them.>/p>

Undifferentiated Family Ego Mass is a concept suggestive of families in conflict where anxiety runs deep, power struggles flourish, and there is a lack of clarity of boundaries regarding whose issue belongs to whom. In undifferentiated families, there is more control/rebellion and escalating power struggles. Family systems with alcohol/drug addiction are examples of enmeshed undifferentiated family ego mass.

Murray Bowen suggested two key points:
  1. We leave our family of origin at the highest level of differentiation they achieved.
  2. We tend to seek partners of like-level of differentiation.

Intergenerational Transmission Process is where unresolved differentiation issues of one generation are transmitted to the next generation. This is especially evident when parents do their parenting out of fear, shame, guilt, and/or anxiety and unresolved childhood issues re-enacted and displaced upon the next generation.

A related concept is Reflected Sense of Self. When we have a reflected sense of self, our primary motivation is to satisfy what we think others want and expect from us, in the false hope that we will then be “safe” from criticism and hurt. This is a very powerless and anxiety-provoking way to live. It gives others far more control than they deserve as we give up our right to decide for ourselves who we are.

Becoming a more highly differentiated person is a long and reflective process, full of ups and downs, successes and failures, and opportunities to learn along the way. But, is it a journey worth taking, as we discover the unique and worthy persons we are becoming.

© 2015 Dr. Daniel L. Baney

3 thoughts on “Differentiation of Self

  1. Oge

    I have found the concept of self-differentiation very helpful.

    I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 18, and after 18 different psychiatric medication, I was still unable to love my mother.

    In my culture, it is taboo for a child to dislike its mother, so I was wracked with guilt and shame. I tried leaving home in a bid to escape the anxiety inducing encounters I had with my Mum, but none of my moves was successful.

    Out of desperation, I dramatically requested for family therapy with my Mum in March and had to do some reading up on family therapy (I read a lot online).

    I came across Bowen’s family systems theory and as luck would have it, I met a great social worker who said our problem is enmeshment.

    That what is depression? I don’t have Schizophrenia, so to him, my problem was a small issue to handle.

    With my own efforts at self-differentiation, I can proudly say I feel close to my family members. As I redefined my concept of closeness and love to be more in line with self-differentiation.

    I look forward to working outside the home, and having new social circles. I was fast becoming reclusive, as I transposed the enmeshment I learned at home into my interpersonal interactions outside thus having issues with outsiders that made me misanthropic.

    Many mental health conditions can be treated with family therapy. It’s a shame Bowen’s family systems theory isn’t the first line treatment used to handle a mentally ill person once the drugs have pulled him out of the critical stage into the maintenance phase.

  2. Eileen

    Thank you for this….it describes the personal journey I find myself on. It helps make sense of the dynamics of my family of origin to a remarkable degree. Very insightful.

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