by Counseling and Wellness Center of PittsburghSeptember 8, 2020 borderline personality disorder, Bowen Systems theory, healthy relationships, narcissistic personality disorder, Personality disorders, Unhealthy relationships0 comments
People with Personality Disorders Do This In Relationships
Differentiation of Self: Learning to balance Self Needs with the Needs of Others
We can all agree that balance is a key component to healthy living. Sometimes it comes naturally, but more often than not, balance is really hard to maintain. One of the most difficult places to find balance is in our relationships. If we want to find balance, it is worth taking some time to think about the things we are trying to balance between. Being in relationships is like walking a tightrope. There are some people who have a pattern of relating where they have not developed coping strategies that help them work through strong emotions. These people, often personality disordered as defined by their rigidness and complex unhealthy ways of understanding themselves and others, cut off anyone who challenges or counters them. We are constantly balancing between our own individuality on one side, and our desire for a sense of togetherness on the other. Whereas emotionally healthy people welcome differences in others, personality disordered people have not moved beyond the immature way of viewing the world that understands not everyone is the same. Entering into relationships fulfills the human desire for a sense of belonging or togetherness. Once we are in a group or relationship, learning how to navigate around individual differences often proves to be quite difficult. It is easy to succumb to charged situations and react based on emotions rather than a thoughtful choice. ‘Differentiation of Self’ is the ability to interact with others while, at the same time, regulating your own emotions. Think of how narrow your world would become if your default was to run away from every person who you cared about who said or did something you didn’t like. This is however the reality that individuals with borderline personality disorder and sometimes narcissistic personality disorder create.
Think about a disagreement that is currently causing you frustration in one of your close relationships. You probably share commonalities with the person you disagree with, but at the same time your individual differences create tension. What do you do? If you are afraid of creating distance in the relationship you might just blindly agree with the person. You wouldn’t lose your closeness, but you would sacrifice some of your individuality. On the other hand, you could cut the person off emotionally, and distance yourself in the relationship. This would allow you to maintain your independence, but you would lose your closeness and possibly the relationship. Both of these responses are irrational and extreme, a product of all or nothing thinking that are often related to several personality disorders. Neither of these options are really healthy. Each is an escape in reaction to the emotional pressure of disagreement.
Differentiation of self is an idea that describes the ability to regulate your own emotional climate rather than getting drawn in or overwhelmed by the emotions of others. It also has to do with a person’s ability to interact with others without losing their sense of self. This is because a well differentiated person is able to hold the tension between their needs and the needs of others without becoming overwhelmed and acting purely on the strongest emotional push. Someone who is “well differentiated” is able to realize the difference between their own emotions, and the emotions of the people around them. Their choices are thoughtful, taking their emotions into account without being ruled by them. They are able to find peace even in difficult situations and respond thoughtfully in moments of pressure.
Think of individuality and togetherness like two sides of a coin that are distinct, but at the same time inseparable. One side has to do with our concept of self. It is the aspects of our personal life and experience that make us unique and different from others. On the other side, we have a desire to share similarities with others, and to be a part of a group. This is the desire for togetherness, or a sense of belonging. When we are differentiated, we have the ability to enter into a relationship and not lose ourselves. We are able to identify our own emotions and thoughts when responding to tension in a relationship, and we do not react to the emotions of others, but rather intentionally respond. We do not give up ourselves to be with someone, but rather we learn how to truly be ourselves with someone. Learning to regulate our emotions in charged situations is the skill that allows us to hold the balance between our needs and the needs of others. It is a necessary to be able to experience tension in order to have difficult conversations. Healthy relationships rely on our ability to express ourselves in a way that is authentic to ourselves, and at the same time sensitive to others. Being well differentiated protects you from getting uncontrollably pulled in by your own emotions or the emotions of other people. Ultimately, it allows you to enter into relationships fully, in a healthy way, without having to sacrifice your sense of self or losing your own identity.
Differentiation of self develops in our family of origin as we learn how to view ourselves as individuals, but also learn to maintain intimate relationships. It was first described by Murray Bowen, one of the pioneers of family therapy and the founder of Family Systems Theory. He discovered that in a healthy family, members develop the ability to have a sense that “I am my own person, but I am also a part of my family.” Ideally, the family is the place that we learn this skill of balance and integration. In learning about the similarities that unite me to my family members, I am able to have a sense of belonging. In learning about my own uniqueness, interests, and beliefs, I learn that I am also my own person. The challenge of the family is to teach this balance to children and cultivate a balance between our head and our heart. When we don’t learn this balance, we learn instead to be emotionally reactive.
Emotional reactivity is the key distinguishing aspect between people who are well differentiated or poorly differentiated. Differentiation of self is an ideal that we aim for and being aware of how we react to others is the first step in becoming more differentiate. Learning to manage our thoughts and our feelings has a direct result on how we are able to authentically enter into and navigate relationship. If we are not able to differentiate our thoughts from our feelings, then we become vulnerable to being overcome by the pressure of other people, or our own impulses in the present moment.
What can we do about it? None of us are as differentiated as we could be. In fact, even Murray Bowen said that he would not consider himself perfectly differentiated! We can all chose to be dedicated to growing in differentiation. It will benefit us, our friends, our families and especially our close relationships. It is easy to get caught up in the past, or the future, but the only thing we can change is right now. Differentiation begins with thoughtfulness and consideration of the present moment. Why don’t you try to do a quick check in with your emotions? Take a few deep breaths. Just notice, what is it you’re feeling right now? Has there been any strong emotions welling up as you read this post? Just try to notice those feelings, the more aware we are of our feelings, the less likely they are to overwhelm us. By simply paying attention to the present moment we give ourselves the chance to be more differentiated. Next time you are in a frustrating situation with someone try to do the same thing, just notice your feelings. Pay attention to what your emotions are telling you and listen to them while taking a few deep breaths. Rather than reacting to the situation, try to respond thoughtfully after checking in with your emotions. If your knee jerk response is to ‘cut and run’ every time you experience an emotional reaction in a relationship, notice this too and try to adopt healthy self soothing techniques instead of running away from inevitable heightened emotions that come from having close relationships. The key to change is always and only in the present moment. By paying attention to the present moment we allow ourselves to truly enter into what is going on around us, without being swept off our feet. Relationships are difficult and require a lot of work. By paying attention to our emotions, we can learn to enter into relationships in a deeper, more meaningful way. Differentiation of self is what allows us to truly be ourselves in an authentic way, and at the same time meaningfully enter into relationships with others.
By: John Paul Dombrowski- Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh in Canonsburg.
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