I recently received an e-mail from a friend who is doing self work. He asked:
I was just wondering if you thought attaining a higher level of differentiation of self lends itself to becoming better able to manage or not get pushed around by ones feelings. I hope this question is not too vague, it’s just something I need to get better at so I’m not letting my emotions/ reactivity dictate my actions.
My first comment in response is that it is not helpful to think of “levels” of differentiation of self. We want to avoid the misconception that differentiation is a “stage” or “state of being” we achieve or arrive at.
Differentiation of self has to do with our capacity to function in non-reactive ways, rather than in non-thinking ways. For example, the capacity to function out of our guiding values, clearly held principles, and our capacity to engage thoughtfully and with intent in our relationships. In other words, to be in relationships with others and approach life without being ruled by emotional reactivity.
Here is one description of self-differentiation by Bowen and Kerr:
“The highest the level of self-differentiation of people in a family or social group, the more they can cooperate, look out for one another’s welfare, and stay in adequate contact during stressful as well as calm periods. The lower the level of differentiation, the more likely the family, when stressed, will regress to selfish, aggressive, and avoidance behaviors; cohesiveness, altruism, and cooperativeness will break down.” (Bowen And Kerr, Family Evaluation, New York: Norton and Company, p. 93.)
Two ideas that help us appreciate the fact that differentiation of self is more a matter of functioning than “a state of being,” are: (1) You can’t differentiate self when you’re by yourself. Anyone can be relatively non-anxious and non-reactive by themselves, when they don’t have to deal with anyone. But differentiation of self is a product of being in relationship. (2) The real test of one’s capacity to practice differentiation of self is how we function in the midst of a challenge. It is in anxious situations while dealing with difficult people, or, dealing with a challenging situation in a sea of anxiety that one’s capacity to be “self-differentiated” is evidenced.
One reason it’s important to make these distinctions is to avoid the mistake of thinking that the goal (or possibility) is that we’ll be able to do away fully with our feelings and emotions. The matter becomes that we are able to function better despite how we happen to feel at the moment or despite our experience of anxiety. So, my friend’s thinking is correct: “becoming better able to manage or not get pushed around by ones feelings,” and “not letting my emotions/ reactivity dictate my actions.”