Understanding Differentiation Of Self In Family Therapy: Exploring Murray BowenApr 07, 2023
I had no intention of working with families or any real interest in family systems when I first became a therapist. In fact, working with families was a result of a series of miscommunications upon getting hired to work in an adolescent treatment center. I got the strong impression that I was being hired to run group therapy in a residential treatment center for teenagers. The clinical director however thought I was being hired to work with families so I was thrown to the wolves and had to start learning how to do family therapy in my free time.I did okay and had some good results with the families I was first assigned but as the dynamics got more complicated and the symptoms more serious I realized I needed more of a framework to understand families and individuals within a family. Family systems and the work of Murray Bowron changed everything. Today, I use concepts of differentiation of self in almost every session and i should add that I see individual clients, as well as families and couples and perhaps, half of my caseload, is individual adult clients.
What is self-differentiation in Bowen Theory?
Self-differentiation is a key concept in Bowen theory, a theoretical framework devised by Murray Bowen to help explain human behavior in the context of family systems. In simple terms, self-differentiation refers to the ability of an individual to separate their own emotional and intellectual functioning from that of their family or social group. I add that it's also the ability to separate Self from Other, a concept I go into in the video below.
According to Bowen theory, self-differentiation is a continuum that ranges from low to high levels of differentiation and someone who is at 100 on this scale has reached emotional maturity. Individuals at the low end of the spectrum tend to be highly reactive to the emotional cues of others, and are often driven by chronic anxiety or emotional fusion. They may struggle to set appropriate boundaries in relationships or to think for themselves. In contrast, individuals at the high end of the differentiation spectrum are able to maintain a healthy level of emotional autonomy, while staying connected to others in a differentiated psychological state They are able to think critically, make decisions based on their own values and beliefs, and remain calm in the face of emotional stress.
Self-differentiation is not an innate trait, but rather a skill that can be developed over time. It requires self-reflection, self-awareness, and a willingness to challenge one's own assumptions and beliefs. It also involves an understanding of how emotional systems operate, and how to navigate them effectively.
In practice, self-differentiation can be beneficial for individuals and for family systems as a whole. It can help to reduce emotional reactivity and conflict and promote healthy living and well-being.
The Scale Of Differentiation
Let’s go back to the scale of differentiation - in his work with families, Dr Bowen saw that our ability to become differentiated was on this scale with the ideal or ‘perfectly’ differentiated person at 100 and the completely undifferentiated person at ‘0’.
Most of us, he thought, is on the lower end of the scale, and have a basic level of around 30-40. With some solid work that takes most of our lives, he believed we could improve our functional level and inch towards an Oprah-like way of being.
I’ve been thinking about babies probably because I just met my new Goddaughter, Lana who is four months old, and I was watching her at the dinner table the other night wondering about her experience. Babies have to be entirely undifferentiated at the start of our lives; a newborn baby has no idea what thoughts or feelings are and reacts emotionally to new sensations, sights, and sounds.
Babies are entirely reliant on their caregivers (Other) to keep the (Self) alive, and there’s one school of thought that wonders if when they’re very new, babies don’t actually know that their parents are different people -they’re just a part of Self that is not actually very good at doing what I demand.
As babies get older, they start their brain developing and have a lot of new thoughts, and with some help, they can identify some feelings, like ‘sad,’ ‘mad,’ and ‘glad, and with age comes more emotional vocabulary.
Gradually as the child gets older, they become more differentiated, which means they start to define themselves as a ‘Self.’ This is a lot of what the ‘terrible twos are all about: the child is starting to work out that they don’t have to do what their parent say because they're learning about their own individuality.
They are playing with their sense of self by saying ‘NO’... to everything…. Because they realize basically you’re not the boss of me. Teenagers are at a crucial point in this journey of differentiation. They are still reliant on their caregivers for food and shelter, but they are discovering a ‘Self’ away from who they are in their family with their peer group.
I already touched on how influential Others are as they inch up this spectrum and work out their identity.
When we leave home at 18 or in our early 20’s we have probably reached the most differentiated we will become, which … looks a bit like this.
There’s more bad news. depending on what is going on in our lives, we can slide up and down this scale;
when I describe this to the graduate-level students I teach, I joke that our class would have a very different feel if my parents were sat in the room taking notes.
I am sure you can relate to the idea that your ‘Self’ at work is quite different from the ‘Self’ when you’re with your siblings or parents at dinner.
Stressful situations, such as Covid or a new dog, can shift us down the spectrum, and we might notice that our ability to distinguish Thoughts and Feelings and keep Self and Others distinct becomes impaired at certain times in our lives
Dr. Bowen thought that the ultimate test of our personal growth in this area is to remain at the same level of differentiation most of the time, and especially when in contact with our family.
What techniques can be used to help someone increase their level of self-differentiation?
Self-differentiation is an important aspect of individual growth that enables individuals to develop a strong sense of self while maintaining healthy relationships with others. It is a process that requires self-awareness, emotional regulation, and the ability to establish clear boundaries. Here are some techniques that can be used to help someone increase their level of self-differentiation:
1. Distinguishing Thoughts from Feelings. You will see in the video that I will be a bit of a pitbul with clients and point out when they give me a thought instead of a feelings word.
2. Use of the 'I' Position. I don't let people in couples or family therapy speak on behalf of other people and insist that everyone use the 'I' position or 'I' statements. This is about counteracting the forces of togetherness and interdependence that are characteristic or families with lower levels of differentiation.
3. Develop self-awareness: Encourage the individual to reflect on their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. This can be done through journaling, meditation, or talking with a therapist. Self-awareness helps individuals identify their own needs and desires, which is essential for developing a strong sense of self.
4. Practice emotional regulation: Emotional regulation is the ability to manage one's own emotions in a healthy way. Encourage the individual to practice deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness techniques to help them regulate their emotions. This will help them avoid overreacting to others' emotions and maintain a sense of calm in difficult situations.
5. Establish clear boundaries: Boundaries are essential for maintaining healthy relationships. Encourage the individual to establish clear boundaries with others, including family members, friends, and colleagues. This can be done through assertive communication and setting limits on what they are willing to tolerate.
How does Bowen's concept of differentiation of self help us understand relationships?
Bowen's concept of differentiation of self is a valuable tool for understanding relationships. Differentiation of self refers to the ability of an individual to separate their own emotions and thoughts from those of others, especially in close relationships. This concept posits that the more differentiated an individual is, the more able they are to balance their own needs with the needs of others, and the more likely they are to maintain healthy and functional relationships.
In relationships, differentiation of self can help individuals avoid becoming enmeshed with others, which can lead to emotional turmoil and conflict. Individuals who are highly differentiated are better equipped to handle stress and conflict in relationships, as they are able to maintain a sense of emotional distance and objectivity. This can help prevent emotional reactivity and allow individuals to approach conflicts with a more rational and collaborative mindset.
Moreover, differentiation of self helps individuals to develop a sense of self-awareness and self-understanding, which are essential elements for healthy relationships. Individuals who are more differentiated are better able to identify their own thoughts and emotions and communicate them effectively to their partner. This can lead to increased intimacy and trust in a relationship, as both partners are able to express themselves honestly and openly.
In sum, Bowen's concept of differentiation of self is a powerful tool for understanding relationships. It helps individuals to maintain a healthy balance between their own needs and the needs of others, while also promoting self-awareness, emotional regulation and effective communication. By striving to develop a more differentiated self, individuals can build
Who Was Murray Bowen?
Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist and one of the pioneers of family systems theory. He was born in Tennessee in 1913 and went on to become a respected and influential figure in the field of family therapy. Bowen received his medical degree from the University of Tennessee, and he later trained in psychiatry at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.
Bowen was interested in understanding the underlying dynamics of families and how they impacted the individual members. He believed that by exploring the patterns and interactions within a family, therapists could help families make lasting changes that would improve their functioning and relationships.
How can the concept of differentiation of self be applied to daily life?
Differentiation of self is a concept that was introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist and family therapist. It refers to the ability of individuals to balance their emotional and intellectual functioning while maintaining their sense of self in relationships. In simpler terms, it is the ability to remain true to oneself while also being connected to others. This concept can be extremely beneficial in daily life, both in personal and professional interactions.
Here are some practical ways in which the concept of differentiation of self can be applied to daily life:
1. Identify your emotional triggers: By understanding what triggers your emotions, you can work on managing them in a healthier way. This can help you communicate more effectively in relationships, whether it be with your partner, family, friends, or colleagues. I'm a big proponent of the feelings wheel when clients have a hard time knowing what they are feeling.
2. Use I statements. When you have a strong sense of self, you are better able to take responsibility for your actions, rather than blaming others. This can lead to more productive and positive interactions with others, we do this by using 'I' statements.
3. Notice - Where are your THOUGHTS what are you FEELING? What are your thoughts about OTHERS and are they in proportion to thoughts about SELF? Regularly reflecting on your thoughts and emotions can help you become more aware of your own needs and feelings. This can increase your ability to communicate effectively and make better decisions in your relationships.
4. Defining A Self: work on understanding yourself, what are your beliefs? what are your values? What are your aspirations? When we don't have values, we don't have direction in life - we can't know if we're heading in the right direction without them
5. Set healthy boundaries: When you have a strong sense of self, you are better able to establish and maintain healthy boundaries with others. This can help you maintain your own sense of identity while also building strong, healthy relationships.
6. Seek support when needed: No one is perfect, and no one reaches 100 on the scale of differentiation - except maybe Oprah.
How does self-differentiation enable us to maintain healthy relationships?
Self-differentiation is the process of separating oneself emotionally from others while still maintaining close relationships with them. This can be a challenging concept to understand, but it is crucial for maintaining healthy relationships. When we are self-differentiated, we are better able to express our emotions calmly and clearly, without being overwhelmed by them. This allows us to communicate more effectively and manage conflicts more constructively.
Self-differentiation helps us to avoid becoming enmeshed in relationships, where we lose our sense of self and become overly dependent on others for our happiness and well-being. This can lead to feelings of resentment or a sense of being trapped in the relationship. By maintaining our own identity and independence, we are better able to engage in relationships in a way that is healthy and satisfying for both parties.
Another benefit of self-differentiation is that it allows us to set boundaries without feeling guilty or selfish. When we are self-differentiated, we can recognize and respect our own needs and limits while still being open and supportive of others. This helps to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed or burnt out in our relationships and also fosters mutual respect and understanding.
In conclusion, self-differentiation is a critical component of healthy relationships. It enables us to communicate effectively, avoid becoming enmeshed, and set appropriate boundaries. By cultivating self-differentiation, we can enjoy fulfilling and meaningful relationships that enrich our lives without compromising our sense of self.
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