Self-Differentiation:
How To Develop Your Sense of Self

The other week I was in session with a client of mine who is a successful 30-something businesswoman. She was venting to me about her overbearing mother and the general overwhelming expectations her family has for her. My client described feeling a persistent pressure from her family to answer every call, to go to every family event, to drop her life to be there for her family. I remember the look on my client’s face when I told her, “You know, you don’t have to do all that. You are allowed to say no. You are allowed to do what works for you.” My client looked dumbfounded, like she had never considered saying no. The following week, my client came in with a huge smile on her face to announce that she had actually been able to set a better boundary and now she doesn’t answer calls from her mother until after her work day is through.

Self-differentiation is an important goal that many of my clients don’t even realize they have. It was first defined by psychiatrist Murray Bowen as, “A setting apart of oneself as distinct from others.” More broadly, it is the ability for a person to recognize their own thoughts and feelings, and to respect that they are sometimes different from others. It is a person’s ability to be confident and comfortable with oneself, even if they differ from their loved ones. A person with strong self-differentiation is able to set appropriate personal boundaries without feeling guilt or shame. A person who has poor self-differentiation goes running to accommodate others, often at the expense of their own happiness, comfort or time.

I most often see clients struggling with having solid self-differentiation when it comes to their families, most specifically, their parents. Clients of all ages have a hard time saying no to parents out of guilt, fear or habit. Some clients have a hard time identifying their own opinions on things because for so long they have gone along with their parents’ demands. It is never too late to set better boundaries in order to strengthen self-differentiation. It can look like telling your parents you can no longer answer calls during the work day, or being more definitive about agreeing to family plans that actually work for you, or instead of getting reactive during a family argument, you are able to remain level-headed and state your side calmly.

I also see clients who have difficulty with their self-differentiation from friends. Particularly in younger people, it is sometimes hard for certain clients to break away from their tight-knit social group to do their own thing. Their friends pressure them or judge them for not going along with the group. This can breed resentment within friendships because the person who wants to be more independent and individualized feels constrained and pressured into staying within a group mindset. I challenge clients to think about what is important to them, and what makes a good friend. Shouldn’t your friends be supportive? Shouldn’t friends encourage us to grow on our own and pursue our interests? Why must be go along with the group and do everything together all the time? Sometimes it is important to assess if friendships still serve us, and why we must try so hard to prove loyalty and groupthink in order to be someone’s friend.

Many of us think we must say yes to everyone all the time in order to prove we are good children, siblings, friends, co-workers…etc. However, sometimes saying no, or coming up with an alternative, can prove something important to ourselves. We do not owe anyone our time, our interest, or saying yes. We can still have loving, meaningful and important relationships with the people in our lives while doing what is best for ourselves. In fact, the most important relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves. Try to focus on saying yes to yourself, and you will strengthen your self-differentiation.

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