Differentiation of self

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.”


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About igalindo

Israel Galindo is Professor and Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary.
This entry was posted in bowen family systems theory, development theory, leadership, personal growth. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Differentiation of self

  1. Les Kleffman says:

    I am beginning to research the concept of differentiation and connect it with the Biblical command to be holy, which at it’s root is to be separate. Anyone doing any work in that area, that you know of?

    Rev Les Kleffman

  2. igalindo says:

    Les, interesting correlation. There’s an increase in writings and thought trying to find connections between BFST and issues of faith and religion. Your idea is a new one to me. Keep us posted.

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  4. lsage says:

    what are some tools that one can use when one becomes aware of a reaction? Certainly recognition is a big step, but what else can one do to start to heal this aspect. My mother ditched when I was 4. I was raised by my 17 mos older brother and womanizing, alcoholic (functional) father.
    I am attachment avoidant, highly independent, resort to emotional cut-off until I come to my senses and would welcome resources to help me control my emotions and eventually become less reactive. I also have difficulty communicating my reactive feelings to my partner. Can you recommend any readings or authors to help with gaining tools not just telling me what my problem is? thanks.

  5. Dr. G says:

    Hello Isage, thanks for the comments. Seems to me you’re halfway there, the rest is the work to do. Books and readings are helpful, and you should seek them out, but I’ve found that the most helpful ways involve a coach or therapist (or support group–formal or informal) that can serve as resource and challenge, and, the hard work on working on our own stuff–learning to be non-reactive, changing our perceptions and understandings, re-positioning ourselves in our relationship with our family of origin. Regrettably, there’s just no getting around the hard work and the lifelong nature of this work. It involves both growth and development–so it takes time. Because so much is this is about (individual) Self in relationship systems, at a certain point “rules” and techniques cease to be of much effect. We each find our own way.

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