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Differentiation Of Self: Bowen Family Systems & Self-Improvement

Dr B's work in the area of Differentiation describes the journey of recognizing and embracing your distinct identity, separate from societal and family pressures and external influences. It's about cultivating a profound understanding and sense of oneself and delineating our unique space. This gives us room for independent thought, emotion, and action, while still maintaining and nurturing close and fulfilling relationships with the people we love. This process is the way we become an individual, and can lead to enhanced clarity and purpose in both personal and professional spheres.

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Differentiation of Self Bowen Example Of Becoming A 'Self'

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This process might not be able to promise you the perfect body, or your dream house, but it does offer you psychological maturity and personal growth. By understanding and embracing this work and this concept, you could also achieve deeper awareness a proactive approach to life, and foster meaningful, dynamic relationships.

It's not a quick fix to anything; it's a lifetime's journey to a more balanced and fulfilling life.

Join our mailing list or enroll in our free mini-course on this topic to learn more about this fascinating and highly rewarding branch of family systems therapy.


Mastery is your shield against the chaos of reactivity. 


A diamond is refined under pressure, but shines with unmatched clarity.


Playing with poise, helps you master the board of relationships


Balance isn't just a stance; it's a power move."

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Family Systems Theory Differentiation 

Self Differentiation: Bowen's Definition Explained


Differentiation is a transformative process rooted in the pioneering work of Dr. Murray Bowen, a prominent figure in Family Systems Therapy. His concept underscores the journey one undertakes to attain the pinnacle of psychological maturity.

At its core, this concept revolves around separating out Thoughts, Feelings, Self and Other. A fully differentiated person can recognize and distinguish between one's thoughts and feelings, ensuring an understanding of the interplay between rationality and emotion.

Thoughts are facts, content information, fantasy, and daydreaming.

Feelings: our ability to view and recognize affect. The more emotional literacy we have, the better.

Self: Maintaining contact with our internalized sense of who we are.

Other:  The internalized aspects of other people we carry with us. 

What Does This Look Like In Practice?

When you journey along the path toward being fully differentiated, your true identity is able to emerge. This version of yourself is free from the weight of societal expectations and family pressures. It allows you to be genuine and authentic, allowing you to bring your unique perspective to the table without fear of judgment or criticism.

More than that, psychological maturity is your shield against chronic anxiety, equipping you to handle life's challenges with clarity and strength, turning reactivity into responsiveness.

It helps you build deep connections in relationships, ensuring you can be close to others without losing sight of who you are. And importantly, it gives you the insight to know when to stand firm on your own and when to seek support from those around you.

"The concept defines people according to the degree of fusion, or differentiation, between emotional and intellectual functioning. This characteristic is so universal it can be used as a way of categorizing all people on a single continuum."

Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: Jason Aronson, Inc

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Progressive Differentiation

"There's no such thing as a baby" D.W. Winnicott

When babies are born, they're totally dependent on their caregivers. Think about it: for the first couple of years, they need someone to do everything for them. Dr B wondered if the baby's sense of being separate doesn't actually come on line for a while after birth, although I believe I read something recently that has disproved that. BUT for the sake of Differentiation, we can assume they don't 'think' that much, they certainly don't know what 'feelings' they are having, and they might not know they are a separate being away from the caregiver as an 'Other'. 








Differentiation and The Forces Of Togetherness & Individuality

We are designed to be connected, to be together. That's part of what it means to be fully human, and at the same time, we are also designed to be a unique individual. 

Operating within all of us are two opposing and contradictory forces, one pushes us to be in a relationship, with our partner, our friends, and our family group of origin. The other drives us to celebrate our autonomy and to be independent way from others. 

Balancing these two forces, togetherness and individuality, is a fundamental aspect of human relationships. It is what allows us to form deep connections with others while also maintaining our sense of individuality. 


The Force Of Togetherness

The togetherness forces are naturally wired into us and will always be present; we have a deep innate desire to be in relationship with others. Too much of this force of togetherness and we become emotionally hardwired together and run the risk of experiencing other people’s feelings, believing their thoughts and valuing their principles - we can lose our individuality. Finding the right balance between togetherness and individuality is essential for our well-being.

The Force Of Individuality

We all have a drive within us that wants us to explore the world, and celebrate our uniqueness and be independent from others, particularly our family. The individuality force allows one to maintain an identity without having to give up oneself for the sake of belonging or approval. Having a different opinion from your family, partner or close friends is often met with resistance which can literally feel like a  an internal and external pressure to think the same. 









Differentiation in Development and Childhood


The 'Terrible Two's' are actually all about 'Self' And 'Other' becoming separate person for the first time. The constant 'NO!''s that you hear from a child of that age is them exerting some control and experimenting with their agency as a 'Self' that is not their parent.

"You are not the boss of me!"

Teenagers have a particularly tough time in this process of becoming an individual, as they're in that awkward stage of wanting to assert their independence and other times, they're still being really reliant on their caregivers. Teens can be super stubborn, love a good argument, and want to be nothing like their parents - all that talk about dying hair and getting tattoos is to claim a sense of individuality away from the 'norms' of the family.  This is why it was so tough being a teenager!

Two totally opposing forces were acting within you. There was a pull one way that made you want to remain together, in the safety of your family where you belong and are loved. 

Another force within you wanted to jump on a horse and ride off into the sunset and explore the world. 




Learn More About Family Systems


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Free Theory Course On Family Systems


Sign up with your email address and we'll get you into our free online mini-course on all of this great material. Filled with practical ways to think about Dr B's work on Family Systems, this is great for clinicians and anyone interested in personal growth, personal development and living a less anxious life.

Psychological Maturity

Discover the differences between differentiated people and undifferentiated people and why it might be worthwhile learning more! 

Thoughts and Feelings

Understand how separating thoughts from feelings is a vital part of becoming differentiated and how to try master this.

Self and Other

Dive into the world of relationships between you and Other people in the context of Family Systems and enmeshment.

Chronic Anxiety

Learn what exactly Chronic Anxiety is and how it plays a part in every relationship and our day-to-day lives. 

Differentiation of Self Scale