MASTERING SELF DIFFERENTIATION - THE STRUGGLE IS REAL

What is self differentiation and how  we begin to develop it  through finding our validation from within.

WHAT IS SELF DIFFERENTIATION?

The other day my husband was annoyed at something and immediately I began to take it onboard - asking all the usual questions that go through my head......"what could I have done differently?" "how can I fix this?" "what can I do to make him happy?" and the list went on, churning through my head and making me feel a little bit sick inside.

Part of the irritation he was feeling was directed my way, but the majority of it actually centred around something else. When I tried to explain how it upset me when he got upset, his immediate response was to tell me that I needed to practice better self differentiation. The only problem was that I didn't even understand what this was, let alone how to start doing it!

So, (seeing I have lots of time on my hands at the moment) I did a bit of digging and found this definition:

"Self-differentiation involves being able to possess and identify your own thoughts and feelings and distinguish them from others. It’s a process of not losing connection to self while holding a deep connection to others, including those you love."

Well, that's certainly an area I need to do a lot more work on! I often get caught up in the whole "if they're happy then I'm happy" scenario that is such a joy killer.

How would your life be different if… You stopped allowing other people to dilute or poison your day with their words or opinions? Steve Maraboli

TRYING TO UNLEARN INBUILT CHARACTER TRAITS

I've thought a lot about why I get caught in the people pleasing trap and I've even blogged about it a couple of times. I think some of it stems from my childhood (sorry Mum - I know you're reading this - and I'm certainly not blaming anyone), but it was a generational thing and I'm an oldest child who always took too much responsibility for everything and didn't want to rock the boat. Another quote from the same article stated:

"If you grow up in a family in which everyone maintains attachment (or has only brief disconnects) in spite of having different thoughts and feelings, you can begin to self-differentiate. Alternately, if the parental dictum was my-way-or-the-highway, self-differentiation is very difficult."

My childhood was definitely the latter - with a father who ruled the roost and children who didn't voice opinions, thoughts or feelings. Keeping the peace was a big deal for me and it seems to have continued on into adulthood. Don't get me wrong, I can still argue with the best of them, but it causes me a lot of stress to be at odds with people I care about and I hate hidden agendas with a passion - 'say what you mean and mean what you say' is very important to how I process interactions.

Stop seeing yourself through the filter of your upbringing - see yourself as a much loved child of God. Tim Mackie quote

NOT PERSONALIZING OR FIXING EVERY LITTLE THING

I'm working very hard on the concept that it's not always my fault when someone is upset or annoyed (or as my husband would say "it's not all about you, Leanne"). I've also become aware that a lot of the stress from dealing with my difficult former workmate stemmed from my inability to maintain a safe distance - I wanted to help her, fix her, quieten her pain, and create some peace. If I'd been able to differentiate from the situation I might not have been so affected by it all. Reflecting back on that time led me to another interesting quote:

“Differentiation is a product of a way of thinking that translates into a way of being….Such changes are reflected in the ability to be in emotional contact with a difficult, emotionally charged problem and not feel compelled to preach about what others “should” do, not rush in to “fix” the problem and not pretend to be detached by emotionally insulating oneself.” 
(source: Kerr & Bowen 1988)

In the desperate search for acceptance we rob ourselves of our own joy. It's a path of destruction that leads nowhere. Chiara Gizzi quote

FINDING VALIDATION FROM INSIDE

So, having recognized that self differentiation is definitely an issue for me, the ball is now in my court. I know that I need to stop looking for validation from others and to start finding it from within. I need to see myself as worthy in my own right and that I'm not responsible for everyone else's reactions, problems, and issues. But man it's hard! How do you undo 50+ years of ingrained behaviour? ....You do it one small step at a time. 

I've been listening to a lot of great sermons and podcasts while I've been at home and I'm learning that I'll never succeed in being a truly healthy and autonomous person if I can't find my centre. As a Christian, it's about reminding myself that I'm a child of a God who loves me unconditionally - and that needs to be enough. Seeking to earn that same degree of love from others is setting myself up for disappointment. It's time for me to recognize my own sense of worth, value, and identity - and not wait for others to validate that in me. Recognizing this is the first step in a long journey to finding my autonomy - but I'll get there.

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

Do you ever struggle with self differentiation? Do you people please or take responsibility for stuff that isn't yours to own? Have you found the ability to stand strong in your own self-worth, or are you on a journey like me? If you have any tips to help me find my way feel free to share them with me in the comments.

RELATED POSTS


What is self differentiation and how  we begin to develop it  through finding our validation from within.

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What is self differentiation and how  we begin to develop it  through finding our validation from within.

44 comments

  1. Oh wow. This one made me think. I'm not great with boundaries - I've said that before - and sometimes feel so thin-skinned as I don't know where I end and the next person begins. I have dreadful trouble at conferences and anywhere else where I'm required to be with other people for long periods of time. An interesting one.

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    1. Hi Jo - it's interesting isn't it how we put up this facade of being on top of it all, but there's so many layers underneath (and probably at the very bottom is the child who didn't get it all figured out before they became an adult!) Large groups do my head in too - so many extra people to worry about!

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  2. Hi Leanne, I also had no idea about the term “self differentiation” unless I tried to guess the meaning. The definition you cite is very in depth and thought-provoking.

    The concept of happiness came up recently with friends, how as a Mother we are only as happy as our saddest child. (Likely another topic). Yet, I think it applies to our husbands, too. I want to make sure everyone around me is happy and I also wonder whether I have played a part in my husband’s unhappy state. Often, it has nothing to do with me.

    My childhood is similar to your childhood. Likely, the time period, and we came from a more traditional, European upbringing. Yes, children did not voice opinions. Aside from many other qualities, I was also the peace keeper, the fixer, the make it happen person, make sure everyone is okay.........the eldest child. Inside, I may have been churning with stomach aches and insomnia. I am getting better............

    I have likely brought this up to you many times, Leanne. You remind me again, of “The Four Agreements” when interacting with the people in my life. I constantly need to remind myself of these agreements and remind myself of the lessons. Great post, as always! xx

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    1. Hi Erica - we are so similar aren't we? Except I think you're probably further down the path of figuring out how to let stuff go. I wrote about the 4 Agreements ages ago (did a series on them!) and now I think I'm going to need to go back and read them again!

      I find it so interesting how our childhoods have so much impact on us and for so many decades! We can be raised by parents who were doing the best job they knew how, thinking they were doing it all right, and yet we still carry the baggage from it all long into our adulthoods! I just keep chipping away at it all and I figure it's two steps forward and one and a half steps back, but I'm still progressing in the right direction.

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  3. Hi Leanne, I've never heard of 'self-differentiation' however I certainly react the way you do. It is difficult to undo for me, 60+ years of behaviour however, it is never too late to start. I have always been a people pleaser and fixer and it is find it difficult to step back and just let things evolve in their own way. This was a very interesting post and one that is making me reflect which is always good. xx

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    1. Hi Sue - I guess it's something we recognize in each other! It can have a good side to it - the world needs all the fixers, and carers, and peacemakers it can get.... but it would also be nice to be able to turn it off and not get so embroiled in the feelings and assumptions of feelings that I tie to everyone I'm surrounded by!

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    2. Perhaps we can work on this together as we make a good team! Thanks for co-hosting #MLSTL and sharing on SM.

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  4. Hi, Leanne - I'm glad to see that I am in good company of not previously knowing what 'self-differentiation' is. I'm also glad to read that I am not the only one who seeks to 'fix things'. Lots to reflect on here. Thank you for sharing this.

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    1. Hi Donna - I live to learn - and then to share! When my husband used the term I had a sneaking suspicion that it would be about not being able to separate myself well from the attitudes and emotions of others - and I was right! Now I just need to figure out how to create a buffer so I'm not drowned by it all the time!

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  5. Some of this could have been me writing! I am a typical eldest child too and like to fix things. I'm learning that I can't always fix things but unfortunately it doesn't stop me worrying about them and making my stomach churn. I take the blame for so many stupid things and work myself up as a result. Very interesting and thought provoking post Leanne and I've learnt something new :). I can so relate to Erica's comment too!

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    1. Hi Deb - ohhhhh the churning stomach! I get it regularly and it can be caused by so many little incidental memories, reactions, worries etc etc. I'm still not sure how to turn it off and I'd love to be able to cruise through life without so much emotional 'static electricity' - I guess recognizing it is the beginning (and maybe re-reading my posts on the 4 Agreements!)

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    2. I'm popping back for #mlstl and enjoyed reading through this again Leanne. I'd also love to cruise through life without emotional 'static electricity'!

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  6. Leanne, the need for validation controls so much of who we are doesn't it? At some point we just need to recognize that our Good is good enough, but that is clearly the hardest part. Self-doubt undermines the process every step of the way.

    I have finally stopped assuming that I contribute to my husband's bad mood and after an initial question, 'are you okay and can I do anything for you," I move on and allow him to brood. It is not easy, but it is necessary. I think most of us as wives, mothers and even friends overlap expressions of concern with suggestions for improvement and that is where we unintentionally insert ourselves into the equation. What is right for us may not be their solution and is most likely not our business. Easier said than done, but learning.. Thanks for giving the condition a label. It makes perfect sense.



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    1. Hi Suzanne - what you said makes a lot of sense - there is always the desire to step in and smooth the way and "fix" it all that leaps to the fore when someone is unhappy in my general vicinity. I really do need to learn the art of stepping back and not taking on stuff that's not mine (and that the other person doesn't need me to carry). The learning process continues..... Also finding internal rather than external validation is a biggie for me too - resting in God is the key I'm sure!

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  7. Leanne, I can see myself in your words. I tend to be a people pleaser too. I had never heard of the term "self-differentiation" but I will definitely look into it. My father ruled the roost at our house too. I am on the journey just like you.

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    1. Hi Laurie - I think a lot of women of our generation struggle with this. In the "good old days" women probably mothered everyone - and in today's generation they're much more independently minded and able to step away. I think we got caught somewhere in the transition process, so we have to figure it out as we go along!

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  8. I'm not familiar with the term but can certainly relate to it. I was a middle child, but was put between my siblings to "keep the peace" (they fought terribly), so the trying to make everyone happy is ingrained in me. I know I tend to accommodate myself to others needs (getting better at not always doing this, but still not great)...and totally look to others for validation. So, yes, I too need to work on self-differentiation!

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    1. Hi Pat - we could start a Midlife Self-Differentiations Anonymous group for all those of us in our 50's and 60's who got caught in the era of knowing we don't need to please everyone, but still feeling the need to. It's a messy process to try to navigate through to a more autonomous position - but I think we'll get there if we work on it.

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  9. I feel like this was written for me. In one of my first sessions, after I described a situation, my therapist said, “why do you this this is about you?” And I looked at her for a second and said “isn’t everything?” And we laughed and laughed and then she said “but, no, it’s not all about you” At first I was a bit taken back but she is right, it has become a running joke now 😂

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    1. It's a running joke at our place too Susan - because it's ridiculous when you actually put it out there, we all know that it's not all about us, but somewhere deep down in our psyche we still think it is! Crazy stuff and I'm battling my way through it all - maybe I need to chat to your therapist!

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  10. Hi Leanne, I have friends who struggle with what you described here. I may be the odd one. I don't feel the need to "fix things". Your awareness of the condition will help you take a step back and detach next time. #MLSTL

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    1. Natalie I envy you! It's definitely a personality trait and to not have it must be amazing. I'm definitely working on it, but it would have been nice to not have it within me in the first place. :)

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  11. Hi Leanne, we had very similar fathers so I guess my difficulties with self differentiation must stem from there. I consider myself an empath - I absorb other peoples' emotions and moods, which is similar to what you describe. I have improved as I've gotten older and my sense of self worth has improved. I'm definitely not a people pleaser anymore. As you have said, it's good to recognise these traits in ourselves and work on them, but only if it's an issue. We don't have to change to fit into other peoples' expectations of ourselves either.

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    1. Figuring out what needs to change and what's okay to keep is all part of the process isn't it Christina? I'm really eager to be less influenced by the moods of others, and to feel less of a pull to try to make others happy. I don't think I'd qualify as an empath - I'm too busy trying to solve the problem rather than listening to the person!

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  12. The self-differentiation with loved ones is different for me, I take it on for complete strangers... and yes I personalise everything too much - assume it's my fault or that I could do something about it. I wonder how I can make it better.

    And yes, like you my dad was someone who I felt I needed to manage. He and I were really close but I he had big feelings and they were up and down. He didn't get mad he got sulky and so over the years I guess I (we) had to learn to manage his feelings. Though in retrospect I probably was more conscious of it than my brother or mother and I think that's lead me to continue to always have to think several steps ahead to how someone will / might react when I say or do something.

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    1. Hi Deb - I'm always fascinated by what a huge impact our childhood and family dynamics have on our lives decades after we leave home. I tried really hard not to make it a generational thing and not to pass it onto my kids (and I think I succeeded as they both refuse to by "guilt tripped" by me!) I just wish there was a re-set button I could push on my own life to be able to start afresh with a bit of Midlife wisdom behind me!

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  13. I have not heard this term but I do know a lot of people pleasers, and very often they are also the 'fixers'. When a friend was dying of cancer, it was very hard for me to bite my tongue and not offer hope. There was none at that point. I had to let her air her thoughts. I actually had to tell her I was a fixer and I was being quiet so that I didn't say something dumb and annoy her, which made her laugh, as she already knew. But the listening to her was what mattered most to her. I've become a little better at it, listening to others problems but I do still want to fix...even if I don't always voice it. I also think the people pleasing goes the more centred you are - not to say you aren't pleasing people but you aren't seeing it as your responsibility. I do think being aware is a start, I also think listening to talks to 'see' the patterns is helpful - so much easier to see it in others than ourselves (but then the next time we do it, we think 'oh, yes, me too...'). Good for you for working it out. Introspection can create a lot more peace. As can learning how to let negativity out and wash past us, and let others let their negativity float by...

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    1. Lydia you always have such thoughtful insights to share - and you're so right with everything you said here. Learning that it's okay to let things be as they are, that some things aren't fixable, and that we can just be there for someone is a huge step in maturity (and being more autonomous). Letting negativity float by is something I'm still working on - I think I'm getting the hang of it, and then get hit by another wave! I'll get there though - and having input from others like yourself is really helpful as I process it all. Thank you x

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  14. Also not dismissing the God loving you enough, but I think the real key is you loving you enough that you don't need the other people's validation...

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    1. You're right with this too - I like the bigger picture of God's love, but being centred and confident in my own worth makes a big difference when it comes to separating myself from outside validation.

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  15. This is really good insight Leanne. Some personality types do take on the emotions of others and attempt to fix them. It is a sign of your love and concern. I don't tend to take on other's problems so much, and I am learning not to offer advice unless it is wanted. I do struggle with someone changing my mood though. If someone close to me is feeling down, they can drag me with them if I am not careful. It usually happens when I am tired or stressed. Don't you love it that we continue to grow and evolve? I see it as a very positive thing.

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    1. Hi Michele - I really hope that one day I can say all those things about myself. I see it in others and envy their ability to not get so enmeshed in the ups and downs of the people around them. But, yes I do love that we can keep growing and evolving - and recognizing this need in myself is a step towards separating myself from it all - some good boundary creation - and reminding myself that "it's not all about me"!

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  16. I have never heard of this term before. No, I'm not a people pleaser at all. I do need to express my emotions to my husband over issues that don't involve us personally, and he's the type that either doesn't want to hear it or wants to fix it. That usually causes frustration for me because I was want to vent or work through it with someone verbally.

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    1. Hi Amy - you are amazing to be able to distance yourself from the issues of others and work through them in a discussion. It's something we all need more of (including your husband?) :)

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  17. A really interesting topic you have raised, Leanne. I'm sure we can all come at it from different perspectives ... for example, I can be put out when my wife or daughter are in really bad form, and take their snappiness with me in the wrong way, ie personally, wondering whatI did wrong, and why am am being treated like this? As my daughter said to me once, it's not all about you, dad. The fact that she was giving me major grief, for no obvious reason, did colour my take on wjat she said, but I do know what she meant, ultimately. A life lesson, that doesn't sink in immediately! #MLSTL

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    1. Hi Enda - I think most of us tend to personalize things when we can't figure out why the people we care about are causing us grief. It'd be nice to be able to take a step back and distance ourselves from it a little - but that's harder to do when it's the people we live with and love!

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  18. Leanne, I have known many people pleasers and they are almost always quite wonderful people. I'm more of a fixer. If someone shares a problem, I have to stop myself from assuming they need my help and maybe just need me to listen. I don't think either of those are bad things. I just think that sometimes we have to go against what's natural for us to give others what they need. It doesn't make us bad. Loved this!

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    1. Hi Rita - I think I'm a people pleaser AND a fixer - doubly "blessed" (sigh) so I tend to swing between the two and really need to find some middle ground. I think finding my own centre and allowing others to work things through themselves is a big part of it - having the self-confidence to be more aware that I'm not responsible for everyone else would be a good start I'm sure.

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  19. Ah Leanne, you've nailed it again. Got us all talking - aka commenting - and nodding our heads. I lived such a life...of trying to impress or get praise from my parents. What is this eldest child thing?? Anyway my husband (5th in 13 kids) has no idea of what this means because he didn't ever think that way but he has seen it harm me. I now, at this age finally GET it. I am far far less impressed with others' comments about me and living very well within myself. It took the challenge of successfully meeting cancer's fears and conquering them to have others see (my Dad has!) what a competent person I am within myself. Oh and I also know I cannot make anything happen or not happen for others nor can I control them. I guess I live this one every day and remind myself of it often. Great learning more for ourselves isn't it? Denyse #mlstl

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    1. Hi Denyse - isn't it interesting when we talk about this and those of us who get it just nod our heads and are trying to figure our way through it all..... while others (like your husband and mine) never experience the "oldest child" thing and just get on with life without the least concern about taking on the upsets of those around them.
      I think in my next life I'll be a middle child - they seem to be the calmest and the least bothered by family dynamics!

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  20. Oh boy, do I ever struggle with self-differentiation! I can really relate Leanne! I'm working on it, but you're right, it all stems from my place in my original family. In my case, with very little self-worth, I did personalize what was going on with other family members, and when I was treated badly, I did believe that I was to blame. I catch myself still acting the same way today, when I'm confronted with other people's behavior. I'm also a work in progress!

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    1. I think dysfunctional families mess us up for life Christina. Being aware of that helps us find ways to move forward and look at things through a healthier and more balanced lens. I'll always be a WOP but I like that I recognize the issues and each time I learn something new, it gives me more tools to help me create boundaries and detach from getting to embroiled in other people's issues. Distance helps too!

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  21. Thanks for sharing this, Leanne, and for always being so open and vulnerable with your blog. I spent much of my life people pleasing and taking responsibility for how others felt--and on the flip side, holding other people or events responsible for how I felt. I've gotten better at that as I've gotten older and navigated life's experiences. I was a little surprised to read "and not pretend to be detached by emotionally insulating oneself," and recognize myself to a degree in that. My husband has some health issues, and when he starts talking about something that is happening with that...some symptom that something is wrong...I find myself detaching. I don't want to deal with it, or become emotionally overwhelmed by the helplessness, so I detach. In the beginning, it felt like a legitimate coping skill. Now it may be time for me to find a way to maintain connection without being swallowed up...in other words, master self-differentiation. Thanks for leading me to this insight. #MLSTL

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    1. Hi Christie - thanks for sharing that last thought. I've been thinking about the detachment part of it too in regard to how I could have coped better in my toxic work situation - but also finding the balance between being detached and being uninterested or distant. I don't think I ever learnt healthy skills in the area of self-differentiation, so I'm figuring it out as I go along - but I'm much better than I used to be, and hopefully will get better still as the years go by.

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Thanks so much for your comment - it's where the connection begins.