Am I a Grown-Up Yet?

Differentiation.  One of my favorite things. A big, jargony word that you might hear a therapist use from time to time.  So what is it, and why is it important?

The term differentiation was coined by a man named Murray Bowen, a big-wig of family therapy. Bowen defined differentiation in two ways: interpersonal and intrapersonal.  Intrapersonal differentiation means to separate thoughts from feelings within yourself.  Interpersonal differentiation means you know where your own self ends and another person begins.

Bowen also believed that differentiation is a process of balancing two life forces: the need for togetherness and the need for individuality.  All theoretical jargon, I know, but keep reading as I attempt to de-jargon.

Intrapersonal differentiation (aka differentiation within yourself) has to do with recognizing when something is a thought and when it is a feeling, and reflecting on these two things before taking action.  Our brains are completely subjective, everything we think is filtered through feelings, memories, and experiences.
As children we follow a very simple process: we have a feeling, the feeling brings about thoughts, we say the thoughts.  But, as we grow older, this simple process gets more complicated and often causes problems (ie saying exactly what you think to your boss/coworker/roommate = not good).  It becomes much more important then to pause and reflect before acting.

For example, let's say you are in a situation where you feel threatened (a spouse is angry, your boss puts you on the spot, a guy cuts you off in traffic), if you react simply from your emotions you'd probably either fight back (yell, argue, criticize) or freeze in fear (speechless, paralyzed, brain burp).  If you pause and reflect, considering both your feeling of being threatened ("I feel threatened, I wonder why?") and thinking about rational alternatives ("Maybe he's had a bad day"), you are much more likely to respond with empathy, with clarity, or with patience.

Interpersonal differentiation, the idea of having a sense of self no matter what is going on around you, is the second piece to the puzzle.  I heard a great quote the other day that applies directly to this idea, "The more you like your own decisions, the less you need everyone else to".  What I gain from that is knowing and trusting yourself is powerful, it gives you a firm foundation from which to base all your choices.

One of the most important (and perhaps most difficult) interpersonal differentiation tasks is that of separating from your parents.  As a child, having the approval of your parents is vital, and you have emotional responses to your parents' feelings.  As a teen, you rebel against them and their approval to show you are becoming an adult, but you still secretly want the closeness.  And as an adult, it comes time to really, actually outgrow needing your parent's approval and to outgrow feeling tied to their ups and downs.  I'm not suggesting that your parents' opinions don't matter, or that you should feel nothing about them... what I am suggesting is that knowing and trusting yourself is an incredibly important aspect of becoming an adult and you can't do that when you look to someone else for answers.

Sometimes it's easiest for me to think of interpersonal differentiation as, "I am me, and you are you, and we don't have to think/feel/be the same for us to be ok".

We want to belong, to feel connected, but we also want to be our own people - so we are continuously looking for that balance.  Differentiation is a life-long journey often referred to in a general sense, as "maturity".  It is something we are always working on, no matter our age.  Bowen described differentiation as being on a continuum - we are somewhere in the middle with no one being completely on either end.  Different people may call it different things, but in the end, these things almost always come up as we attempt to become adults.

If you are still wondering 'why should I try to be differentiated when it is such hard work?' then I will leave you with one final thought.  Life is full of unexpected events and surprising people, some wonderful and some terrible.  A person who is unable to separate thinking from feeling, and who doesn't know where they end and someone else begins, is simply being pulled along for the ride.  If your partner's bad day ruins your day, if getting cut off in traffic leaves you livid for hours, if you need others' validation to feel beautiful or important - who is running your life? You?  Or everyone else?