When we are faced with an external event, such as high demands from our job, it is not uncommon to find a range of reactions to it. While some people complain because they are upset, others become anxious and easily overwhelmed, while others still focus on taking charge and become more focused. We can link the differences in behaviors to different beliefs within each person, beliefs that stem from early life experiences that define how a person sees him/herself. But what leads to these different beliefs in the first place?
Dr. Murray Bowen is a psychiatrist who came up with a theory about how family systems affect how individuated a person becomes. The less developed your sense of self is, the more others will be able to influence you. That is, if you depend heavily on external approval and acceptance, you will be more likely to adjust your way of thinking and your behaviors to please others. Alternatively, you may try to control others by telling them what they should be like and pressure them to change.
When your sense of self is well developed, you do a dance between your sense of autonomy and your reliance on others. That means that when those you are closest to become critical or rejecting, you do not allow their actions to cloud your judgment. You stay focused on your goals while acknowledging that your progress may not be accepted or understood by some people in your inner circle.
Based on this theory, it is probable that we would all want to be in the latter scenario where we feel confident and are able to stand our ground regardless of what feedback we receive from others. This allows us to feel connected to others, something that scientists have found we are wired for, and at the same time avoid becoming overly dependent and easily manipulated by others.
Bowen stresses that people don’t usually shift their level of self-differentiation unless they consciously make an effort to do so. You may find that in situations of stress you start to either over-function or under-function. If you are searching for ways to function more optimally, you may benefit from working on your authenticity.
Becoming More Yourself
In order to become more self-differentiated, you first need to understand the layout of this concept and figure out where you fall within it. To this end, think of a time in your life when you had to make a major life decision that did not sit well with your family. Perhaps you wanted to marry someone your parents didn’t approve of or enter a field of study that was different from the focus of the family business that your parents wanted you to take over. Whatever the situation, reflect on your consequent behaviors. Did you listen to your inner voice or did you capitulate under the pressure? If you rebelled against your parents, did you feel guilty or were you able to balance your decision and emotional reaction to it?
Self-differentiation consists of two elements. The first is being able to tell the difference between your thoughts and your feelings. You may feel guilty about not listening to your parents, but if you have a strong sense of self, you will understand where those feelings are coming from. Part two of this process is choosing whether you let your intellect or your emotions guide your decision-making. The more differentiated you are, the more you let your intellect be your guide.
This is a simplified understanding of differentiation. As mentioned above, there is an intricate dance you have to do between that sense of autonomy and a sense of intimacy. Being extreme in either direction can lead to problems. When you are too autonomous, you become isolated. This can lead to loneliness and depression. On the flip side, when you are too fused with others, you are not living your life the way you want to which can create a sense of meaningless and propel constant anxiety about what others think of you. It is a way of giving up your personal power.
In an effort to help you increase your sense of self, let’s focus on seven concrete areas. Wherever you may find yourself at the moment, remember that self-awareness is the first step. By recognizing where you lie on the spectrum between autonomy and connection, you can start to make changes.
Responsibility: Do you take responsibility for yourself including for how you think, feel, and act or do you expect others to make you feel good? This is often seen in statements such as “I will be happy when…” This sets an expectation that circumstances will change your life and is a passive stance. Focus instead on what you can do to change your life for the better so you can find the happiness you desire. The other aspect of responsibility to consider affects your beliefs about being of service to others. Do you take responsibility for ‘fixing’ those around you who are suffering or do you recognize that it is their responsibility to fix themselves? Remember that just like you, others need to be responsible for meeting their needs. When we take that responsibility onto ourselves, we enable the person to stay stuck, which ironically is the opposite of what we actually want for them. Because differentiation is a balancing act, while you are focused on becoming responsible for yourself, you are also focusing on cultivating closeness to those you care about. Be accountable to others, not responsible for them.
Authenticity. As mentioned earlier, those around you may disapprove of your plans. Being differentiated means that you stay true to yourself and continually work toward achieving your goals while letting others around you know who you really are. This requires you to be clear on your personal identity, a process of self-awareness that results from exploring your values, needs, and desires. You are born to be unique and it is your gift to yourself and the world for you to express your authentic self.
Resilience. When there is interpersonal tension, our instinct might be to flee. But being avoidant doesn’t solve anything and can keep you stuck in a perpetual pattern. Remember that being differentiated means being internally strong and withstanding conflicts without being easily manipulated or avoidant. Be willing to “agree to disagree.”
Vulnerability. While focusing on your goals, you may recognize areas of weakness that keep you from forging ahead. This is an opportunity for increased connection where you elicit the help of those around you while simultaneously remaining responsible for your own needs. Use effective communication to let others know what you can use help with, but stay mindful not to be demanding or let your expectations get the better of you. If the person you approached is unable to help at this time, don’t ruminate or give up. Focus on who else you can approach for assistance. Keep in mind that there will be needs that may not be met, so stay realistic to avoid disappointment.
Self-Governing. When your emotions get the better of you, they are in control and can lead you to being reactive and making poor decisions. Reflect on past instances where you were either unaware of your feelings or were overwhelmed by them. Recognize that it is perfectly normal for you to have emotional responses to events around you and that the feelings that emerge are there for a reason. Slow down enough to consider what you are feeling and why you are feeling it. This will give you a better understanding of yourself which you can use to make decisions that are aligned with your goals for connection and that do not detract from your sense of self.
Courage. We all have fears that can keep us from making progress. Even with the best intentions in mind, we can become stuck in a rut. Work to overcome your fears by focusing on your life’s purpose. Steer clear of extreme thinking that leads to extreme behavior. Life is not black or white. Let the many colors of the rainbow expand your thinking. The more you understand that your primitive mind is trying to keep you alive, the more you will be able to remind yourself that you are not in a life-or-death situation that warrants such fear. Take it one step at a time in the direction of whatever scares you. When you get to the other side, you will feel a sense of pride and increased confidence in your ability to take on other such fears. This will also remove any notion that you need others to save you from your struggle or any need to use others to attain your goals.
Mindfulness. Our early life circumstances, especially those events that left a wound, can be triggers for future events. You might find that you are having strong reactions to situations that are seemingly mild. This is an invitation to work to neutralize your triggers, a process that can be done in therapy with a trauma trained clinician. Regardless of whether you get this kind of help, remember that you need to remain present. What is happening right now has nothing to do with your past. By differentiating between the past and the present, you will be able to stay focused on the moment and enjoy it for all that it is worth. Similarly, you want to stay in the here-and-now rather than be focused on the future. When we are anxious or preoccupied, it is a sign that we are future-focused. Ground your body by taking a couple of deep breaths and bring yourself back to the moment.
Much of the process of differentiation is the understanding that you have a right to be unique while focusing on creating strong relationships with others. This balancing act requires boundaries, which start in your mind. By getting clear on how you define yourself, you can draw lines in the sand about what is appropriate and what is not. You can start to differentiate between what feelings you have that are your own and which you may have absorbed that belong to someone else. Once you identify that you are holding onto unnecessary angst, let it go.
What is true and right for you is also true for others. Release any judgments or criticisms you have for others who are pursuing their path. Replace such negative thoughts with compassion and give others the same opportunities for growth, even when they are struggling, without either trying to deter them or save them. We all have to experience failure to learn how to improve. Accept others for their differences and celebrate those differences for enriching your relationships.
How Being Ourselves Benefits Us
By working on your self-differentiation, you will free yourself from a need for approval from others. You will save time because you won’t have to take on projects that don’t serve you. You will no longer need to play games with others. Your newly formed or strengthened beliefs in yourself will allow you to feel more confident in expressing your true self both in your work and in your relationships.
Being differentiated also allows us to function well under stressful conditions. As a result, we do not suffer from as many psychological or physical symptoms such as anxiety, somatization, depression, or alcoholism. Having a stronger sense of self leads us to problem-solve more effectively.
It is no surprise, then, that each of us will have a different response to stress. Our level of differentiation allows us to transform our beliefs, which affect our emotional outcome and our coping. So when work demands more of your efforts, you will be more resilient in coping with the stress while simultaneously setting clear boundaries.
Being resilient means being able to bounce back from adversity. When we are faced with stress because work is placing excessive demands on our time and energy, we will be able to manage the situation better the more differentiated we are. Our beliefs about meeting our needs while effectively addressing conflict help us cope even in the most intense situations because we have the ability to focus on both the circumstances outside of ourselves as well as our inner experience.
Having a greater sense of self allows us to have the best of both worlds. That is, we can live our life more fully, finding a sense of fulfillment from being authentic to ourselves while cultivating connection with others around us. We benefit in many ways as we become more self-aware and are able to manage our feelings even when others are highly emotional. Consequently, are are more in control of our life decisions, our reactivity to stress, our reactivity other people’s emotions, and of our health. We have clearer boundaries, saving us time and energy and are therefore less stuck engaging in behaviors that don’t suit us or avoiding circumstances that scare us. We feel more confident as we validate ourselves rather than focus externally on approval from others.
Stress is not the enemy. Other people’s agendas are not a roadmap. We need to take responsibility for getting our needs met. We need to stay true to ourselves by focusing on what we desire for our lives. We need to stay mindful of our emotions so we can manage them and make good decisions. Lastly, we need to have the courage to be vulnerable and learn to cultivate intimacy with rather than dependency on others so we can remain resilient.