What is differentiation?

Differentiation refers to the struggle that all people face in striving to develop a sense of themselves as autonomous individuals.  The most fundamental question to consider is:  are we living based on pursuing what really lights us up, matters to us, and gives meaning to our lives, or are we living based on prescriptions we acquired in the process of growing up?  Are we living according our own values and ethical principles, or are we automatically living according to the values and standards of other people or of the society in which we live?

Our identity is continually affected by interpersonal experiences that are either favorable or damaging to the development of our personality. In order for us to live our own lives and fulfill our destiny, we must differentiate ourselves from destructive family and societal influences. To the extent that we can develop and sustain significant aspects of our unique identity, we will be able to live truly individualistic and creative lives.

In addition, when we are more differentiated, we are better able to form and sustain a loving intimate relationship.  According to Murray Bowen, founder of family systems theory, the more differentiated a person is, the more he or she can be “an individual while in emotional contact” with another person or the group. Conversely, the less differentiated we are from destructive influences, both externally and internally, the less able we are to relate closely to another person, our mate or our children.

How do we separate or differentiate from these destructive influences?

The process of differentiation encompasses four tasks. A person needs to: (1) break with internalized thought processes, that is, critical, hostile attitudes toward self and others; (2) alter the negative personality traits in oneself that represent an incorporation of the aversive traits of one’s parents; (3) identify and relinquish patterns of defense formed as an adaptation to painful events in one’s childhood; and (4) develop one’s own values, ideals, and beliefs rather than automatically accepting the beliefs of one’s culture or those one grew up with. It is also important to formulate transcendent goals, those that go beyond self and family, and to take steps toward fulfilling goals that give meaning to one’s life.

How does society operate as an obstacle to differentiation?

The defenses of individual members of a society combine to produce cultural attitudes, mores, and institutions, which, in turn, act back on each person through social pressure. They interfere with people’s movement toward differentiation and deprive them of the vital experiences necessary for pursuing personal freedom and fulfilling their true potential.  Society exerts a powerful influence through explicit and implicit demands for sameness and uniformity and through encouragement of the “proper” socialization of children into its accepted norms, many of which are harmful to children’s emotional well-being.
What are some characteristics of a highly differentiated person?

Murray Bowen portrayed a differentiated individual as “an emotionally separate person, with the ability to think, feel, and act for himself.” In The Self Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation, we describe highly differentiated individuals as having developed a unique personal point of view and a realistic identity separate from any labels or definitions internalized from childhood. Such people possess an inner harmony and a self-affirming approach to life, and are not overly preoccupied with the past or the future. Instead, they focus on the here and now, which allows them to respond with appropriate affect to both the positive and negative as­pects of life. In being attuned to their emotions, they retain their vitality and excitement in living. They are able to maintain their identity and equanimity in close association with another person as well as in a group.

In their personal interactions, differentiated people are open and empathic, and generally warm, respectful, and kind, especially to the people closest to them. Their lack of exclusivity allows them to extend their caring feelings to people beyond their immediate family. They have a concern with the suffering of all people and are likely to be involved in efforts to help others. They appreciate the importance of sexuality and regard sex as a natural extension of physical affection. In their relationships, they are able to sustain a genuine feeling of love; that is, they value their partner’s goals separate from their own needs and interests, and respect the other’s personal independence and sovereignty.

How does the highly differentiated person deal with existential issues?

In our work, we have found that the more people become differentiated from internalized voices and strengthen their authentic selves, the more they become aware of death, and the more they have to learn to deal with these painful feelings. Expressing deep feelings of sadness and sorrow about existential realities appears to have an ameliorative effect on those who are open to this emotional experience. Moreover, facing the feelings of sadness, anxiety, and dread surrounding the existential dilemma helps people to live out their priorities and transcendent goals, and to find their own meaning in life.

Differentiation Resources