Defining a Self
The Essential Steps for Working on Differentiation of Self
Differentiation of self is a process wherein the work is only on changing self. It is difficult for people to understand that they need to become virtually disinterested in how others are functioning. This involves taking theirlife energy and directing it toward self-development in an effort to be more of a person in their own right.
Specifically, this process—at a minimum—involves the following:
1. Finding a way(s) to live with what is without trying to change it.
a. Finding a way to live with what is doesn’t mean that a person simply “goes along.” Defining self is a critical component in working on ones differentiation. It does mean that the moment a person tries to change someone else, he automatically sets the behavior he is hoping to change, in concrete. The possibility of change is, unwittingly and unintentionally, but absolutely, reduced. Although it appears to be counter-productive, much of the time if a person can find a way(s) to live with what is without trying to change it, the “what is” will begin to shift. Shifts do not occur rapidly, but rather take time and effort. Unfortunately for those who are impatient, there is no instant gratification. It can be important to remember that there are no shortcuts to any worthwhile goal.
b. Working toward one’s own differentiation doesn’t mean that you never ask for change. However, if you ask, you need to be willing to accept any response that is given. This involves not being critical of the other at any level. “At any level” means not with your tone of voice, not with your facial expressions, and not with your body posture. No criticism! Remember your personal goal is primarily your own growth and maturity, not theirs. It is impossible to help another person work on their level of functioning—except by working on yours.
Working on living with what is, without trying to change it, is an element of differentiation that involves:
a. a focus on one’s own flexibility in relating to others and to the world.
b. a willingness to challenge one’s basic assumptions and beliefs about relationships.
c. the belief that trying to change another person will tend to automatically lock into place the very behavior one is trying to change.
If an individual does not know the importance of working on these three requirements, there is little, if any, hope of improving the basic, anxiety-driven emotional process of any relationship.
2. Finding a way of listening to the reactivity (attacks, criticism and so forth) of the other without reactively responding.
Not reactively responding means not counter-attacking, not defending, and not withdrawing. Additionally, when anxiety is up, it is wise to avoid discussing sensitive issues. One of the most overrated processes in the world, when people are anxious, is reason. I have never met anyone who could communicate well when anxious or who couldn’t communicate well when calm. It is not a good idea to try to reason with another when anxiety is up.
3. You have to know what you believe.
This means what you believe. This has to do with personal and operational understanding, not the memorization of what anyone else believes. There is an important difference between knowing and understanding. This is not an easy task and requires a good amount of work with one’s own thinking.
4. As you work on clarifying your beliefs and responsibilities you must begin acting in accordance with them.
Many people say that they believe something, but if you watch them they often do not do what they say they believe in doing. This does not mean that they are lying, or lazy or even wrong. It does mean that if work on differentiation of self they will to be
less successful than might otherwise be the case. To work toward differentiation of self means that one’s beliefs must be put into practice. What do you believe about the situation you face and, given that belief, what is your responsibility for self and to others? Given this responsibility, who do you want to be? Who you want to be is usually a much better guide for functioning than asking yourself what you “should” do.
5. You must be working on differentiation for yourself.
If you are subtly trying to change someone else, you won’t stay with the work over time. If you don’t see this as a solid way to achieve more maturity for yourself, you would be better off not starting efforts toward differentiation of self. It will be a waste of your time and energy in the sense that no lasting change is likely to result.
6. Keep in mind that small gains are highly significant.
I only know of one or two people who, in my opinion, have managed to accomplish most of these changes even 60 percent of the time (and I’m not one of them). Work to raise your ‘batting average’ a few percentage points. This will make an immense difference (over time) in the quality of any relationship. ’Batting .400′ will get you into the relationship hall of fame. On one occasion, when asked where he was on the Scale of Differentiation, Dr. Bowen paused and said, “I try to keep my snorkel above 50.”
7. You must work on your judgment regarding what is important to you about the behavior of the other. In short, you have to know your “bottom line.” A bottom line needs to be based on your “best thinking” and not on your feelings.
This issue is divided into five components for consideration:
a. The frequency of the behavior;
b. The intensity of the behavior;
c. Whether it is something the other is working on modifying;
d. The magnitude of its impact on you. That is:
(1) Is this “relationship symptom” something you are willing to live with while you work on your issues?
(2) Is this relationship symptom something you want to get better at not reacting to?
(3) It is not possible to work on absolutely everything that confronts you—human beings simply do not have that much time and energy.
e. How important is this person to you? Is this particular behavior(s) offset by other, more important compensating variables? How certain are you that this is a bottom line issue? A bottom line means that if it continues you end the relationship.
Hint: If you have more than three or four bottom line issues, you probably are the bottom line issue!
There are a lot of reasons why people are reluctant to clearly define who they are and what they are doing with their life. One of them is the fear that if they do, the relationship will end. That is always a possibility. If done slowly, thoughtfully and fairly consistently over a period of time (different periods of time for different relationships), married people almost never get a divorce. The chances that a relationship will end are higher if the couple is not married. I believe,however, that without this work, if the anxiety is sufficiently high and on-going, the relationship will almost certainly eventually end if this work is not done—or at least one member of the partnership will wish it had! The longer people go without finding out if the level of chronic anxiety and reactivity can be lowered, the more negative, reactive, painful and, if married, expensive the split is likely to be.
Hal G. DeShong, Ph.D. March, 2011