The Benefits of Differentiation of Self in Your Relationship: Why It’s Worth the Effort

Differentiation of self is a concept by Bowen’s system theory (1950’s) which explains an individual’s capacity to be flexible and act wisely, and maintaining one’s sense of self whether close to or a great distance from others. In simple terms, it refers to a process of not losing connection to self while holding a deep connection to others, including those you love when their views may differ from yours. Bowen conceptualized two levels of differentiation high and low. People who have low differentiation or undifferentiated have the following characteristics; emotional reaction, impulsive behavior, dependency on others, conflict easily with people, low autonomy, and increased emotional reactivity to those around them. These traits make social relationships very difficult for people with low differentiation of self. On the other hand, a differentiated person can; create a balance between their thoughts and emotions and take an independent stand on their opinions, resist the pull of emotionality, have increased autonomy, and manage social relationships better among others.

Various factors can predispose individuals to be differentiated from others the factors include; family of origin being highly differentiated, healthy parent relationship, positive affirmation in early periods of life, opportunities for growth and problem solving, personal experiences, achieving success at different levels. On the other hand, the vice versa of the concepts discussed above can directly contribute to the development of the undifferentiated self. Also, factors such as; negative evaluation from others, unconscious low scores on personality development, emotional enmeshment, and effects of traumatic events have also shown a significant contribution to the development of undifferentiated self.

In any relationship ranging from family, marriage, and groups it is critical to maintain some level of individuality otherwise one can be submerged in the system. Failure to maintain individuality can lead to individuals either conforming themselves to others to please them (and avoid conflict) or attempts to force or persuade others to conform to their wishes, stressful situations, maladjustment behaviors; risky behavior, alcoholism, reactive emotions, etc. in other terms lack of differentiation can cause significant problems such as; family conflicts, friendship difficulties, psychosis, and other individual-oriented problems; pathological jealousy, negative attitude, and hatred.

Healthy steps to achieving differentiation of self in relationships

  • Create personal boundaries-psychological, physical and spiritual boundaries create a safe environment for one to nurture personal belief while keeping away from possible inappropriate fusion and enmeshment from groups or systems which can hinder opportunities for growth.  
  • Remain solid in personal goals– individual goals can provide a framework that defines various activities in life such as; beliefs, values career, and friends, and this boosts focus on the self
  • Identify  personal problem-solving ways-coming up with personal ways of solving problems does not only provide solutions but can produce learned healthy patterns of solving problems independently which means that dependence on family friends and other resources is reduced defining the self as well as forming automatic boundaries in problem-solving
  • Rely on others only when necessary to do so- more often than not we require the support of others in various ways. While it’s good to receive this help it can become an unhealthy pattern of functioning when we constantly require the support of others to increase differentiation level it will create more harmony for the self to ask for help only when it is very necessary.
  • Value personal happiness-achieve the ability to regard personal happiness by distinguishing others’ emotions, thoughts, and feelings from yours. What makes others happy may not necessarily make you happy therefore it is only good to focus on what you find pleasant and enjoy while allowing room for others to do so.
  • Respect other people’s aspiration and goals-allow other people to follow their dreams and goals without interference or wanting to control their desires.
  • Practice self-acceptance and approval we do not merely adopt the attitude of those around us but acquire our principles thoughtfully, reflectively, and autonomously.
  • Forgive mistakes of the past –be kind and practice self-empathy on past mistakes it helps to achieve healing faster and be able to move on with life.
  • Constantly review the low scores on your personality traits. the greater b part of the differentiatiated self is built around personality traits and behaviors which are permanent. a positive personality can be achieved by a constant evaluation to be aware of the low scores or weak traits to make them stronger.

A reflection from the scriptures

From the Bible, Jesus exercised the highest level of differentiation to fulfill his purpose which was to make his father known. In Matthew 12:46-50 Jesus differentiates himself from the hardest and most essential group in his life: his family. When someone in the crowd pointed to Jesus’ family – a family which was outspoken in their opposition to Jesus – he responded by claiming the discipleship community as his true family.  Jesus got out of enmeshed definition of his family, by continuing to self-define and self-differentiate. that is Knowing who you are and what you want. 

As a leader, Jesus knew his goals he differentiated himself from his disciples to seek God’s will before and after his ministry. Mathew 14:24-26 Jesus emphasized self-denial for those who follow him for the following reason; obedience to God’s work, ability to stay on course in their personal calling, and submission to God’s authority as they followed him.

Concerning the day-to-day life of a believer, (James 1:6) expresses a focus a consistent faith in the midst of suffering. He says that testing leads to perseverance and perseverance to maturity (vv.2-4). This maturity allows one to be able to express humility in asking God for wisdom (Jas 1:5). Similarly, it will be expressed in “belief and not doubt” whereas the immature is one is “blown and tossed by the wind. A solid believer will therefore withstand any testing for they are dependent on God as opposed to the challenges they may go through.

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