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How Self-Differentiated Are You?

One of the masters of family therapy, Murray Bowen, created the concept of differentiation of self, which is defined as “the ability to be in emotional contact with others yet still autonomous in one’s own emotional functioning” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 145). More simply put, differentiation of self is how well one is able to balance being part of relationships and also being an individual, as well as being able to balance one's thinking and feeling. According to Bowen, the goal that humans are continually working on is to reach a higher level of self-differentiation, finding a healthy balance between one’s ability to be a part of healthy relationships and also have a healthy relationship with oneself.

If an individual has a lower level of self-differentiation, they may experience strong reactions when interacting with others, becoming overtaken by their emotions in the moment and acting on them, unable to separate their feelings from their thinking. On the other hand, someone with a higher level of differentiation is able to think through their options before responding to others and act based on a balance between their thinking and feeling.

One of the keys to working on reaching a higher level of self-differentiation is learning how to self-soothe when experiencing high emotions, such as in an argument with a partner or family member. A key to learning how to self-soothe is to pay attention to the warning signs that your emotions are taking over and limiting your ability to think through your response, including what happens for you mentally (i.e. shutting down, "seeing red", etc.) and physically (i.e. tensed muscles, clinched fists, headache, etc). Once you have identified what happens for you, you can begin working on finding ways to then calm yourself when you start to feel these warning signs.

Attending therapy can be a very helpful way to learn where you fall on the spectrum of self-differentiation. A therapist can help you learn how to work towards higher levels of differentiation, including specific techniques you can do to soothe yourself in emotionally-intense interactions with others. Self-differentiation can also be worked on within couples and family counseling, especially if you find yourself being overtaken by and reacting based on strong emotions in your interactions with your partner/spouse and/or family members.

References:

Kerr, M. E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.