What’s your remote-control style?
Are you the one who happily grabs the TV remote and immediately chooses the channel. Unconcerned by others gathered round the TV?
Or are you the one who avoids taking charge of the remote. Finding it almost impossible to choose a programme without garnering a clear consensus?
The concept of differentiation encapsulates your capacity to function as an individual while being part of a group1. On one hand it is about your capacity for distinctive identity and individuality. Knowing what TV programme you want to watch and happily making that decisive choice. On the other hand it captures your desire for connection, belonging and acceptance. Creating community and incorporating all viewing wishes. Providing the popcorn to make it a cinema night.
Identity and connection can appear pretty incongruous bedfellows (hence the fact that we lean towards one remote control style or the other). However, psychological research recognises the dialectic pair as fundamental poles of human experience. Psychological health and well-being are dependent upon the conjunctional maturation of both2. Most recently, the American Psychiatric Association recognised their importance by making identity and connection the foundation stones of their new alternative model for understanding personality and personality disorders3.
Bowen’s concept of differentiation is unique because it recognises that our ability to balance identity and connection is entwined with the quality of our response to stress and pressure4. If identity and connection are the two ends of a seesaw you are trying to balance, then differentiation captures your capacity to continue to balance the seesaw when millions of pairs of eyes are trained on you during the during the see-sawing gold medal Olympic final.
As you can imagine, no one ever reaches 100% differentiation (good luck with that Olympic balancing act), but well-differentiated individuals do exist. They have an increased capacity to remain calm and offer a greater non-anxious presence during times of pressure. While athletes develop this capacity to maintain performance standards during competitions, differentiation is all about expressing this capacity through the quality of our relationships.
A mature sense of identity allows well-differentiated individuals to set, articulate and maintain healthy boundaries and personal beliefs. Able to act with integrity based on those values even when others disagree. Their concurrent ability to connect enables relationships to be rich and meaningful. They engage with people as they really are, allowing them to express their own individuality. Such individuals don’t need to change others or change themselves, even when experiencing pressure to concur with the prevailing mood. Well-differentiated individuals’ ability to be emotional responsive rather than reactive means that they can maintain contact with both their thoughtful and feeling selves even when facing difficult circumstances or challenging relationships.
Whatever our level of differentiation, it impacts all aspects of our lives, all day, every day.
In partnership… Think of that last argument you had.
Differentiation impacts our ability to balance our cognitive and emotional processing. Were you able to keep thinking and stay creative in order to find a solution to the problem? Or did you find your emotions took over and problem solving got lost within a tit-for-tat, circular argument.
In parenting … Think of when your child last tried to change your mind
Differentiation impacts our ability to hear our child’s desires and choose both identity and connection. Could you hold to your original decision while empathising with their disappointment? Or did you feel pushed into a corner and find yourself conceding, leaving a frustrated and irritated taste in the mouth?
In work…. Think of the last time you took on someone else’s problem
Differentiation impacts how influenced we are by other people’s anxiety. Can we listen and support someone to solve their own problem? Or do we catch their anxiety, jump right in and start problem solving, attempting to resolve our own uncomfortableness? (Note. It doesn’t work in the long run. That’s all about Triangles, we’ll talk about them another time).
In health… Think of how you feel in yourself, right now
People with higher levels of differentiation have been found to be less prone to physical ailments (e.g. heart disease, cancer or blood disorders) and psychological difficulties (e.g. depression or anxiety)5. Differentiation has been found to mediate the link between stressful events and health and well-being. This suggests that our level of differentiation acts like a buffer, protecting us from the negative impact of stress.
Childhood family relationships are particularly important in forming our personal level of differentiation. The family system acts like an emotional petri dish, providing nutrients that foster personal traits and ways of interacting with others. These behaviours get repeated so frequently that they become our fixed and predictable default. Particular patterns of responding to anxiety and engaging with conflict. We carry this toolkit with us and instinctively employ the same personal and relational responses, especially when placed under pressure. This might be with our romantic partner, in the workplace or back visiting the family at Christmas.
Our differentiation toolkit takes most of us along life’s journey relatively trouble free.
But sometimes life throws more at us than we bargained for.
At that point we may find ourselves ready to consider whether the tools we carry with us are still best suited to the job.
I discovered the concept of differentiation after quitting a particularly high-pressured job that had consumed both my personal and professional life. I emerged feeling like an empty shell, a non-self. I didn’t know who I was or what I was about any longer and I had been deeply wounded by some important relationships. I recognised that the toolkit I’d been using was no longer fit for purpose and I needed to do something different.
The great thing is that while growing our level of differentiation is a slow and steady process even small changes can offer significant and noticeable benefits to our personal well-being and the quality of our relationships.
If you’re interested in taking your first Differentiated step, Click Here.
- Kerr, M. E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation. New York: Norton.
- Blatt, S. J. (2008). Polarities of experience: Relatedness and self-definition in personality development, psychopathology and the therapeutic process. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Bender, D. S., Morey, L.C. & Skodol, A.E. (2011) Toward a Model for Assessing Level of Personality Functioning in DSM–5, Part I: A Review of Theory and Methods. Journal of Personality Assessment, 93(4), 332–346.
- Titelman, P. (2014). The concept of differentiation of self in Bowen theory. In P. Titelman (Ed.), Differentiation of self: Bowen family systems theory perspectives (pp. 3-64). New York: Routledge.
- Rodríguez-González, M., Schweer-Collins, M., Skowron E. A., Jódar, R., Cagigal, V., & Major S. O. (2018). Stressful Life Events and Physical and Psychological Health: Mediating Effects of Differentiation of Self in a Spanish Sample. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 2018.