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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Burns

Differentiation: The Sense of Self

When I was introduced to the topic of differentiation years ago, I was immediately hooked. It provided a term for something with which many people struggle. So, what is it? Differentiation is the process of defining self, sharing self, and having healthy boundaries. A clear sense of self is a protective coping mechanism against actual or potential separation from others and the ability to risk greater intimacy in relationships. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines that to differentiate is “to develop differential or distinguishing characteristics in.” Simply put, it is allowing yourself to have ‘space’ between yourself and others.

Murray Bowen developed the self-differentiation theory, which applies to human development and family dynamics. His theory has two key areas for differentiation; the ability to tell apart our thoughts from our emotions through self-awareness and the ability to distinguish our experiences from the experiences of people to whom we are connected. With those two aspects of self-differentiation, we can be empowered to be aware of our own current internal state and the influences of external interactions on that state. This allows us to take meaningful action specific to our needs, wants, beliefs, and values.

Are you stifling your feelings and thoughts in fear of hurting others or being rejected or shamed?

Are you spending your life rebelling against your parent's views and values and cling to their opposing view to make a point?

From a psychological standpoint, differentiation is an essential aspect of self-development. As Dr. Robert Firestone writes in his book The Self-Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation, “In order for people to live their own lives and fulfill their destinies, they must differentiate from destructive environmental influences.” Our identity is affected throughout our lives by our interpersonal experiences, which means our personal and social relationships with others. The family unit is a key source of this experience. These relationships can either support or damage the development of our personality. To live our own life, we must differentiate ourselves from destructive family and societal influences. This does not mean that we must be fiercely independent and avoid identifying with a group, culture, or religion, but rather to ensure that when it is harmful, we are making choices that reflect what we believe is our personal truth (not others truth). It allows us to be who we truly are, rather than following a prescribed identity from our family or society. We can separate ourselves from the chains of the past.

Because I love all brain-related information, I love that research in the fields of affective neuroscience, and interpersonal neurobiology is finding evidence for the influence people have on each other’s psychophysiological health. It is important to note that although humans are designed for connection, which benefits our health, not all forms of social engagement are beneficial to our well-being and can lead to adverse results. Negative social relationships can show in both physical and psychological conditions.

I often use the example of a 'coat.' In this analogy, let's view that a coat is sewn and designed for us by our families. It is created of colours, patterns, with a style and fit that reflects the group from which we originated. This coat is made of ideas, values, and beliefs about thoughts and behaviours. The day will come when we will all take off that coat and put on our own coat. Now that coat may have features of the old coat, or it may look completely different or exactly the same, but the key is that it is OUR coat. I find that often people are not aware of what their “coat” is and automatically take on the same one as initially assigned without considering what we want or believe for ourselves. Alternatively, we may put on a coat that is the exact opposite as a means of rebelling, but again, is that really our own coat?

The most valuable aspect of having good differentiation is that we can question cynical or hostile attitudes towards ourselves or others. We can then recognize when those attacks are someone else’s perspective and develop a deeper and more compassionate understanding of ourselves. The more we recognize and stop responding to a destructive cycle, we can embrace and live a life on our own terms.

Poor differentiation can show as:

- needing a lot of encouragement from others when starting a big job or task

- struggling with a sense of who you are

- tendency to distance oneself when people get too close

- feeling a need for approval from virtually everyone in your life

- being hyper-focused on pleasing others

- being overly sensitive to criticism.

- agreeing with others just to appease them.

- when someone is upset with you, you can’t seem to let it go easily

- difficulty making decisions without direction from others

- feeling very sensitive and reactive to being hurt by others

- excessive focus on how others think of you

- noticing that your reactions are more reflective of others rather than our own

Self differentiation can show as:

~ being able to have a different opinion than your family

~ having different values than your family

~ having those differences but being able to stay emotionally connected to them

~ having clear boundaries when conflicts occur

~ having the ability to possess and identify your own thoughts and feelings

~ being able to separate and distinguish those thoughts and feelings from those of others

~ not engaging in “my-way-or-the-highway” or “let’s all think the same to show we love each other” dynamics

Simply put, a lack of self-differentiation makes healthy adult relationships impossible. It also causes a great deal of inner turmoil resulting in feeling controlled and manipulated by others, feeling unsafe to express your feelings openly, and having difficulty regulating your emotions. It can lead to feeling invisible, unheard, unseen, feeling inauthentic and the feeling of being silenced.

How to increase your ability to self-differentiate:

If you want to move toward differentiation, focus on being more authentic at the expense of approval, and staying connected to others while still disagreeing with them. This can be easier said than done. It can often elicit anxiety and guilt when you break from old patterns, so a good therapist can help you deepen your self-differentiation abilities. Some practical tools you can start to use now are:

1. Journal: Express yourself in writing to learn about yourself

2. Take a break: take a moment to check in with yourself to gain space and perspective. Notice how different you feel with some distance.

3. Emotions: take time to notice and identify the emotions you are experiencing

4. Self-Care: prioritize yourself for even a short period of time to enhance self awareness and care

5. Mindfulness: take a moment to notice your inner experience

6. Talk to someone: Either with a trusted friend or a therapist, get help with perspective taking.



Book: Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice by Robert Firestone, Ph.D. and Lisa Firestone, Ph.D.

Book: The Self-Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation, by Dr. Robert Firestone

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