Differentiation of Self

Differentiation of Self

The last Bowenian concept that I want to share with you is what is called differentiation of self. As the name implies, this has a great deal to do with the ability to separate (or differentiate) yourself from others. You might ask, “what do I need to separate myself from?” the answer to that question is the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the people around you.

Life does not happen in a vacuum, you come into this world surrounded by others. Parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles, and siblings quickly become an influential part of your life. As you grow older your relationship circle increases to include friends, co-workers, and romantic interests. All of these people influence you in one way or another. They leave an imprint on your life.

Have you ever noticed that the longer you live with someone the more alike you become? Do you remember when you left your childhood home for the first time? Maybe it was across town to live with some friends, or perhaps it was across the state to see the sights or attend college or trade school.

Leaving home for the first time is a big event for any family. There are many emotions as you take that big step towards independence. In my last blog, I explained how we take elements of our family experiences with us wherever we go. Take a moment to think about some of the experiences that have shaped you into who you are today.

If you grew up in an emotionally reactive family, it may be difficult to understand your emotions at times. It’s easy to fuse your feelings with the feelings of others based on what you experienced growing up. If your mom reacted anxiously or worried a lot, you learned to be anxious as well. If your dad didn’t show his emotions, you may have learned that it is best to suck it up and move on when something gets you down.

Despite the reality that you no longer live at home, you can’t seem to let go of the old patterns of relating. When you visit your parents as an adult, you slip back into old and familiar patterns. It’s as if you feel the need to fill a role left vacant when you left home, you become an adolescent again.

When this happens, you are seeking something from them, you may not know what it is that you need. Maybe it’s making up for lost time, a needed apology, or you look for a change in them that sets everything right. Closure is what is needed to move forward.

The reality is you could wait a lifetime for something to change and miss out on the opportunity to move your relationship to the next level, into the here and now.

Being able to separate your emotions from the emotions of others is an important part of growing up and maturing. This is not accomplished by moving as far away from home as you can. It’s about taking the time to understand why you think, feel, and act the way that you do. It’s about making peace with anything that feels unfinished so that you can begin to create a relationship with your family now.

I know that it sounds like a lot of work, but I assure you that a couple of things will happen as you work towards closure. First, you will be able to decrease your emotional reactivity to the things that set you off when you are with your family. And second, you will increase your emotional intelligence which in turn will benefit other relationships in your life.

I must add here that if your relationship challenges are the result of being the victim of an abusive relationship within your family of origin seeking the help of a mental health professional that specializes in trauma would be a good first step towards healing and closure.

Differentiation of self is a worthwhile pursuit. If it did not happen when you launched from your family home, here are a few steps you can take to begin the journey:

  1. If you would like to improve the relationship with a parent, set up a time when you can meet one on one, preferably away from any distractions. It is best to start small, so keep this first conversation at a surface level.
  2. If this goes well, move forward and share more personal feelings about how you experience the relationship. Try to do so in a way that takes ownership of your feelings vs. projecting them onto your parent. This will keep the lines of communication open and flowing and will model a way of relating that is different for both of you. You are changing the pattern of relating by not allowing yourself to become emotionally reactive.
  3. Use this focused time to talk about what feels stuck or difficult. If there is an unmet need from the past, it is okay to talk about it. It will help to recognize that the past is the past, maybe there is some unfinished business that needs to be discussed before you can move on and truly be present in the here and now with your parent. Acknowledge this and ask for what you need to move forward.
  4. Take turns speaking and listening (actively) to one another. Get to know your parent(s) in a new way, you are no longer an adolescent asking for something that you feel powerless to influence. You are an adult seeking to connect and create a healthy relationship.

In the end, you will discover the answers to why you think, feel, and act the way that you do. Most likely you will continue to have many similarities to your family, but you will also discover the many ways that you are uniquely you. Differentiation of self is a road worth traveling…one that leads to a destination of authenticity.

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