Individuation and differentiation

There are some concepts that I have tried to put in simple language, about the emotional development needed for a grownup adult relationship (See Guidelines for Grownups). I’d like to introduce another type of language.  Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist who was Director of the Family Studies Center at Georgetown University, has developed some terminology that is useful to think about.  One term is the “family undifferentiated ego mass” which really is saying all of us are different, but some of us get so enmeshed in the families from which we come that we can’t separate ourselves out and feel like a separate person. We can’t say, “I exist. I’m not you, I’m me.” “I’m not my mother, I’m not my father, I’m a separate human being with my own thoughts and feelings, and I choose my own behavior.”  When we are so totally enmeshed within the family we either have to comply or we have to rebel.

Rebellion is our reaction where we are still not a separate self. The act of rebellion does not make us separate; it is an automatic reflex action. We are still at the stage of “don’t tell me what to do!” We are reacting to parental admonitions that say, “It has to be this way,” and our reaction is, “Whatever you say, I want to do the opposite.”  We are still enmeshed within the undifferentiated mass; we are not separate.  We are not processing through our adult self, “What I think, what I feel, what I want” according to whatever is there rather than in reaction to somebody else. One of our goals is to develop a sense of our own uniqueness, our own individuality. One of the reasons we look so hard from whence we came is to say, “In these ways I am similar, in these ways I am different, but I don’t have to be bound by what was.” “I can learn and change and choose…”

In PAIRS Bonding Weekends, we talk about the statements we need to be able to say to ourselves. Statements such as “I exist. I am a separate person. I don’t have to be like anyone else. I can have my own uniqueness. I exist. I am me.” These are very powerful statements. One of the handouts you have from a while back, from Virginia Satir, said I can engineer myself to be what I decide to be. We look to the past so that the past does not decide the present or the future. There’s a saying you’ve probably all heard:  “THOSE WHO CAN NOT LEARN FROM THE PAST ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT.”

Another concept, which is similar, is called differentiation. It means the process of growing up and deciding whom you want to be when you are grown. The process of saying, “I have my own uniqueness. These are the ways that I am like you and these are the ways that I am not like you. I have my own style.” Each of us needs to be able to do that to develop a separate sense of ourselves because what we find is that until we have our own separate sense of self it feels dangerous to be close. It can feel very dangerous. When we get close to someone we may feel that we are losing our sense of self, we are being swallowed up. So there is something called the “fear of intimacy” that means whenever I get close I have to move away because I am afraid I will be taken over, dominated, told what to do, reduced to being a child or an infant. And so closeness feels dangerous.

Closeness doesn’t have to be dangerous. Closeness can be a wonderful way of recharging our batteries, of enjoying the pleasure of bonding or sex, enjoying the pleasure of confiding, knowing that we can also be apart. One of the goals we have is the ability to be independent and autonomous, and also interdependent, to accept our dependency on each other without feeling that we are going to be possessed or abandoned, to do this without fear.

Differentiation of self is developing a sense of our own strength, our own uniqueness, so that we can share ourselves without fear of losing ourselves. Murray Bowen developed a Scale of Differentiation. At the lower end of the scale are those who are so dependent on what other people think and feel, and whether the other is there or not, that they really can’t function without them: “If you like me I am ecstatic, and if you don’t, then I am destroyed.” We are so influenced by someone else’s opinion or judgments that we cannot separate ourselves out and function. We become dysfunctional if someone says, “You did a bad job,” or “You look terrible.” We become so upset that we cannot continue. We are so dependent on other people that we have no sense of our own worth and separate identity. At the top of the scale are those who can be comfortably close and comfortably separate. So that if you are there to be enjoyed, I can take pleasure in enjoying you. If you are not, I can find other things to do and I can function well and competently whether you’re there or not. The loss of someone who is close is a great blow, but the ability to handle it, to go on functioning anyway, is part of the goal of having a sense of yourself. You can be like a child when it is safe, but you don’t have to stay there. As an adult, you have your own strength. We all need our own strength, our own competence, our own ability to love and be close. We need both.

I think it is worth going through the simple statements that are attitudes that we taught in the Bonding weekend that have to do with “I exist.” “By virtue of my existence I have my own separate self and needs. I am me. I have needs of my own. I am entitled to pursue getting my needs met, one of which is to be close and another of which is to be competent. I am entitled to pursue being happy. I am entitled to make mistakes. I don’t have to be perfect. I am good enough. I am lovable. I am entitled.”

These are simple statements. Some people ask, “Why say such simple things to myself?” They are the goals that we need to accept for ourselves and integrate and believe them. When we can say that with unshakable conviction, our self-esteem and our autonomy can stay strong & positive despite adversity, error, rejection, or loss.

There is a part of Bowen’s work where he talks about what happens in triangles. All of us are born into a triangle, in the sense that there is a mother, a father and a child. There are other triangles, with other children and other people. In any triangle there are often two who are closer, and one who feels left out. How to live with triangles, and not be destroyed by, or made dysfunctional by, that feeling that you are the one in the triangle that is not closest at that point is one of the things we need to work through. Life is full of triangles, there is the original triangle and many more after that. Jealousy can be devastating, and if we are thrown into feelings of jealousy when we are the one in the triangle who is not the closest, then it can happen all of the time. We are vulnerable unless we can learn to say, “Just because I am not the closest one doesn’t mean I am not lovable, that I am being rejected, that I am not good enough, that I am not accepted.” It doesn’t mean those things. It just means there is no way, when two people are close, for the third to be just as close. And so part of maturity, part of growing up, is learning how to function in triangles without becoming dysfunctional. When you have a sense of your own value, your own strength, that you are lovable and good enough, then you can live in triangles without having to bc upset by it. Your own sense of self worth, self-esteem and autonomy becomes crucial. We all need the ability to be close and the ability to be separate, we need the ability to be dependent and the ability to be interdependent as well as independent. We need our competence and our strength as well as our capacity to love and be loved.

~ Lori Heyman Gordon

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