According to Bowen Family Systems Theory differentiation of self and anxiety (or stress) are the two main variables of human functioning. One’s experience of these variables grows out of the ways one learned to function emotionally in his or her family of origin. They are with us in various forms from birth to our last breath. So for the sake of our emotional health, they require daily awareness, understanding, and attention.
Life and relationships being what they are anxiety, or stress, of one kind or another is inevitable; there is not much we can do about that. Accidents happen. Changes occur. Job demands, economic uncertainty, health problems assault us. All have significant effects on our relationships and increase the stress we feel. Even our attempts to reduce the conditions that trigger stress have a way of promoting it anew.
On the other hand, there are a good many things we can do about our level of differentiation, and that in turn can reduce stress significantly. Differentiation of self is the life-long effort to become a mature person with the ability to thoughtfully direct ones life in the face the pervasive emotions in human relationships. Differentiation is the ability to think as an individual while staying meaningfully connected to others. It is the capacity of a person to balance emotions and intellect, and to balance the need to be attached to another and the need to be a separate person. It is the ability to act for oneself without being selfish and to act for others without being selfless.
We all leave our family of origin with a certain degree of unresolved emotional attachment—just a fact, not good or bad. That becomes a significant part of our default means of responding to others. We continue working on what remains unresolved between ourselves and our family in all the other significant relationships in our lives.
Many individuals learn to function in healthier ways with new relationships than they have with their families, at least while life is fairly calm and changes or problems don’t complicate things. However, when stress increases individuals tend to revert to their emotional default settings, and they find themselves replaying, in one form or another, old family emotional scenarios. To work most effectively on these deeply embedded ways of emotional functioning one needs to return to the place and people, the family system, where they were first learned.
Self-differentiation, whether high or low, is not about right or wrong, good or evil. Nor is it a matter of tracking down the “cause” of an emotional challenge; cause-and-effect thinking does not change the life we have lived in our families. Self-differentiation is simply about “what is,” and how we might become more aware of the continuing presence of that “what is” in our lives. Self-differentiation is the life-long work of addressing the “what is” with knowing oneself , being oneself, and regulating our emotional reactivity while staying in meaningful contact with others. It is at a deep level the story of one’s life with others.
The continuing nature of the work of self-differentiation is the reason it is important for one to have a coach or a coaching group—an objective and skilled “other”—with which to process the challenges in life. Coaching helps one mine the knowledge and understanding one already has. Coaching helps one see more clearly the relationships in his/her life. Coaching helps one acknowledge differences without losing connection. Coaching helps one clarify where one has come from, who one is, and who one wants to be.
Shall we never finish
with this work of making earth a home?
This week the feel of air has changed.
Apples blush even on abandoned trees.
Maple leaves join in the turning,
grass yellows, brave cone flowers
soldier on though slowly fading
as nights grow chill and summer
fails to rally in its dotage.
What have I learned this year
not forgotten from the past?
What do I know of life today
I need not learn again?
Spring will come, and life renew
once more, older, wiser only
in not assuming life will be different
even in its seasonal freshness.
Perhaps in this we will recall again
that earliest start we made
with parents replaying the ways
they learned from parents replaying
the ways they learned from parents …