The Well-Differentiated Self

Differentiation is a concept developed by Murray Bowen.  It is one of the founding principles in Bowen’s Family Systems Theory.  The following is my personal description of a well-differentiated self and an explanation of why its so important to be differentiated.

My personal definition of differentiation: The ability to be connected and engaged fully with “we” while simultaneously exercising an established, whole, and defined “I.”  Its a balance between “we” and “I”- not enmeshed/codependent, and not detached/cut off- it is a healthy space in the middle.

A well-differentiated person is:

  • someone skilled in emotional regulation – because of this is able to experience and express emotional experience effectively and carefully assess thought process
  • someone who utilizes principles/beliefs/values help guide decision making 
  • someone who is able to act selflessly because of choice not due to pressure or feelings of obligation and without self-sacrificing 
  • someone who can manage their own anxiety 
  • someone who is assertive not aggressive 
  • someone who is flexible and adaptable not a pushover
  • someone who more often responds instead of reacts 
  • someone who can connect to others without losing “I” (their identity)

A poorly-differentiated person is:

  • someone who engages in active or passive attempts to control others (bully or chameleon)
  • someone who depends on the acceptance and approval of others (bully will pressure others to conform to their ways, chameleon will ascribe to the ways of others and engage in people pleasing)
  • someone who experiences frequent disagreements that threaten their sense of security 
  • someone with patterns in rescuing (losing “I” in fixing/saving others) or manipulating (perspective that others hold greater power in “I’s” functioning, so “I” is lost in becoming fused with the management of others)
  • someone who is led by emotions-emotions heavily influence and guide decision making
  •  someone who’s dependence results in chronic anxiety 

So- Why is it important to be differentiated?

Research shows that well-differentiated people are more resilient and better positioned for authentic connections!  They have a wide window of tolerance which means they are capable of managing a number of stressors without exploding or imploding.  

Well-differentiated people are also able to identify and respect their needs, as well as, the needs of those around them.  Though it sounds like it might mean seperatness, differentiation is not synonymous with isolation.  In truth, differentiation is an essential ingredient for intimacy.  If there is a whole and defined “I” and a whole and defined “you,” then there can be a whole and defined “us” where connection can be experienced at depth. 

What can you do to pursue a well-differentiated self?

  • Grow in independent emotional regulation.  “Feelings are real, but not always true”: first identify your feeling experience, then-write it out, work it out artistically, work it out physically, work it out spiritually.  Examples: journaling, drawing/crafting, going on a walk, praying.  Also helpful: guided imagery, grounding, doing something for someone else, gratitude journal.  *Remember: It is important to reach out to others for help and share experiences.  Humans were created to belong and connect.  The danger is dependence.  We are more empowered when we learn to cultivate our own happiness rather than looking to others to make us happy or needing them to make us feel better.

  • Stay in the here and now.  Anxiety is often sourced in ruminating over hurts/stressors of the past, or worries about the future.  If this feeling is influencing decisions, then what is happening in the present is entirely missed.  “You can only experience joy within the boundaries of today”-Sarah Young

  • Invest in your independence.  Find a (one or more) hobby/passion/interest/goal that is just for you and you alone.

  • Celebrate and appreciate differences.  Identify strength and worth in attributes you hold that are different than those you know and strive to see strength and worth in other’s qualities that are different than yours.  It’s tempting to believe that things would be easier if others see and behave as we do, but this assumption dismisses the beauty in humanity and how everyone is uniquely themselves.

  • Take ownership of growth-areas.  These in NO way appraise you as holding less value.  This ownership is actually empowerment toward responsibility for self and maturity in not attributing blame to others.

  • Learn what boundaries are, when to set them, and how to maintain them.  This can be difficult because when a new boundary is set, most react by resisting acceptance of the boundary.  It is important to know and believe that “no” is a boundary word, not an unloving word.  Boundaries are a way to define an “I” and then provide the opportunity for others to honor “what is me and what is not me.”

Thanks for reading!