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Understanding Differentiation Of Self In Family Therapy: Exploring Murray Bowen

family therapy family therapy tools therapists Apr 07, 2023
murray bowen differentiation, differentiation of. self

A Differentiation Definition

Differentiation of self is is a state of psychological maturity in which an individual able to clearly distinguish between thoughts and feelings while holding onto their sense of Self or identity when in the presence and influence of other people, especially family members. This allows for the potential of deep and healthy connections to others despite a desire to be close, or in the face of disagreements.   

I am so passionate about Differentiation of Self, Bowen Family Systems, it has really made a difference in my career and the work I do as a therapist and my own personal work. As you may know I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Director of an adolescent treatment center and I use family systems on a daily basis, either with clients or personally. 

Differentiation is hard to explain but very easy to understand, I'm not entirely sure that makes sense, so go with me...

This is the visual I use when I teach the subject: 


At its core, differentiation is about being able to separate out our Thoughts, Feelings, Self and Other - which is helpful in numerous ways. But that's just the foundation of what it means to ourselves and all our relationships. Read on, you check out more about Differentiation of Self, Bowen Family Systems here, and consider taking my new free mini-course on Differentiation.

Yep. Totally Free. 

Differentiation Of Self Free Course

My Experience With Bowen's Theory Of Differentiation

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.

For more on Differentiation of Self, check out this deep dive. 

Murray Bowen's Differentiation of Self Explained 

What is self-differentiation in Bowen Theory?

This 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, it 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, our capacity to differentiate is a continuum that ranges from low levels at one end and to the other end, 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 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.

Scale Of Differentiation Of Self />

These levels are not an innate trait, but rather a skill that can be developed over time. It requires reflection, 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, this 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.

You can find out more about how Differentiation affects us in this article here, about Leadership and Differentiation of Self

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 you 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 an individual. 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 separateness, and creating a separated identity 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 identity 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.



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.



Bartle-Haring, S., Rosen, K. H., & Stith, S. M. (2002). Emotional reactivity and psychological distress. Journal of Adolescent Research, 17, 556–585.

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

Murdock, N.L., Gore, P.A. Stress, Coping, and Differentiation of Self: A Test of Bowen Theory. Contemporary Family Therapy 26, 319–335 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1023/B:COFT.0000037918.53929.18

Skowron, E. A. (2000). The role of differentiation of self in marital adjustmentJournal of Counseling Psychology, 47, 229–237.

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